A lot of people think that math ended 100 years ago, and math is the way we are taught when growing up. But math still has frontiers.

Van Cyr

Many Jurassic Park movie fans love Dr. Ian Malcolm, the character played by actor Jeff Goldblum, for his witty sarcasm and impeccable comic timing. Van Cyr loves Malcolm for those reasons, though mainly because the character is a "math guy."

The mathematics professor may not be battling dinosaurs on Bucknell's campus, but he is just as energetic when discussing his work to advance his discipline. "A lot of people think that math ended 100 years ago, and math is the way we are taught when growing up – algebraic learning means going to class where a teacher tells you how to do it. People think that's it, that there's nothing new in math," Cyr says. "But math still has frontiers." 

Cyr studies thermodynamic formalism and projects related to multidimensional symbolic dynamics. "The broad heading that my research falls into is dynamical systems," he says. "If geometry is the part of math that studies the shapes of things and number theory is the part that studies how numbers relate to each other, then dynamics is the part of math which studies things that change over time in a prescribed and usually very complicated way." Dynamic systems can be physical or nonphysical, and Cyr is interested in nonphysical systems.

There are many open problems in math yet to be proven or disproved, says Cyr. His current research relates to solving or disproving Nivat's conjecture, an open problem for the last 16 years. Working on the conjecture could lead Cyr to discover new math techniques that might help other mathematicians solve other open problems more efficiently. 

"Dynamic systems are really challenging. Working on them requires me to use a lot of different types of math – calculus, geometry, number theory," he says. "All techniques in math are in my tool kit for further discovery. It can be frustrating, but when you are thinking about a certain problem for a really long time, your eleventh idea can make a slight dent in the knowledge about the problem. Once you make a dent, other chips will follow."

Cyr says Bucknell's high value on scholarly research and teaching strikes the right balance for him. "It was just what I was looking for in a school," he says. 

Posted October 10, 2013