By Raquel Leifer, Features Editor
Each month, the YU Observer aims to highlight a YU faculty member. For the November 2022 edition, the YU Observer is highlighting Dr. Emil Prodan, PhD.
RL: Please introduce yourself.
EP: Hi! I was born in Romania, and after receiving a BS and MS in mathematical physics, I moved to the US and finished my PhD in theoretical and computational physics at Rice University. I was fortunate enough to hold two postdoctoral positions under the mentorship of two Nobel Laureates winners, one at the University of California Santa Barbara and one at Princeton University. After that, I joined the Physics Department of Yeshiva University. These days, together with many other enthusiasts, I am developing what I call Mathematical Engineering, where abstract mathematics is used to design new materials and incredible machines.
RL: How long have you worked at YU?
EP: This year, I am celebrating fifteen years of work at YU.
RL: What do you like most about working at YU?
EP: Particularly this year, I am absolutely thrilled by the response of the students to the department’s new engineering courses, such as Solid Object Design and 3D Manufacturing.
RL: Do you have any advice for students interested in a career in your field?
EP: The abstract is not invented, but it is discovered. You can see it in our real world once you become aware of it. The abstract concepts help us organize our thoughts, communicate huge amounts of information, and build complex arguments leading to conclusions that are often highly consequential for our world and the well-being of our society. The abstract thought helps us to escape and see beyond the obvious. My advice is very simple: embrace the abstract thought to fully appreciate our physical world and, at the same time, become and stay competitive in today’s job market.
RL: What made you passionate about your field?
EP: Whenever I read a new mathematics book, it feels to me, literally, like walking in and discovering a new world, which is simply beautiful in itself. My interest, however, is equally in this beauty and in its potential to solve difficult problems in the real world. My art is to reveal these beautiful mathematical worlds in the dynamics of intelligently designed materials and systems. I can often see this beauty hidden in natural materials or in systems that have dynamics. From here, I can advise the experimental scientists on what to measure and how to organize their data for everybody to see these beautiful abstract worlds of mathematics.
RL: Is there anything interesting you are currently working on?
EP: Currently, I am a principal investigator on two research grants supported by the National Science Foundation, supporting projects on using Operator Algebras, K-Theory, and Non-Commutative Geometry to classify and identify new dynamical features in aperiodic materials and meta-materials (i.e., with building blocks organized in irregular patterns), as well as in hyperbolic and fractal synthetic materials. These new materials were predicted to be the engines behind new generations of sensors and compute machines.
RL: What makes your field special?
EP: I’ve been fortunate to work and exchange ideas with some of the greatest minds in pure mathematics and theoretical physics and also with some of the best engineering research groups in the world. The research model I developed and Yeshiva University is unique in that it bridges those two scientific worlds that seem so far apart. The established feedback loop between pure mathematics and engineering has been highly beneficial to both: seeing what is possible pushes the engineer to develop their technologies further and, in the other direction, becoming aware and understanding some of today’s practical challenges prompts the mathematicians to sharpen or develop new methods of analysis.
RL: If you could bring in any guest lecturer, alive or deceased, who would it be, and why?
EP: It would definitely be the Fields medalist Alain Connes, the inventor of Non-Commutative Geometry. Through his mathematics, he understands what space and time is, better than anybody else on this planet. Moreover, his mathematics enables us to do topology and geometry on abstract objects, such as the discrete empirical observations coming from a materials lab or from a long medical study.
RL: What is one thing you want students to know about you?
EP: I am developing a metamaterials lab to study the dynamics of intelligently designed meta-materials. This lab aims to demonstrate the mathematical principles that can transform something as ordinary as a 3D-printed plastic structure into something extraordinary that reacts or performs a function in response to a stimulus. Students passionate about design, materials, and mathematics are welcome to get involved.
RL: Is there a particular book you would recommend that everyone read?
EP: To get a quick glimpse of how Non-Commutative Geometry was used to design unique computer algorithms that eventually enabled long sought-accurate computations for disordered materials, I will point to my book A Computational Non-Commutative Geometry Program for Disordered Topological Insulators, which appeared in the SpringerBriefs in Mathematical Physics series.