What does a virus have in common with a terrorist cell? It’s all in the math.

As we showcase the variety of research and creative activities being undertaken at Ryerson, we thought it essential to let some of the researchers do the talking. They are the experts, after all. Our first guest blogger is Anthony Bonato, professor of mathematics. ~Interim Vice-President, Research and Innovation, Usha George



Q1. Tell us about your research:

I study networks: think of dots and lines representing the connections between them. Networks arise in all disciplines, and occur throughout the natural, social and technological worlds. I develop mathematical models for these so-called complex networks that predict their evolution and uncover their underlying mechanisms.

My most recent work is on the mining and modelling of networks of cultural works such novels and films. Our research team mapped out the community structure and central characters in the Harry Potter and Dune novels—all without reading a page! The aim is to use network science, machine-learning algorithms, and big data to uncover new phenomena in these texts.

I’m fascinated by dynamic properties in networks such as the spread of social contagion or memes. A doctoral student developed a new theory called graph burning. The burning number of a network gives a measure of how fast a fire (which plays the role of a meme) can spread in a network.

Q2. What drives your passion for your research?

My passion for mathematics began in high school, and fully ignited in university. I remember the first theorem I proved almost twenty years ago: it answered an esoteric sounding question on continuum-many universal Horn classes of bounded chromatic number. Looking back, it was a small result, but it was my first!

Curiosity and a love of my subject drive me forward. Research isn’t work when you love what you do. Many times in mathematical research, you don’t succeed answering the problems you initially asked. However, when things work it’s truly magical. Our publications capture those times when things worked, and I’ve been lucky to have over 100 publications in many areas of network science and graph theory.

Q3. Tell us about the impact of your research?

 My work on the geometry of social networks is, for the first time, quantifying a construct in the social sciences called Blau space. Applications of our work on biologically central proteins may eventually lead to the development of new therapeutic regimes for diseases like cancer. Another application of my work is to network interdiction, which focuses on the monitoring or disruption of intruders on a network. Think of stopping a virus spreading in a population or disrupting a terrorist cell.

I’ve been lucky to speak at international conferences in places like India and China. My most recent talk was a keynote lecture at Oxford University, where I spoke to an interdisciplinary audience containing mathematicians, physicists and engineers.

I love writing, and my blog focuses on my research and mathematics in pop culture. In just over a year, I’m proud that the blog has thirty thousand views. As another creative outlet, I’m writing science fiction. My short stories are live on Wattpad, and I am releasing a novel called Pattern Earth in 2017. In the book, a 16-year-old mathematics prodigy discovers a mathematical proof that triggers an alien invasion. How refreshing is it to have heroine be a mathematician for a change?