Not what if, but when?

By Kyle Stevens, University of Wollongong

Ever since I can remember, I’ve always been fascinated with the idea that mathematics is behind everything. Whether it was seeing the golden spiral everywhere, noticing nifty patterns and sequences popping up in places where you don’t expect them, or thinking about the sheer number of outcomes from seemingly small objects, like the permutations of a Rubik’s cube.

Growing up thinking about these things led me to a path of studying applied mathematics, with goals of one day devising my own mathematical links between properties that seem to correlate; an example being my honours thesis this year, which will involve establishing a link between the internal heat of a clump of maggots within a decomposing corpse and the mass of the clump. The field work that will be involved in this project is one part of mathematics that is exciting to me, that I will actually get to apply mathematics to real world results as opposed to just theorising about it.

One of my biggest influences for wanting to study applied mathematics is the website The website initially started as a webcomic and the author Randall Munroe is a physicist who used to work for NASA. A few years ago he started a section on his website called ‘what if?’ in which he answered hypothetical questions posed by his fans which include topics like ‘What if there was a robot apocalypse? How long would humanity last?’ and ‘What would happen if a hair dryer with continuous power was turned on and put in an airtight 1x1x1 meter box?.’ All of these questions were answered mathematically, with careful research and considerations.

Now if he is able to answer these hypothetical situations with mathematics and models, what is to stop me from being able to model nearly anything in real life? The hypotheticals are amusing, though I’d much prefer to create and tweak models that are useful to humanity as a whole for example, my honours thesis will hopefully be a stepping stone to being able to better estimate the time at which a person has died.

I am thankful to AMSI and the University of Wollongong for giving me this opportunity to be introduced to the wonderful world of research this summer. The methods I have learned will prove invaluable to me as my career in mathematics continues.


Kyle Stevens was one of the recipients of a 2016/17 AMSI Vacation Research Scholarship.

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