The language of mathematics

Photo by Jessica Stoiku

Dr. Bohun speaking to his third year class at UOIT.

About half of Grade 6 students in Durham Region are below the standard level in mathematics, according to results from the Education Quality Accountability Office (EQAO). Dr. Sean Bohun, an Undergraduate Program Director and Associate Professor of Mathematics at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT), explains how math and physics are important to view problems in the world as smaller, interconnected equations puzzled together.

Tell us what you do and how you do it.

What I mostly do in my job is try to have people I interact with, that are not in mathematics, reveal the problems that they have and try to determine if these problems are well posed. I would systematically rule out processes that are confounding. I try to find the dominant process and then I translate the insight that I get from looking at the corresponding mathematics problem into language that person will understand. I’m able to talk to them to leverage what they know into constructing a model. I’m able to give them very deep insight into their problem by translating what the mathematical conclusions are. That’s what I excel at.

How and when did you become interested in mathematics?

When I was very young, maybe ten, I knew that I wanted to be the person that solved problems. When I was in high school, I thought that meant I had to do physics. So I did degrees in physics and I did a masters degree in theoretical physics. At that time physicists only did one type of job. I don’t like solving the same problem constantly. It drives me crazy. I was interested in the complete variety of all the problems that I could tackle.

Who inspired you along the way?

My PhD. supervisor was trained as an applied mathematician, which means they’re a lot more pure. The appreciation of doing mathematics properly really rests with him. He wanted me to really carefully explain why certain things had to behave the way they had to. He also really appreciated how if you have the [physics] intuition, it really makes your life that much easier. It allows you to form a picture of what’s going on in the world in your head. If you’re doing the problem and you get something that doesn’t seem right, it sort of is itchy. You just know something is not right.

What is the toughest challenge you have faced in your field?

Trying to find the information I need to get to the next step. Sometimes people just don’t have it. So I will talk to people that are experts in other fields. Sometimes they know the information, and sometimes they know that it doesn’t exist yet. Some of the things I model, because I’m trying to make them as realistic as possible, it’s not clear the best way to do that. The information is not really available, or I have to work with somebody else to get that information. The problem with the students is that, until they really understand what I do, they really aren’t excited about it. You have to do a lot of background to get to the point where you can work with me.

What’s your favourite part of your field?

One of the nice things about mathematics is that I can write down the equations for something and then I can say, ‘okay, that is a model for traffic on a highway. It’s also a model for a drop of paint falling down a wall.’ Exactly the same equations. I train my students to see these things and translate problems into mathematics and then translate them back.

What is the most important thing about mathematics you think people should know?

I can tell you if it’s possible to do something. These problems that I get, the reason usually why the people I work with are having difficulty with them, is because the key piece that makes that problem interesting is something that hasn’t been considered before. So the problem is inherently difficult. It’s just on the edge of being able to be solved. If it were in the class of things that we knew how to solve already, it would already be solved. I’m coming up with new theories and new problems that have sort of irritating properties that make them very difficult.

This article has been edited for style, length and clarity.

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Jessica Stoiku is a second year journalism student at Durham College. With a passion for writing, she enjoys exposing the arts and culture stories of people within the community for The Chronicle. She hopes to work for a publication that focuses on human interest and issues on a broader scale.