There are many different ways to approach a problem, and navigating all those possible directions is a form of creativity.
The questions that fascinate Karl Voss aren’t easily answered. One geometric problem he wrestles with today was posed more than 200 years ago by an engineer in Napoleon’s army, and is still not fully solved. Steps forward in such vexing, generation-spanning enigmas are hard gained, but when you manage to struggle a few inches closer to the truth, Voss says there’s almost nothing like it.
“There is an immense sense of appreciation that comes with seeing the beauty of the structure of something,” Voss says. “Most days, you make no progress, and sometimes there are problems that you just can’t solve. But when you do make progress, it’s remarkably satisfying.”
As a professor of mathematics, Voss considers it a duty to open up these same hard-won insights for his students. The questions he tackles are particularly well-suited for the challenge, he says, because they can be examined from three very different fields of mathematics: linear algebra, complex analysis and geometry. He likens his studies to a mathematical Rosetta Stone.
“We have these three languages that we can play off each other,” Voss says. “It’s very nice for students, because there are three different access points for the question, some of which are easier to begin thinking about and working on.”
Finding creative ways to solve problems is what Voss enjoys most about teaching. His favorite past courses include a numerical analysis class in which he demonstrated how calculations that might appear simple on paper don’t work on computers, and a course on financial statistics that brought together management, economics, mathematics and physics students, each offering unique perspectives and approaches.
“There is a lot of creativity in mathematics,” Voss says. “There are many different ways to approach a problem, and navigating all those possible directions is a form of creativity.”
In 2018, Voss was named dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. He now brings the creativity of a mathematician to this administrative role, in which he oversees nearly 300 faculty members in the more than 30 academic departments and interdisciplinary programs comprising Bucknell’s largest and most diverse college.
Like teaching, it’s also a role that enables him to confront tough challenges head on.
“Often a person or a collection of people will come to my office and seem stuck in a difficult situation,” Voss says. “But by the end of a conversation we’ll have made progress, and they’ll be able to focus on being a scholar, a teacher, a student again. That’s something I really enjoy — I love solving problems.”
Posted September 2018