Two minds that matter


October 16, 2005

Prize-winning academic distinction is not uncommon in Maryland. The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and University of Maryland, College Park, each lists dozens of faculty members who have been honored for their extraordinary scholarship in mathematics, science, history, medicine and letters.

And there is no shortage of achievers at other public and private schools across the state. Many agree that a major payoff from winning a major award is the fact that it opens doors to more interesting research.


"Hopefully, people will pay attention to you," said James A. Yorke, who teaches mathematics and physics at College Park.

Two years ago Yorke was named a winner of the coveted Japan Prize, sharing $400,000 from the Science and Technology Foundation of Japan with Benoit Mandelbrot of Yale University for their work on chaos theory.

Yorke coined the phrase "chaos theory" and has been a leader in using that discipline to deduce patterns in seemingly random phenomena in nature using mathematical analysis.

The theory attempts to describe "nonlinear" phenomena - those in which small changes, or differences in initial conditions, lead quickly to large differences and seemingly random and unpredictable consequences, such as the weather and the stock markets.

Yorke says winning the Japan Prize has been a help in convincing researchers in disciplines where his research team has no background that his particular brand of mathematical analysis could be helpful.

He says his group has analyzed data on the spread of AIDS that could turn conventional thinking upside-down over when the disease is most dangerous to others. Yorke's research indicates that the AIDS threat may be more substantial in the later stages of the disease rather than earlier, as had been previously thought.

Yorke and his co-workers also are applying chaos analysis to the time-consuming problem of decoding animal genomes. Using analytical tools, they have increased the accuracy of a rhesus macaque genome from 93 percent to 96 percent.

Yorke's chaos group also is working to improve the performance of computer weather forecast models, which start with similar assumptions but rapidly diverge. His team is looking for ways to check the models' performance against newly observed weather data. The conditions assumed by the least-accurate models can then be recalibrated to drag them back into alignment with the best, narrowing the margin of forecast error.

Yorke says that work, which is funded by NASA and the U.S. Army, could, in the not-too-distant future, significantly improve the quality of weather forecasts in this country and elsewhere.

Asked how he found new targets for his math skills, Yorke said, "I read the newspaper."


Another honored pioneer among Maryland academic researchers is Riccardo Giacconi, 2002 Nobel laureate who was the first director of the Hopkins-based Space Telescope Science Institute.

This year, Giacconi, 73, won the National Medal of Science, the nation's highest honor for scientific achievement and pioneering research.

Giacconi says he was told he was being recognized for his work in X-ray astronomy, as well as services he performed as director of the institute that operates the Hubble Space Telescope from its headquarters at Hopkins' Homewood campus. Giacconi led the institute from 1981 to 1992.

Giacconi has been credited with building the first X-ray telescopes and received his Nobel Prize for laying the foundation for X-ray astronomy, which has led to the discovery of black holes and enabled researchers to peer deep into galaxies.

Most recently, Giacconi has been using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory to map more than 300 faint sources of X-rays within a patch of the night sky only a quarter of the area of the full moon. The combined X-ray intensity from all those sources accounts for virtually all of previously mysterious X-ray background, solving a long-standing scientific puzzle.

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