Human Flower Project
Friday, September 25, 2009
Spotlight on the Small
Attending to lowly phenomena (like how lilies bloom), a Harvard mathematician earns the highest honor—to continue his research.
A mathematician who’s studied, among other “commonplaces,” the workings of the Venus fly trap, is among this year’s MacArthur fellows
Call him the Seinfeld of applied mathematics. Or how about the Vermeer of Harvard Square? Professor Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan, an exceptional scholar of the ordinary, studies why sheets wrinkle, how flags flutter, why honey coils and flowers open. Mahadevan has received one of this year’s “genius grants” from the MacArthur Foundation.
“I try to uncover explanations for everyday events that are easily seen but not well understood, “ Mahadevan says.
In this interview with Robert Siegel of NPR, the mathematician explains that with a half dozen store-bought lilies and time lapse photography, he and his team hunkered down to decipher an everyday wonder. Blooming. What did they learn?
“Each petal grows, but it grows along its edge more than it grows along its center,” Mahadevan explained. “As a consequence, the petals which are originally convex, closed, became concave and open and unfurl. And so, we made a mathematical theory for it.”
Here, two pink peonies do the convex to concave trick.
Each MacArthur fellow receives half a million dollars to spend as he or she pleases. The foundation stresses that its fellowship is “not a reward for past accomplishment, but rather an investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential.” We’re happy that the grantors saw fit to encourage this world-class scholar of commonplace things.