'Genius' Mathematician Seeks New Problems

MacArthur Grant winner Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan. i i

MacArthur Grant winner Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan. Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
MacArthur Grant winner Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan.

MacArthur Grant winner Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan.

Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

How do flags flutter in the wind? How do flowers bloom? Mathematician Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan studies questions like these, and on Tuesday he was named a MacArthur Foundation fellow, an honor that comes with a no-strings-attached $500,000 grant and the sobriquet "genius."

Mahadevan, a professor of applied mathematics at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University, tells NPR's Robert Siegel that he tries to explain common observations that all of us make using mathematical ideas.

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He says the work is enough to keep him "out of trouble."

Mahadevan explains how he and his team studied the physical aspects of how flowers bloom. Using time-lapse photography, they found that each petal grows along its edge more than it grows along its center.

"So we made a mathematical theory for it," he says. "We tried to essentially connect that to experiments and empirical observations in the laboratory, which are easy to do, because you go to a florist and you buy half a dozen lilies, and you just watch them."

Mahadevan says he isn't sure how the $500,000 grant will change his life, telling Siegel he's still in shock.

"I certainly hope, and I know that it will, give me the kind of freedom that I've had — and even more now — to pursue problems which people didn't even think were problems," Mahadevan says. "But also, I think, at a different level, maybe, to try and see if I can use this to try and encourage and inculcate curiosity in young people about everyday things."

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