Renowned mathematical biologist Philip Maini from Oxford at the Mediterranean Science Festival (Interview - Vids)

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Prof. Philip Maini comes to the Mediterranean Science Festival from the University of Oxford to give to us a talk about leopard’s spots and heartbeats. He is the Director of the Wolfson Centre for Mathematical Biology in Oxford, a Fellow of the Royal Society and a worldwide expert in the applications of mathematics in Medicine and Biology. An interview with him follows below.

Talk Date and Time: Saturday 5/12/15, 6-6.50pm

Supported by the British High Commission in Cyprus.

The full programme of the Mediterranean Science Festival, which includes more than 120 activities, is found here:

Prof. Maini welcome to Cyprus! Many of us find Maths difficult and boring. Why do you think this is the case? Can Maths be made exciting?

One problem in the UK is that in many cases mathematics is not taught to children by experts. Thus when children ask penetrating questions that the teacher cannot answer, they get very confused and very quickly mathematics becomes a mystery. It really is important that, right from a very early age, children are taught by experts in mathematics, people who are at ease with the difficult concepts that arise in mathematics and who can explain these in several different ways, if necessary. In this way, playing with concepts de-mystifies the subject. When children are very small, they love logical puzzles (which essentially are mathematics) but they lose that as they grow because it is not nurtured in them. Mathematics is exciting – for example, just watch as a child realises that there is no such thing as the largest number and see their excitement as they explore the idea that you can keep saying bigger and bigger numbers without limit.

I suspect that a researcher in Maths views reality in a different way than most people. Is that true? If so, can you share with us a few thoughts on this?

Mathematicians are trained in logical and analytical ways of thinking, and on building arguments on well-defined hypotheses. Therefore they tend to question things that other people take for granted. For example, we live in a world in which we are constantly being manipulated by the media, businesses and those who govern us. It is essential that every citizen be trained to think in a way that they can spot the logical flaws in arguments.

Could Mathematics contribute to the treatment of incurable illnesses? As I understand this is an area you are working on? Can you give us some examples?

In some cases the answer is yes. The body is a highly complicated system that is not governed by intuition. As an example, when you have a headache and you take a tablet which makes you feel a little better, intuition would say you should take 100 tablets and then you would feel 100 times better. We know that this is not true. In short, the body behaves in a nonlinear way – that is, in the body, 1+1 does not equal 2. So, verbal reasoning cannot help us but mathematics can. As an example, my colleagues in Oxford are working on understanding how heart medications work. In this case, drugs act on ions channels, which interact in a nonlinear way. Using mathematics, they have now started to understand this to such an extent that two drug companies, and the FDA in the US, are now using their mathematical models as an integral part of their drug safety testing protocol.

I see that you are going to talk today about the leopard’s spots. Could you explain briefly how a leopard got is spots?

The short answer is that, despite a century of experimental and theoretical investigation, we still do not know. We can put forward theories, however, as was done most famously by Alan Turing, who suggested that chemicals, which he termed “morphogens” form spots (or stripes) and these serve as cues to determine cell fate. The way he proposed that these patterns formed was truly novel and has been validated in chemistry and led to a lot of biological insights.

We have seen the movie Imitation Game recently. Can you tell us a few things about the famous mathematician and computer scientist Turing and the Turing patterns?

I am afraid that I do not know much about Turing. My colleague Andrew Hodges is one of the world’s experts on Turing and has written books about him. The word genius is used a lot nowadays but Turing was a genius in the true sense of the word. As you know, during the Second World War he contributed hugely to developing ideas in what later became known as computer science. After that, he turned to a completely different problem – namely that of how structures form in biology. He showed that the process of diffusion, which we all associate with destroying patterns, could actually form patterns. No one really knows how he came up with such an extraordinary idea.

I see that you are also going to talk about our heartbeat. How is that related to Maths?

The heartbeat is composed of a number of processes. An electrical signal sweeps across the heart – this stimulates a chemical signal to propagate and this stimulates a mechanical signal to sweep across the heart causing it to contract, or beat. There is mathematics in every part of this process but to just focus on the electrical part, the conduction of current arises through a collection of channels opening and closing. While we can understand the opening and closing of each channel, to understand how they interact with each other requires mathematics. Think of the difference between listening individually to the instruments of an orchestra and then listening to the whole. The ion channels are like the instruments, chemistry is like the musicians and the mathematician is the conductor.

As I understand you are collaborating with researchers from many different sciences. How is that possible? Please tell us some examples.

Yes we use mathematics to understand and answer various open questions in Biology and Medicine. For example we have investigated how our wounds heal, how cancer develops, animal coat markings and other patterns in nature, etc. We do this work working closely, as teams, with scientists in other fields in Oxford and other parts of the world. The beauty of mathematics is that it operates at a level of abstraction that can encompass many different areas of science. For example, the electrophysiology I described in question 7 is something that is called an “excitable medium”. The same processes arise in certain chemical systems and in certain developmental biology systems. The power of mathematics is that insights gained in one scientific area can then be transferred to other areas.

What would you advise a young person thinking of following a degree in Science?

I think that we live in a world at the moment which faces so many challenges (climate change, famine etc) that require scientific (as well as political) solutions. So, working in science can lead to helping people and making a real difference to society. It is also truly fascinating and I think that when you are always learning new things you never grow old.

Plato maintained that real knowledge can only be supported by Maths which he considered the only constant and non-changeable knowledge beyond our senses. What do you think about this?

I think that there is a lot of truth in this because mathematics is based on a solid timeless foundation while science is based on the technologies we have at the moment and those change over time. So, what we thought was true centuries ago, for example, that the world was flat or the planets revolved around the earth, changes as technology advances. In mathematics, this is not so. This is what makes mathematics very powerful.

Talk description: Have you ever wondered how the leopard got its spots, or how your heart beats? In this talk, we will show how maths sheds light into the formation of bones, feathers, animal coat markings and other complex structures in biology. We will also explore how maths is linked to our heartbeat and how it can help us design better drugs! Come to discover and discuss exciting maths that help us better understand the world around us!”

Short Bio: Professor Philip Maini is the Director of the Wolfson Centre for Mathematical Biology, University of Oxford. He has been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and he was listed as one of “The World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds 2014″ by Thomson Reuters. He is on the ISI Web of Knowledge Highly Cited Researcher list (top 1% of researchers from 2002-2014), He has over 300 publications in the field of mathematical biology. In his research he uses mathematics to study cancer, wound healing, pattern formation in nature, and a diverse range of several other open questions in biology and medicine. Full details at: https://people.maths.ox.ac.uk/maini/

Interview Source: Politis Newspaper, MSFcy Team

Check some past videos of the professor below