'Genius' Mathematician Seeks New Problems How do flags flutter in the wind? How do flowers bloom? Mathematician Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan studies questions like these, and on Tuesday, he was named a MacArthur Foundation fellow, an honor that comes with a no-strings-attached $500,000 grant and the sobriquet "genius."
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'Genius' Mathematician Seeks New Problems

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'Genius' Mathematician Seeks New Problems

'Genius' Mathematician Seeks New Problems

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The MacArthur Foundation has announced its Fellows for 2009. Two dozen people, scholars, artists, scientists, a couple of journalists, some master craftsmen -they'll all receive no-strings-attached grants of half a million dollars. They are what we commonly call the Genius Grants.

And we're now going to meet two of this year's Fellows. First, Dr. Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan is professor of applied mathematics at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard. Congratulations.

Dr. LAKSHMINARAYANAN MAHADEVAN (Applied Mathematics, Harvard School of Engineering): Thank you so much, Robert.

SIEGEL: I was looking at the titles of your published articles and in addition to many mathematical applications to biology, some of the more recent titles include phrases like fluid rope trick, tumbling cards, rolling droplets, sand flowing in a silo, and my favorite, wrinkling of a stretched elastic sheet. You sound like you're part mathematician and part all purpose handyman or magician.

Dr. MAHADEVAN: No, not a magician, tried to explain some of these things using mathematical ideas. But as you said, they are very common observations that all of us make.

SIEGEL: The observation, for example, that flags flutter in the wind?

Dr. MAHADEVAN: And how that relates to how fish swim and how in fact I'm allowed or able to speak with you right now because vocal folds inside my voice box are vibrating and allowing me to make sounds that allow me to communicate with you.

SIEGEL: And one can find similar mathematical patterns recurring in fluttering flags and vibrating vocal chords and fish swimming?

Dr. MAHADEVAN: Indeed. Indeed.

SIEGEL: Enough to keep you busy in your life?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MAHADEVAN: Certainly to keep me out of trouble.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: I'd like you to explain - one of the recent investigations you've done into some everyday phenomenon that we're familiar with?

Dr. MAHADEVAN: Very recently we've started to think about the physical aspects of how flowers bloom. So we decided to try and look at it carefully with time-lapse photography, and then also to try and understand how even though the flower as a bud stays on the plant or on a tree for some time, within the space of just a few hours how it opens.

And the way it does so is essentially by each petal grows, but it grows along its edge more than it grows along its center. And as a consequence, the petals which are originally convex, closed, became concave and open and unfurl. And so, we made a mathematical theory for it. We tried to essentially connect that to experiments and empirical observations in the laboratory, which are easy to do because you go to a florist and you buy half a dozen lilies and just watch them. So it's great fun.

SIEGEL: So think of the number of lilies you could buy with the MacArthur Grant over the next few years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MAHADEVAN: I haven't thought about that, but yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: How significantly might this fellowship affect or change your work?

Dr. MAHADEVAN: That's a question which I wish I had an answer to. It's still a bit of a shock after having heard it a few days ago, and then being asked also to keep shut until the announcement was made. And I have not really had a chance to think about how it would change my work.

I certainly hope - I know that it will give me the kind of freedom that I have had and even more now to pursue problems which perhaps people didn't even think were problems. But also I think at a different level may be to try and see if I can use this to try and encourage and inculcate curiosity in young people about everyday things.

SIEGEL: Well, Professor Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan of Harvard, 2009 MacArthur Foundation Fellow, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Dr. MAHADEVAN: Thank you very much.

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