ScienceFest Event Explores Computational Mathematics

The crowd listens as computational mathemetician Nathaniel Morgan talks about the past and future of his field Thursday at UnQuarked – The Wine Room. Photo by Bonnie J. Gordon/
Nathaniel Morgan gives the audience a (very) short course in computational mathematics. Photo by Bonnie J. Gordon/
Los Alamos Daily Post
Los Alamos may be the only place in the world where you can find more than 60 members of the community gathered at a local watering hole to hear a talk on computational mathematics.

That’s exactly what happened Thursday at UnQuarked – The Wine Room in Central Park Square. In a special Science on Tap presentation for ScienceFest, LANL mathematician Nathaniel Morgan gave a talk titled “From Trinity to Artificial Joints” on how computational mathematics has changed, and continues to change the world.

Computational mathematics involves mathematical research in areas of science where computers play a central and essential role, emphasizing algorithms, numerical methods and symbolic methods.

“There are so many awesome things being done as a result of computational mathematics.” Morgan said.

Los Alamos National Laboratory has been home to a great deal of the important work in computational mathematics, he said. The Markov Chain Monte Carlo method of computation, which Morgan called “the top algorithm of the 20th Century,” was invented at LANL by Stanislaw Ulum. Physics and mathematics giant John von Neumann used it to program the ENAC computer to carry out Monte Carlo calculations.

Monte Carlo is a broad class of algorithms that rely on repeated random sampling for their results. Morgan’s own work is in the field of the computational mathematics of fluid dynamics. Fluid dynamics was virtually invented by Frank Harlow in the 1950s at LANL.

Fast forward 60 years. What was once pure research has found applications in modeling blood flow in the body, investigating how viruses behave inside cells, climate modeling, medical imaging and even in animation — witness the correct depiction of falling snow and moving ice in Disney’s “Frozen.”

“Investment in research has repercussions we never dreamed of,” Morgan said. “Sometimes it takes 50 or 60 years before the benefits are known.”

Morgan made the case for funding pure research that doesn’t have an immediate monetary payoff, something corporations are often unwilling to do. “The discoveries of the future will depend on the research done now,” he said.

A question and discussion period followed his talk Thursday that only part of the audience could follow, on various methods and theories. Morgan did a good job of interpreting for those not fluent in mathematics. He even got some laughs. Morgan called his job, “really fun and exciting.”

“I hope Nathaniel doesn’t let his rock star status go to his head, one member of his division quipped.” Only in Los Alamos.