Courant Institute’s Sylvain Cappell Sees Science, Math and Data Developing at Extraordinary Speed

Having spent most of his professional career at the Courant Institute, as well as holding leadership positions within Courant and New York University, Courant Institute Silver Professor of Mathematics Sylvain Cappell, a topologist, is uniquely qualified to offer a long view of where NYU has been, and also where it is headed.

Commenting on NYU’s new Initiative in Data Science and Statistics, Cappell states, “That’s a great initiative. Things have continued to develop in a number of areas that will benefit from this, within Courant, NYU, and society at large. Human society is overwhelmed by vast amounts of data that need to be organized, understood, and made into the basis of new knowledge,” he says. “Climate science data, economic data, biomedical data, genetic data and others are now available because of new ways of measuring phenomena. Just think of what’s going to happen when patients’ records get linked up with their genomic data, and the database that will be available in terms of health and treatment outcomes.”

The combination of greater instrumentation and greater computerization, says Cappell, means that “in every direction, we are producing reams of data and they need to be comprehended. I think it’s really good that NYU has an exciting initiative in this direction.”

After almost four decades in the field of mathematics, Professor Cappell describes the current climate as one which is not only developing rapidly, but developing on all fronts. “All of science and many areas of mathematics are developing at extraordinary speed, considerably greater than when I was young,” he says. “Historically, there were certain areas of science that were advancing rapidly, and then there were others where you could go to sleep and wake up a generation later and you wouldn’t have missed much. That’s not true anymore.”

In mathematics, Cappell says, as in science more broadly, the number of new areas and the speed of their development has picked up amazingly, partially fed by the ways in which areas create tools that in turn, get used by other areas of mathematics. “My field of topology, for example, has created tools and methods and basic foundational results that have spun off into other fields,” he explains. “This has enabled rapid growth and development in ways that couldn’t have been anticipated.”

By M.L. Ball