For me, it’s about sharing the fascination and the beauty of mathematics. Even in a course where most of the students are not there because they think mathematics is beautiful, there is a golden opportunity to open their eyes a little bit, and I love that.

Professor Peter Brooksbank, mathematics, often incorporates history into his teaching to illustrate the important role of mathematics in scientific revolution. One example is a course on revolutions in computing that he teaches in the Discovery Residential College.

"The breakthrough with modern computing was made by Alan Turing when he solved a problem in mathematical logic called the entscheidungsproblem. However, the origins of his work can be traced all the way back to Egyptian times," says Brooksbank. "The problem was inherently mathematical, but Turing solved it by inventing the concept of a universal computing machine. Later, when tasked to crack the German Enigma code, he used these ideas to develop a special-purpose machine to break the machine. In doing so, he helped save millions of lives. Pure mathematics is what drove all of that. We live in a world powered by computers, and we rely on them for everything we do. It's important that students understand how and why computers came to be."

Brooksbank's teaching is fueled by his research, which is broadly concerned with symmetry. More precisely, he works with the mathematical objects that encode symmetry and is interested in algorithmic problems associated with these objects. He is currently working on aspects of the "group isomorphism problem," which he describes as a fundamental challenge in the field of computational complexity. Brooksbank also writes computer code as part of an algebraic software system called Magma, which he uses directly in his own research and makes available to other scientists to use in theirs.

Brooksbank, who is English, credits his experience as an exchange student at Allegheny College with sparking his interest in teaching in a liberal arts environment. His professors had such a profound impact on him that he wanted to have a similar effect on others.  "For me, it's about sharing the fascination and the beauty of mathematics. Even in a course where most of the students are not there because they think mathematics is beautiful, there is a golden opportunity to open their eyes a little bit, and I love that," says Brooksbank. "I also work with math majors who have already realized that math is cool. I really like working with undergraduates since it's such a transformative and exciting time in their lives."

Posted Sept. 23, 2015

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