Opinion: maths provide clever and simple solutions to a whole manner of seemingly complex real-world problems

By Sinéad Burke and Kevin Burke, University of Limerick

What do you think of when you think about a career that uses maths? Do you think of Archimedes lowering himself into a bath and shouting Eureka after discovering the principle of buoyancy? Or Pythagoras staring off into the middle distance thinking about triangles and theorems? What about maths as the engine solving problems in modern economies and societies?

For those who say "I was never any good at maths", maybe it's time to give this oft bemoaned subject a second look. Maths and stats are inextricably involved with essentially every technology and sector around us, from weather forecasting, analysing climate change and flood prevention to electricity, water supply, sewage treatment, roads, buildings, airline scheduling and supermarket restocking.

Maths have a great way of revealing hidden simplicity to give clever solutions to a whole manner of seemingly complex real-world problems. Fake news as a disease? Memes going viral? The mathematical models used to track viruses like swine flu and infectious diseases like Ebola can be used to determine how fake news becomes viral and what happens when there is information overload on social media. These models give us a better understanding of how information spreads through social influence, assist us in finding ways to spread important information more quickly (e.g., weather, health, or terrorism alerts), and help societies become resilient or vulnerable to social influence – both online and offline.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Arena, Professor Marcus de Sautoy on the music and mathematical symmetry in Bach's Goldberg Variations

Careers in data science and machine learning have become some of the most desirable and lucrative worldwide – and this is a huge potential area of growth for innovative Irish companies. However, generating insight from data requires deep understanding of the mathematical principles underpinning data science. Getting under the hood of data empowers small Irish companies to punch above their weight globally. 

Dublin-based start-up Xtract is tackling insurance fraud with maths by using telematics data from cars. Their maths-based algorithm could allow harnessing of data produced by cars to gain an impartial understanding of a vehicular impact and tackle a problem that adds an estimated €50 to each individual Irish driver’s insurance premiums annually.

Ireland competes on a global stage. Getting high-quality products delivered from Irish companies to customers from around the world on time is of the utmost importance for Irish competitiveness. Aughinish Alumina is based in Limerick and is Europe’s biggest aluminium refinery. It is also one of the world’s most energy efficient processors of the metal, which is used in everything from drinks cans to aircraft. In 2017, Aughinish Alumina won a Knowledge Transfer Ireland Impact Award for their implementation of a mathematical model which improved the accuracy in predicting product quality five days ahead of time, a 200% performance boost compared to previous methods in use. Maths can be used to improves decision-making and increase overall efficiency.

From RTÉ Archives, Newsbeat quizzes people on the street with some maths puzzles in 1971

Besides insurance fraud and market competitiveness, mathematics can also be used to answer questions such as "why does my Guinness take so long to settle?" or "how can I make the perfect cup of coffee?"

All of the examples above are problems which we have worked on in the MACSI group at the University of Limerick. MACSI (or "Mathematics Applications Consortium for Science and Industry" if you want the full title) is Ireland’s foremost industrial mathematical sciences group in Ireland. Many of the projects above originated at weeklong workshops known as European Study Groups with Industry better known as ESGIs. Originating at the University of Oxford in 1968, ESGI’s are the original "hackathons" and are the ultimate busman’s holiday for mathematicians and statisticians around the world.

The mathematical models used to track swine flu and Ebola can determine how fake news becomes viral 

The next Irish ESGI takes place from June 16th to 21st when over 100 mathematicians and statisticians will descend on Limerick to work on challenges posed by Irish companies. Irish ESGIs held at UL and UCD have proven popular with large multinationals based in Ireland, as well as start-ups and SMEs, resulting in increased competitiveness and millions of euro of savings for the companies involved.

MACSI are currently seeking a new batch of companies to pose their most difficult problems at the ESGI in June 2019 to challenge the best mathematicians and statisticians around the world. For more information about details on how to apply, companies can contact macsi@ul.ie for more information.  

Dr Sinéad Burke is manager of MACSI at the University of Limerick. Dr Kevin Burke is a researcher at MACSI and a statistics lecturer in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Limerick and is a former Irish Research Council awardee.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ