Jan Bouwe van den Berg

Talking mathematics


Mathematicians are far more talkative than you might think But often it’s impossible to understand what they are saying to each other. Leading mathematician Jan Bouwe van den Berg succeeds in giving the layman interesting insights into his discipline.“The important thing is to ask the right questions.”

Shortly before our interview, mathematician Jan Bouwe van den Berg received a week-long visit from a postdoc from the US. They discussed equations they were unable to solve by themselves, then continued to work on them individually, incorporating the new input from their discussions. No high-tech equipment, just good old pen and paper. When one of them had an idea, he tried it out on the blackboard in Van den Berg’s office. The other offered contributions along the way and using this method, they were able to make some progress.

Van den Berg explains: “We only used the computer if there was too much ... How can I put this clearly? ... If we had to verify whether a large number of things were true. If we had to solve a great many equations along the lines of: is the outcome negative or not?”

There you have it: maths is hard to explain. Thanks to the work of Jan Bouwe van den Berg, Professor of Differential Equations and Applications at VU University Amsterdam, aircraft will hopefully be able to run on less fuel in the future. If his line of research does not turn out to be a dead end, in five to ten years’ time his calculations will improve our understanding of gas and liquid flows. Understanding how air flows around aircraft, for example, can help aerospace designers develop wings with greater lift. “The complex air flow at the edge of an aircraft’s wing has a particularly strong influence on the lift,” Van den Berg reveals. That’s the kind of flow he is trying to fathom using mathematics.

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