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Exploring New Territory

22 February 2008

In autumn 2007 the new Graduate School "Mathematical and Computational Methods for the Sciences” was a successful contender in the Initiative for Excellence organised by the Federal and state governments — Seeking interdisciplinary dialogue transcending traditional subject boundaries at a national and international level, it is a particularly striking embodiment of the Institutional Strategy espoused by the University of Heidelberg

Last autumn the University of Heidelberg was strikingly successful with its proposals for all three lines of funding in the framework of the Initiative for Excellence organised by the Federal and state governments. The Institutional Strategy for the future — approved in the third line of funding — rests on the principle of interdisciplinary dialogue transcending traditional subject boundaries at both a national and international level. This principle is perhaps most strikingly embodied by the Graduate School "Mathematical and Computational Methods for the Sciences”, which has also been selected for funding.

"Alongside traditional fields of application for scientific computing, like chemistry and physics, we also intend to break new ground and extend our scope,” says Professor Hans Georg Bock, the spokesman of the Graduate School from the Interdisciplinary Centre for Scientific Computing (IWR). The initial cooperation between Heidelberg mathematicians/computer scientists and scientists and scholars in other fields dates back over 20 years. The IWR was established in 1987 as a central institution of the University of Heidelberg with the explicit aim of centralising research activities requiring support from scientific computing.

The idea behind the Centre was to encourage interdisciplinary cooperation between scientists and technologists in the modelling, simulation and experimental verification of scientific problems encountered in as wide a range of disciplines as possible. Initially the work done at the IWR concentrated almost exclusively on issues associated with traditional scientific subjects like physics and chemistry. Soon, however, links were established with other disciplines much further afield. In the last few years, scientific computing has notably proved its worth in connection with a number of fields in the humanities.

"One such project involves cooperation with the art historians,” Hans Georg Bock reveals. The project in question revolves around the reconstruction of medieval frescoes destroyed in the Second World War. Only about 20 percent of them have survived, in the form of tiny fragments. There also exist old black-and-white photographs of these artworks. Mathematical models make the allocation of the fragments to the photos much quicker and more efficient. In addition, the reconstruction of the colouring of the frescoes has also become a viable proposition.

Scope for mathematical methods in the humanities is also illustrated by the reconstruction of historical buildings, such as temples in Angkor (Kampuchea) or Roman amphitheatres. "The amphitheatres were equipped with large awnings to provide shade for the spectators,” says Hans Georg Bock. With mathematical methods it is possible to identify the exact form of these sail-like awnings and also find out where they were placed.

Mathematical methods have long played an essential role in the life sciences. "Comparing a simulation of normal human gait with that of a patient enables us to identify defects in the motor apparatus,” mathematician Bock reports in connection with another research project. Image processing can be equally helpful in recognising tumours, while simulation of the dynamics of blood streams is a valuable aid in certain kinds of operation, for example artificial artery-to-artery linkage.

"Many scientific computing methods have only evolved in the last ten years,” says Bock with reference to possible sources of difficulty in instituting collaboration between different disciplines. "Frequently mathematicians and scientists or scholars working in other fields are unaware of the application potential they provide.” One of the tasks facing the newly established Graduate School "Mathematical and Computational Methods for the Sciences” will be to close this knowledge gap.

The School will be training 150 doctoral students (15 of whom are funded by the monies accruing to the Graduate School) by means of an education programme tailored specifically to their projects. The issues posed by the different projects are extremely demanding and require from the individual candidates a knowledge both of mathematics and the specific field they are working on. Accordingly, the doctoral students at the Graduate School can acquire insights into the relevant area that they did not have before. In addition, they will be receiving intensive supervision from two professors and two mentors in each case. Three junior research groups will also be created at the School, one of them financed by the BASF company.

Equally important in Hans Georg Bock’s view is the international purview of the Graduate School. This not only means that the doctoral students will be coming from a wide range of different countries, there will also be close cooperation with leading universities like Princeton, Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge and Zurich. But such renowned seats of higher learning will not be the only ones collaborating with the Graduate School. For some time now, Hans Georg Bock has been in contact with universities in the Third World like Kampuchea or Vietnam. Thus the students in those countries will also profit from the international scope of the Graduate School.
Stefan Zeeh

Please address any inquiries to
Professor Dr. Hans Georg Bock
Interdisciplinary Centre for Scientific Computing (IWR)
University of Heidelberg
Im Neuenheimer Feld 368
D-69120 Heidelberg
phone: 06221/548237

Dr. Michael Schwarz
Public Information Officer
University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 542317

Irene Thewalt
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 542317
Editor: Email
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