An accomplished academic, Professor of Mathematics Michael Keane has published over 100 articles; taught in France, the Netherlands, and other countries; and worked with companies such as Philips, Hewlett-Packard, and the European Space Agency. He is currently teaching an advanced research seminar, Differential Equations, and the First Year Initiative Mathematical Views: A Cultural Sampler.
In class, Keane, who has an infectious sense of humor and chuckles after every sentence, often moves away from the lesson plan to talk about contemporary developments in mathematics and computer science. The Argus sat down with Keane to talk to him about Steinbeck, foreign travel, space shuttles, and probability theory.
The Argus: What are you reading right now?
Michael Keane: I’m reading something called “The Plutocrats” by Chrystia Freeland—a book about the people who have a lot of money. The question is what happens to the money, where does it go, and who controls it? I’m also reading Steinbeck, because I very much [like] “Travels With Charlie In Search of America.” There’s a new book by a well-known Dutch writer who actually did the same trip that Steinbeck did, 50 years later to the day, and commented [on] what Steinbeck said about the United States. I’m very interested in travelogues, like Bruce Chatwin’s “In Patagonia.” And of course I read mathematics whenever I get a chance.
A: Not only are you interested in travelogues, but you’ve traveled a lot yourself.
MK: You can’t exactly call it travel. We lived for six years in Germany, for 10 years in France, in Holland for 25 years, Israel for almost a year, and Japan for two years. I’m very interested in foreign countries and travel. I was born in Texas; I grew up there, spent the first 20 years of my life [there], and went to the University of Texas for my undergraduate [degree]. My wife is Dutch, and our children were born in three different countries: my first son was born in New Haven, my second son was born in Holland, and my daughter was born in Germany. We know quite a bit about the different societies, [and] we obviously like to be there and speak the languages. I think it’s a positive thing, to travel and get to know other cultures.
A: What brought you to all these different countries?
MK: [When I was growing up] in Texas it wasn’t exactly a cultural desert, but I was interested in mathematics, art, and seeing things. I finished university, did computer work for two years, gathered a small sum of money, and paid for my study in Germany. I stayed there for six years [doing my] Master’s and PhD. I didn’t know what I was getting into. The first thing I did when I went to Göttingen was learn the language. I had to pass a language test to get into the university, but that was rather easy for me. Then I was a regular visitor at a very well-known German theater. I don’t wander; when I go somewhere I stay there for a long amount of time, learn the language, and get to know the people.
A: Let’s talk about mathematics. What does your work focus on?
MK: That’s my love—well, one of the loves of my life. I’m quite global. I’ve written articles on probability theory, dynamical systems, flows and transformations of things, and algebra. I’m interested in number theory. I’m also interested in practical things. I roughly spend one day a week working for industrial firms.
I worked [for] years for Philips [doing] research. When people get older, they might need to call for help easily, so if they fall a device will call somebody for them. Those don’t work very well, so we’re trying to work on that. I’ve also worked for the European Space Agency quite a bit. We wrote a program for them about dependent simulation: if you want to build a spaceship, you want to know when a spaceship is going to fail. Another problem we were interested in was, if you shoot a spaceship into the air, what’s the probability it will hit debris? That one I’m still working on.
A: You mentioned in class that you were writing a new a book. Can you tell me about that?
MK: That’s about sequences of zeros and ones. We were very interested in the sequences that machines make, and making sequences that are irregular. That question is more philosophical. The theoretical question is, if you build sequences with a machine of zeros and ones, where one is success and zero is failure, what is the probability of success? Is there a reasonable limit, as the sequence gets larger? Then it doesn’t make sense to talk about probability. It’s like asking the probability of whether it’s going to rain tomorrow. Tomorrow hasn’t happened, and you can’t count the days of tomorrow.
What we’ve discovered is that some of these sequences, even though they’re built very regularly, actually do not have real frequencies. For these things happening in the world, built by machines, the question of the probability of success does not make any sense. We’re interested in the questions that do make sense, and what we should be asking.