Sunday, 6 October 2013

Rogue bankers, cyber crims have hijacked maths

Edited version of Hannah Devlin's column in The Times (reprinted in The Australian):

Mathematics has lost its moral purity as it is open to misuse by bankers and rogue regimes. Andrew Wiles said his subject had become a powerful tool that could be used for financial gain and as a weapon in cyberwarfare. In the past century, physicists worried about the ethical implications of their work, while mathematics was one step removed from life's gritty realities. "It's not true anymore," Wiles said. "The diversion of one's research towards goals that you might not believe in—that's happened to mathematics now."

Wiles was marking the opening of the Mathematical Institute in a building named after him. The institute features Penrose tiling and crystal-like canopies and windows, aimed at demonstrating how mathematical ideas are part of everyday life. Sam Howison said the new building would bring together those working on abstract mathematics and those working on more applied problems, including the mathematics of whips, knots, jet engines and DNA.

Wiles, who returned to Oxford from the US in 2011, said the role of mathematics in the global financial crisis—in particular the misuse of complex derivatives by banks—had sullied the reputation of his subject by association. In theory, good risk analysis and statistics ought to have averted a financial crisis, he said, but poor communication between mathematicians and those who employed them meant the limitations of predictive algorithms were not fully appreciated. In future, he said, society needed to become better equipped to make sense of issues such as cyber security and internet privacy, which relied on encryption algorithms. "Mathematics is just the language in which the quantitative world is written, and the world is becoming far more quantitative," he said. "People have to be more conscious of the pitfalls of errors and statistics and the limits of security."

Parents and teachers should expose children to the great unsolved problems of mathematics as well as the textbook rules of algebra. He said there was a popular misconception that his success was mostly down to his being a mathematical genius. "The thing about mathematics that people don't realise is that research really involves wasting time," he said. "It's not that you're just so clever that you immediately go down the right path. "On the contrary, it's really about persistence and dealing with the setbacks." 

Wiles is now focused on proving the Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer conjecture, one of the seven Millennium Problems, for which a correct solution carries a $US1 million prize.

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