Sunday, 2 March 2014

A prize which shows the diversity of applications of mathematics

A team from the Department of Mathematical Sciences at the University has just won the Guardian University Awards prize for Research Impact.  The team, led by Professor Ed Galea, is from the Fire Safety Engineering Group, and the official press release can be found here.

The work which has been honoured is concerned with signage: how can we make emergency signage more effective? The project involves dynamic signs, which can change depending on circumstances, so that if a potential escape route is blocked or unsafe, then operators can change the signs to divert people to safe routes.  This work is potentially life-saving for people escaping buildings in emergencies.

I'd like to make two general points about the value of mathematics.  First, its applications are extremely diverse: you might not have thought of mathematicians winning major prizes for working on signage!  But the mathematical algorithms underlying these active dynamic signs are quite literally going to make us all safer.  Secondly, mathematics cannot be done in isolation.  Work on projects like this involves collaboration with many other disciplines.  Computing, to implement the algorithms; engineering and architecture, to understand how buildings work; psychology, to understand how people behave in emergency situations and how they react to signs; and many others.

Mathematics really does make our lives better, especially when mathematicians work with others.

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