Finding a Deeper Meaning in Numbers

Traces of Professor Nader Masmoudi’s work are everywhere in the corner of the NYU Abu Dhabi building where his office is located.

By Naser Al Wasmi, NYU Abu Dhabi Public Affairs

On every surface willing to take pen, pencil, or chalk, cryptic messages of his life’s work are left in progress or concluded to help illustrate an idea. Often the tangle of numeric equations are exercises in complex theory searching for deeper understanding of mathematics itself, but some calculations look to offer us guidance on our most interpersonal relationships, such as marriage or motherhood.

Masmoudi is a professor of mathematics at NYUAD researching the stability of systems, a problem he says applies to every facet of life ranging from biophysics to morning traffic.   

“Stability is a word we use in our daily life, not only in math and physics, it applies to social science, politics, or even relationships. What’s interesting is the kind of questions we ask in math or physics, you can ask in social sciences, political sciences, or even relationships,” he says slightly gesturing to a whiteboard made black with equations in motion.

His new center at NYUAD will look to tackle that subject and expand its applicability to interdisciplinary studies. Stability, Instability, and Turbulence works on exploring novel technological advances to progress knowledge on mathematical stability and interactive dynamical systems. That research will then be applied to tangible problems such as ocean currents and their impact on marine ecosystems, crowd flows, and potentially, relationships.

“These ideas have a wide impact; my office is located right next to a professor of psychology and we often discuss how our fields connect. I am always open to interdisciplinary application,” he said.

A Legacy of Knowledge   

Continuing a legacy that stretches to the very beginnings of algebra, Masmoudi has long had a history of breathing life into mathematical theory. One of his earliest, and most heralded, mathematical talk on the analysis of water fluidity was surprisingly titled “Two Brothers.” The presentation itself showcased the latest developments of two different understandings of dampening in plasma physics and in water structures, but the spirit of the work harkened to his strong friendship with Cedric Villani, his university colleague who he worked with intimately to develop the two mathematical theories.

It’s this creativity that has won him academic accolades. In 2017, he won the Fermat Prize, which awards outstanding math research, for "his very deep and creative work” in presenting new ideas and building new tools — an observation that has often been used to describe his results.

Part of his approach is inspired by his intellectual and spiritual ancestors: the Islamic Empire’s great mathematicians, who unfurled 1,000 years ago the secrets of the universe — through the discovery of algebra, decimal places, and a deeper understanding of the stars — in equations written in prose rather than numbers.

Without certain historical Muslim figureheads of math, such as Muhammad Al Khwarizmi or Omar Khayyam, the progression of the field would have hit a standstill during the 10-12 century while Europe was going through the Dark Ages. The Islamic Golden Age preserved, built upon, and eventually passed on the prolific findings of the world’s ancient empires.

“This is who I looked up to while I was young, these were some of my idols,” he said harkening back to his days in Tunisia while flipping through a popular Tunisian scientific magazine called Omar Khayyam, after the famous Islamic renaissance scholar who was known just as much for his poetry as he was for his cubic equations.

Championing Math throughout the Region 

Masmoudi grew up in Tunisia venerating these epoch-making polymaths whose work served as a crucial stepping stone to modern mathematics. As a budding intellectual, his passion inspired him to become the first Arab to win the International Olympiad of Mathematics in 1992. He built on that success winning more accolades that eventually gained him recognition in Tunisia by receiving the prestigious Presidential Award in 1994.

Throughout his career, Masmoudi believes that more should be done to encourage youth to throw themselves into the field of mathematics. He said recognition of excellence at a young age can propel youth to pursue the field at a time when Arabs are typically encouraged to undertake degrees with more perceived applicability, like engineering or science.

“It’s true that Arabs usually think about being engineers or doing this kind of academic research, so research in general is no longer in the habit, but if we go back to Muslim mathematicians in the past they were in forefront of the field,” he said.

Today, he is partly driven by the notion of picking up a legacy that was abandoned long-ago. His work has placed him as one of the brightest and most creative minds in the field that he is most recently pushing by taking calculations on fluids and applying them to everything from mathematical theory to marriage.

What’s interesting is the kind of questions we ask in math or physics, you can ask in social sciences, political sciences, or even relationships

Nader Masmoudi

Although the focus of his work at NYUAD is in finding new ways to apply math, he says the future lies in pure math, which is the study of the structure and concepts of math that searches for a deeper understanding of the field itself.

“Math is like a language, whereas even today we try to distinguish between pure math and applied math,” he says, “sometimes pure math is being done without any application in mind, but it turns out that some pure math done from long ago we have only begun to understand their application now.”

For example, breakthroughs in cryptology were made more than 100 years ago without any applicability in mind, in exercises mathematicians call pure math research. But today, it’s the leading factor behind the messaging encryption used on smartphones' instant messaging programs such as iMessage and WhatsApp.

And today, with the announcement of his new center, he looks to give color to numbers. His soft-spoken, French-accented English explains bold concepts pushing numbers and applying them in unconventional ways.

Masmoudi’s research and his newly inaugurated center will look to apply the latest mathematical advances to solve modern day problems, but at its heart he wants the center to do the kind of “pure math” that has unlocked so much of today’s cutting edge technology.

“You never know. Something that has no result other than to be math today can become tomorrow’s solution.”