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“As Far as the Pi Can See”

A visit with Carmen Chicone, Professor of Mathematics

By Sean Powers
Published: - Topics: model teacher biology philosophy numbers

Great celestial bodies populate the solar system. For an untrained eye staring at the heavens, the starlight spectacles and endless seas of blackness are nothing short of a miracle. Researchers, however, have developed mathematical equations that may help us understand such mysteries of the universe. From Isaac Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation to Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, the scientific community has paved the way for a greater understanding of the great beyond.

One MU researcher is taking the next great astronomical leap. Carmen Chicone, a 30-year veteran in MU’s Math Department, looks at how objects in the solar system move. The mathematician’s current research takes a nose-dive into astronomy, right between the crevices of the black hole and the tiny earth-bound particles. Following in the footsteps of Einstein and Newton, Chicone and his collaborator Bahram Mashhoon (MU Physics) examined how a black hole affects the velocity of these high-speed particles.

Under Newton’s Second Law of Motion (force = mass x acceleration) and the (inverse square) Law of Universal Gravitation, objects moving away from a massive body slow down. Chicone found exceptions to Newton’s theory by looking at object’s movement near a black hole. Particles moving faster than 70% of the speed of light that travel along the black hole’s rotation axis decelerate, but objects moving perpendicular to the axis accelerate instead. Newton’s Law, says Chicone, is still valid “as long as things are not moving too fast and are not too massive,” but he adds that “we have learned that the limits are not valid anymore.” Anything moving past that 70% mark in a gravitational field, Chicone argues, can produce results that defy Newtonian theory.

As he puts it, “the gravitational fields in black holes are extremely large, which means the power of Relativity Theory has to be used to determine how things move near the black hole.” Charged particles affected by the black hole surge may be responsible for high-energy cosmic rays that bombard the earth’s atmosphere. Chicone uses ordinary differential equations to model the activity of the accelerating and decelerating particles: “At present we are able to make experiments with mathematical models when there is no hope to replicate that physical reality.”

Looking for practical solutions to problems in the natural world is Chicone’s main interest within mathematics; he is an applied mathematician. For example, he has joined forces with researchers in MU’s School of Medicine to study liver function. More recently, he has been working – together with a graduate student (James Benson) and a professor of veterinary medicine (John Critser) – on a problem in cryobiology. For example, Chicone says: “It’s very difficult to thaw blood because you have to remove chemicals from it that are incorporated in the cells to protect them when they are frozen.” The tests in mathematics and physical sciences are different, of course, and can help to develop structured predictions: “No equation is ever going to completely describe a physical reality. We always make approximations, and so we have to test our predictions against physical reality to find out if what we’re saying is true.”

Chicone is especially enthusiastic when talking about what he considers one of the best parts of working at a research-driven university—interacting with other scholars: “It’s quite remarkable to see the level at which human minds can work and (achieve) truly great things.”

But research is only half of Chicone’s job description at MU. As a graduate student mentor, he helps students with their dissertations and career plans. Researchers and students alike critically assess their own work. As he explains, “even if you solve some problem, you should be critical of what you’ve done. Are there ways to improve it next time?”

That is why teaching for Chicone is a learning experience. He believes in the idea “that students should surpass their professor in some field of research. At a certain point they don’t need further guidance. It is then time for them to go.” Moreover, in the process of teaching, the teacher also becomes a student: “Sometimes when you’re preparing for classes, even very elementary classes, you may learn something.”

Mathematics is more than just a passion for Chicone; it is his life. He truly seems to live and breath it, yet he admits that his path is not fit for everyone. In academia, Chicone says, “You can’t spend all of the energy required unless you really like doing it. It was mainly my curiosity and my desire to learn more that motivated my career choice.”

Chicone speaks of mathematics as an artistic endeavor—like music, painting, and theatre. To appreciate the beauty of mathematics requires the investment of a lot of time and energy. At a symphony concert, for example, “people who have spent time studying the music of the composer probably have a deeper aesthetic experience. It is not the symbols on a written page that makes mathematics beautiful; rather, it’s the depth of understanding and the methods of proof,” explains Chicone, speaking lovingly of his discipline. “The beauty of the logic of certain deductions, for example, and just the wonder of human creation, of how someone was able to achieve a certain result, is quite remarkable.”