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Using computing power to develop science disciplines

The Centre of Mathematics for Applications (CMA) at the University of Oslo was among the initial 13 SFF centres established. After ten years, its activities as an SFF centre are now drawing to a close.

Activities at the centre have led to a reorientation within other disciplines besides mathematics. Over the past decade, this Centre of Excellence’s mathematicians have worked closely with physicists, astrophysicists and computer scientists.

Success measured over time

“The success of a Centre of Excellence cannot truly be evaluated until five or ten years after its conclusion,” asserts Ragnar Winther, CEO and Manager of the CMA. “Then, if it has left a lasting footprint, it has been successful.”

As the CMA’s period as a Centre of Excellence draws to a close, Professor Winther reflects on the centre’s significance. He sees its value less in terms of important research findings or new discoveries and more in having demonstrated the possibilities of mathematics to scientists in other fields. He is certain that he and his CMA colleagues have reached more people than they could have without invaluable SFF centre funding from the Research Council of Norway.

Photo: Bård Amundsen Ragnar Winther has been CEO of the Centre of Excellence (SFF) based at the University of Oslo’s Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences. (Photo: Bård Amundsen)

International focus

“The staff at a typical university department face many limitations,” explains Professor Winther. “They have a variety of commitments, and have limited funding at their disposal. An SFF centre like ours at the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences in Oslo can, in a way, exist alongside this regular environment. We have had the benefit of more time for research and more money to spend on it.”

“This has provided us with many opportunities – including the chance to be more active internationally. We have formed ties with several leading groups in mathematics.”

Mathematics to a wider audience

“I believe we have achieved our stated ambition to bring mathematics to more groups at the University of Oslo,” continues Professor Winther. “We see that more people have strengthened their skills in areas such as stochastic analysis and differential equations. And on a more general level we have been successful in building a stronger environment around applied mathematics at the university.”

The CMA has given participants an opportunity to pursue new directions in calculation and the use of computers. In the past couple of decades, mathematicians have seen much of “their” field redefined as computer science, but now they have been able to reclaim some lost ground.

Climate research and weather forecasting are two research fields taking great steps forward thanks to the application of mathematical equations and numerical calculations. Climate researchers are now bold enough to make predictions about the climate 50 years into the future. The reliability of electronic weather forecasting services is also based in large part on mathematics.

For petroleum companies and for Norway in general, it is vital to know how much oil and gas is actually to be found in North Sea subsea reservoirs – and applied mathematics is helping to provide increasingly accurate answers.

“Another good example of what we at the CMA have been working on,” explains Professor Winther, “is the group we assembled to work on stochastic modelling for financial market analysis. Mathematical finance has become a major field of research.”


Perhaps the greatest unsolved mystery of solar physics is the question of the solar corona: Why is it millions of degrees hotter than the sun’s surface? Two CMA researchers, together with their US colleagues, have shown how this is possible. Their article was featured on the cover of Science in January 2011.


60 doctoral degrees and better teaching

The CMA had originally hoped to produce 30 new doctoral degrees. Now, as its period as an SFF centre draws to a close, the centre can count close to 60 students who have earned their doctorate in applied mathematics.

One important CMA objective has been to help to renew the teaching of mathematics at the University of Oslo. To this end the centre launched the project “Computers in Science Education” (CSE), which has modernised the discipline of mathematics at the university and raised more students’ skills in classical mathematics and the natural sciences, while imparting a strong foundation in the use of information technology such as computational tools. In 2011 the CSE project received the annual University of Oslo prize for best learning environment.

“Our approach of applying computer power in science education is now spreading to other institutions. So in this way,” asserts the professor, “the CMA has made an impact on education far beyond our own university.”

“But what we see as perhaps our most successful and important achievement during our period with SFF status is having opened up the application of mathematical research here at the department to other parts of the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences and gradually at other parts of the University of Oslo as well.”

Clear objectives with handpicked researchers

Ragnar Winther says that the CMA has also attracted leading talent in applied mathematics affiliated with the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim and the University of Bergen, and that the centre’s activities have drawn international attention to Norwegian mathematics.

“A Centre of Excellence has a far more specific research platform than a regular university department. We have had the chance to encourage handpicked, talented individuals to pursue the directions we have chosen. At a regular department the employees have a great deal of freedom – for better or worse – to choose their own areas of research. As a Centre of Excellence we have instead been able to assemble close-knit specialist groups. This has led to the formation of new and exciting constellations of researchers.”

EU funding for CMA researchers

In 2009 Bernt Øksendal, a professor and researcher at the CMA, became the first Norwegian scientist to receive an Advanced Grant from the European Research Council (ERC). The grant is worth NOK 16 million over five years.

The award decision described Professor Øksendal as an exceptionally ambitious, creative and unconventional mathematician whose theories have proven useful in interpreting and explaining phenomena in the financial sector as well as biology, and which can also be applied in disciplines such as physics and engineering. The professor credits the CMA’s scientific milieu for helping him to succeed.

Astrophysicist Mats Carlsson has also won an ERC Advanced Grant, and three up-and-coming young researchers at CMA have each been awarded prestigious ERC Starting Grants.

Continuation of the CMA

Although CMA’s period as a Centre of Excellence will soon be ending, there are plans to continue its activities. The University of Oslo’s Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences has agreed to maintain the centre at a somewhat reduced capacity for a minimum of five years.

“Now it is up to us to secure the extra funding needed to keep the CMA operating,” says Professor Winther, who says many people are dedicated to getting the most out of everything the CMA has built up in its ten years as a Centre of Excellence.

Centre of Mathematics for Applications

Objective: To create an international research centre for applied mathematics that brings together top-level researchers from a variety of fields.

CMA participants: The University of Oslo’s Department of Mathematics, Department of Physics, Institute of Theoretical Astrophysics and Department of Informatics. SINTEF’s Department of Applied Mathematics has also participated, and individual researchers from NTNU and the University of Bergen have also been affiliated with the centre.

Research Council contribution: NOK 11 million per year. Total annual budget: NOK 50-60 million.

Man-years: 50–60

Website: www.cma.uio.no


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