The mathematics of the big picture

Explosion and combustion. The origins of life on Earth. Humanity’s role in our own evolution. These are the kind of ideas that come up during a chat with Professor Rowena Ball, an applied mathematician who is currently based at the Australian National University in Canberra.

“My work keeps me in mischief,” the mathematician and physical chemist laughs. “As every little bit pans out, there’s a new path to go down.”

She describes the topic of her current research, how life began, as a “big problem”, and tells me she has her theories on what makes this area of research so “wicked”.

“We actually know more about the origin of the universe than the origin of life, because research on the Big Bang and its aftermath fits squarely within the enabling framework of physics. But the origin of life is inherently interdisciplinary.”

An example of this multifaceted approach lies in Ball’s own contribution: during this research, her experience in non-linear systems – for example, those associated with combustion – helped her to understand the conditions that facilitated the formation of life on our planet.

“Life didn’t begin in a carefully controlled laboratory. Basically, the origin of life was a mess,” she says. “One of the things our paper showed was that this messy environment actually favoured origin of life processes; not only favoured, a messy environment was essential.”

Ball is fascinated by origin research for its potential practical applications, such as the development of new drugs, and perhaps more importantly, what she sees as humanity’s role in the evolution of our planet.

Although humans have had negative impacts on our environment (“Perhaps evolution made its biggest stuff-up ever when it evolved us,” she laughs), Ball sees value in our ability to record the history of our existence, and learn from it.

“In the deep future, the evolution and fate of the universe itself may be moderated profoundly by life, just as life has extensively shaped the Earth,” Ball imparts. “Even if we’re complete buggers in terms of polluting the planet and causing nuclear holocaust, we can at least investigate the origin of life and document it.

“We might be some use after all, in the greater scheme of things!”

Ball grew up in regional New South Wales and completed both her Honours and PhD at Macquarie University in Sydney. Her career is dotted with accolades, such as receiving a Lagrange Fellowship in complex systems at the Institute for Scientific Interchange in Italy in 2005, and, five years later, a Future Fellowship from the Australian Research Council.

But when asked about her proudest achievements, Ball points to a more recent undertaking: her involvement in teaching Indigenous kids about science.

“Doing scientific and mathematical outreach with Aboriginal school students has been one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done,” she says. “Although I have Indigenous heritage … in many ways, I’ve learnt more from them than they have from me.”

Ball believes passionately in inspiring the next generation of scientists, but also recognises a gross underappreciation for the scientific thinking that existed among Indigenous cultures before colonisation.

“Indigenous cultures understood complex non-linear dynamical systems very well indeed, and the stability problems they posed,” she says. “They knew how to manage the country so as to minimise instability, or to introduce planned instability, such as fire.”

When I ask about the significance of Indigenous scientific thinking, Ball responds on a characteristically expansive note.

“I feel that it’s important for Indigenous knowledges to join and enrich the universal pool of scientific knowledge, because it provides a broader dimension to science, and opportunities to create new knowledge at the interface,” Ball says.

“But, most importantly, unless a nation or community reaches out to the knowledge of the world, makes it their own, adds to it and trains its own people, I think history shows that it’s impossible to remain free of colonisation and exploitation, and all the misery that brings.”

Alongside the minutiae of science, the broader picture, it seems, is never far away.

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