Alumni day showcases Mathematics research

26 September 2017

Professor Steven Galbraith
Professor Steven Galbraith

What’s a digital signature? Why would you want to find out how fast can you turn a plane on the ground before it becomes dangerously unstable?

These were just two of the questions answered at the Alumni and Postgraduate Showcase 2017, held on Saturday, September 23 at the Science Centre. The departments of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science came together to present short and lively talks on current research, display hands-on technology and postgraduate students’ work and provide course information.

Professor Steven Galbraith from the Department of Mathematics discussed cryptography and how digital signatures have become a critical component of the peer-to-peer electronic currency bitcoin, a cryptocurrency. A digital signature is a mathematical scheme for proving that a digital message such as a software update to your phone or a bitcoin transfer is authentic. It relies on a public key encryption system – any person can encrypt a message using the public key of the receiver, but such a message can be decrypted only with the receiver’s private key. But Steven had a warning – don’t throw out a hard drive that contains the key necessary to access and spend your bitcoins, like one hapless user – his tidy-up lost him millions of dollars’ worth.

Head of Mathematics Professor Bernd Krauskopf discussed his work with European airplane manufacturer Airbus. He’s using dynamical systems methods to find out how fast a plane on the ground can turn before it becomes unstable; with their tricycle design, planes are not very efficient on the tarmac, and they don’t earn money while on the ground. Bernd says the best part of this sort of mathematical modelling is showing what happens when a plane spins out of control, but he doubts he’ll ever get a chance to try it out in real life. (You can read more about this work here).

Among the alumni who attended was Greg Trounson, who did his BSc in Mathematics and Physics and a MSc in Physics in the Faculty of Science, finishing in 1981. Greg, who now works in IT, was drawn back by curiosity and nostalgia. “I wanted to see how things had changed since I left,” he said. “I was curious to get a feel of what it’s like here today.” When he was a student, computing meant using punch-card machines, which he saw again on a tour of the Computer Science history display, spread across five levels of the Science Centre. Greg also tried out various technologies on display at the showcase, including a computer screen controlled by eye movement:

The most memorable talk, Greg said, was Professor Steven Galbraith’s discussion of bitcoin: “I wanted to understand how that works.” His overall impression of the day? “It’s interesting to see what is being done that is relevant to the real world. There are lots of practical things being studied.”

See photos from the day on Facebook.