Where am I?
What’s my thing?
Mathematical intrigue, computational topology
Some people are content to find their professional niche, settle into its comfortable embrace, and cruise in its familiarity for the rest of their lives.
Dr Benjamin Burton is not one of those people. His career so far has looped like a crazed knot but always orbits a central, fundamental core––his love of mathematics.
Like so many Olympiad participants, Benjamin credits some insightful secondary school teachers with noticing his early talent in mathematics, and pointing him towards the program and training schools, including the national Mathematics summer school. He says it was like opening a door into a new and exciting world he did not know existed.
“I really liked the hard, cold, inflexible logic that comes with mathematics,” says Benjamin, who led Australia’s Informatics Olympiad team for many years. “It’s like a science but it’s not like a science: you don’t have experiments and hypotheses. The game is you have this set of things that you know and you’re trying to work out what you can conclusively deduce from these.”
This love of mathematical intrigue has taken him from a mathematics degree at university, to a PhD in computational mathematics, to a post doctorate position in information security, to an early job in finance and finally to where he is now, working in computational topology at The University of Queensland.
Benjamin loves a challenge. As a participant in maths and informatics Olympiads, he would set himself the task of working through problems in the areas he was least confident in.
Computational topology, which he describes as geometry without the numbers, is about trying to teach computers to do tasks that would be simple for a human, such as determining whether a loop of string is tangled or not.
“You can explain that to your six-year-old, but still, nobody has a fast solution to solve it on a computer. Working in three dimensions – where knots sit and where we live – these problems are unexpectedly hard.”
It sounds abstract, but Benjamin is excited by the practical possibilities that emerge from problems that you do not know how to solve, but which can lead you to surprising discoveries.
From Australia’s Future published by the Office of the Chief Scientist
Australia’s future is published by the Office of the Chief Scientist with support from the Australian Science Teachers Association (ASTA), Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers (AAMT), Australian Mathematics Trust (AMT), Australian Science Innovations (ASI), Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), National Mathematics Summer School (NMSS) and National Youth Science Forum (NYSF).
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