Ben Wilson: My Life with Mathematics

When I’m asked what I think of mathematics, I feel it is almost akin to having a special power that – although I’m not a mathematician – allows me to see a hidden beauty in the world. For example, from the arrangement of water molecules in ice to Mikael Granlund’s match winning ilmaveivi or from an Instagram picture to the atoms and electrons that store the image in your mobile phone. To be able to truly understand what, on the face of it, looks like a random jumble of numbers letters and symbols is a gift that we can all experience. To be able to consider things like the Navier-Stokes equations related to fluids that hold the key to things are seemingly ordinary as raindrops on the leaves of a plant to systems that are infinitely more complex like our planet’s atmosphere with its almost limitless unpredictability of weather patterns. Furthermore, even the most well-known of scientific equations, Einstein’s E = MC2 although disarmingly simple in its construction actually contains within it secrets of the Universe that are still to be unlocked.

As a Materials Chemist, the study of mathematics at school has allowed me to travel the globe – both literately and metaphorically. From humble research beginnings turning ultrasonic waves into visible light, through the formulation of new coatings for high performance cars, electrochemistry to mimic the synapses within the human brain to new thermoelectric materials based on combinations of metal oxide/cellulose from Birch trees, maths has been one of the essential tools that has provided me with a profound understanding of the reasons why things work. My current position in the School of Chemical Engineering at Aalto University is involved with the recycling of waste batteries, phones and other electronics as part of global shift toward a greener and more sustainable Circular-Based Economy. Without my deeper knowledge of mathematics it would be impossible to determine our true impact on the surrounding environment or to find the ways that are necessary to ensure the long term future of humanity in the face of the threats of global warming, environmental destruction and ever more scarce natural resources like safe drinking water and critical metals for renewable energy applications.

The best news is that the power of maths can be acquired by anyone, it’s not just for mathematicians and there is also no need to be bitten by a radioactive spider or be born on another planet This means we can all join Sir Issac Newton in “standing on the shoulders of giants” to reveal the untapped beauty of our future tomorrow that is being created based on the technology and mathematics of today!

Dr Ben Wilson, Aalto Research Fellow – Hydrometallurgy, Corrosion and Circular Economy