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New research institute to transform mathematics in Australia

June 5, 2018
Vision for institute combines research with public outreach
A new maths institute will be established at the University of Sydney thanks to a $5 million donation. Based on prestigious overseas models, it will be the first of its kind in Australia.

Professor Geordie Williamson

A new mathematics research institute at the University of Sydney will draw leading mathematicians from all over the world.

The institute – to be directed by Professor Geordie Williamson and Professor Anthony Henderson from the School of Mathematics and Statistics – will offer long-term residencies for international maths experts, offering them the chance to focus on research without the usual demands of teaching and administration.

When it opens later this year, the institute will be the first of its kind in Australia. Its researcher-in-residence model is based on international examples, such as Germany’s prestigious Max Planck Institute for Mathematics.

“It will put Australia on the map as a place to do first-rate mathematics,” said Williamson. “It also has the potential to have a strong effect on the research atmosphere for maths at Sydney uni. If you have a steady stream of very good mathematicians visiting, that has a real impact on the researchers here.”

Williamson has first-hand experience of how a stint at an international maths institute can galvanise a researcher’s work. Before returning to his native Australia in 2017 to take up a professorship at the University of Sydney, he spent five years at the Max Planck Institute.

“It makes an enormous difference to be in a position where your goal in life is to do research,” he said. “It means you back yourself to try harder problems and believe in yourself a little bit more.”

Williamson is internationally recognised for his contribution to representation theory – the study of linear symmetry. At 36, he was recentlyelected the youngest living Fellow of prestigious scientific academy, the Royal Society (excluding 35-year-old Royal Fellow Prince William). He was also recently named a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science.

Head of the University’s School of Mathematics and Statistics, Professor Jacqui Ramagge, said Williamson’s involvement in the new institute would be an attraction for the world’s leading mathematicians. “We are delighted to have Geordie with us,” she said. “He has answered questions that very bright people have been thinking about for a very long time, and he has answered them in unexpected ways. He really wants to transform Australian mathematics. He is a man on a mission.”

In addition to supporting a broad range of mathematical research, the institute will host conferences, workshops and talks for both academic and general audiences. Williamson said the institute’s public outreach programs would be crucial to its work.

“The picture that the general public has of mathematics and mathematicians – I think it needs to change,” he said. “Maths is becoming more and more important in all aspects of society. It would be wonderful if the public had some conception of the incredible beauty of mathematics.”

The new institute is supported by a $5 million donation from the Simon Marais Foundation. Ramagge said the gift was an important contribution to a nationally significant facility, allowing more face-to-face collaboration between Australian mathematicians and their international colleagues.

“It’s in that collaborative effort where the real creativity appears,” she said. “Australia really needs an institute of this kind because of the tyranny of distance.”

Further funding is still needed to support plans for dedicated premises and facilities including a seminar room with a sound-proof viewing room for parents with young children.

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