VRS Student Profile: Alexander Stokes

Alexander StokesVRS Bringing Real Life to the Art of Mathematics

Alexander Stokes

The University of Sydney

There is a traditional view that arts and sciences are adversaries, that you can be one or the other but not both. For Alexander Stokes, however, the two go hand in hand with mathematics his canvas. The University of Sydney and Vacation Research Scholarship (VRS) student is currently completing dual Bachelors in mathematics and the arts, including courses in electroacoustic and computer music at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

With his earliest memories of maths linked to his now arts major, Japanese Studies, this enmeshing of arts and maths is nothing new.

“I began my formal education, including mathematics, in Japan. The language’s mathematical and modular structure opened different ways of organising and sequencing ideas,” Alexander recalls.

These early years fuelled a fascination with Japan that ultimately led him to mathematics and the discovery of its creative potential. Supervised by the University of Sydney’s Professor Nalini Joshi AO, his VRS project focused on Integrable Systems and the algebraic and geometric properties that explain their strangely ordered behaviour.

“The more we can find out about the hidden structure behind such systems, the easier it will be for scientists to identify when they are dealing with one, such as in models of electrodiffusion or rogue open ocean waves,” he explains.

As unpredictable as they are dangerous, rogue, freak, episodic or killer waves, create perilous conditions for ocean traffic. Understanding how to identify when and how these may occur in modelling offers improved capacity to predict conditions and increase safety for large vessels such as cruise liners.

It is this capacity to reformulate the scientific through insights and observation of the physical using the language, logic and rigour of maths that attracts Alexander to applied mathematics.

“We observe physical things then translate what we see into a model written in the language of mathematics. Applied mathematicians develop and analyse the problem and our observations to form conclusions about the system’s initial state and evolution. There’s a beautiful mathematical structure behind what we do and how.”

For Alexander, VRS was a chance to taste the realities of this type of observation and research in a real-world context that requires problem solving, creativity and cross-discipline collaboration.

“Far from the stereotype of solitary scribbling and light bulb moments, this experience highlighted the critical need to be able to communicate your ideas and see what you do in wider perspectives both within and beyond your discipline,” he reveals.

This is what makes the program such a powerful experience for mathematical sciences students.

“This is a fantastic program, not only does it provide a career development experience beneficial to future research and industry engagement, but it fosters essential ties and communication between the mathematical and general communities,” says Alexander.

He also believes VRS is playing an important role in bridging the arts-science divide and opening creative engagement with maths to future generations of Australians.

“I don’t think these worlds will always be so separate, and I think AMSI is doing a lot to accelerate that change to the benefit of academia and industry.”

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