A wiki good time

Daniel Mathews – Mathematician

Daniel Mathews struggles to encapsulate the range of subjects over which he mulls and wonders. As a mathematician, his scope stretches from repetitive patterns in nature through to celestial mechanics and flight paths in space.

Daniel’s quest to push the boundaries of knowledge is not limited to mathematics. As a founding member of WikiLeaks – with Julian Assange – and as a human rights activist, Daniel is the owner of one busy mind.

When pushed on his daily search for meaning, he distils his message simply enough. “I want to understand how the world works – the laws that operate in nature. In many cases, they tend to be mathematical. You can, for example, abstract from pattern recognition. It’s a really great way to describe the world,” Daniel says.

Pure mathematics, far from everyday life he says, can provide perfect frameworks to help describe society or new ideas we might one day use to view the world.

Symplectic geometry dates back to the nineteenth century, referring to William Hamilton’s reformulation of Isaac Newton’s laws of motion – theories which, Daniel says, turned out to be just too hard (sorry Isaac). So mathematicians set out to “abstract, abstract and abstract”, and created symplectic geometry. It’s been used for applications from quantum mechanics, through to designing space travel paths from planet to planet cheaply and effectively – and then, even more.

“It had been sitting around for a long time and then, about 30 years ago, new applications were discovered.”

These new applications are closely related to string theory, a speculative set of ideas about the fundamental nature of matter in the universe. “We know stuff around us is made of atoms, and they are made up of smaller stuff – protons, neutrons and electrons – and then they are made up of quarks…. how far down does all this go?”

“Sadly, the current model of this stuff is not so elegant. There’s just a zoo of particles, a bizarre motley assortment of stuff. String theory attempts to order this. All the different particles are just different vibrations of an elementary thing that is a string.”

If he had to name his deepest appreciation of mathematics, Daniel says he’s reassured by the certainty of it. “You make all these amazing connections between vast intellectual structures in the human mind. Sometimes they happen to be sitting there in the real world as well.”

So how does a typical day pan-out when tossing about quantum field theories, abstraction and string theory? “Generally, I spend most of my time feeling pretty confused.”

Daniel reckons he stumbles along and then, about once a week, he’ll get a little breakthrough and “I figure something out and it feels brilliant”.

When he’s not having “epistemological” moments relating to an abstract world, Daniel has his feet firmly planted on the ground with a non-government organisation called the Initiative for Equality. The global group of academics and activists questions established power structures around the world that mean large numbers of people are impoverished and powerless. “We’re trying to overturn that paradigm.” Local projects operate in 100 countries where new social, economic and political strategies are developed and tested. Daniel is helping to model new economic mechanisms that, quite simply, do not generate inequality.

Daniel has come a long way since he helped Julian Assange set up WikiLeaks back in 2006, when two mates at uni had “some big ideas for a website”. “It was a simple idea – to use the internet to make the world more transparent.” Pretty quickly whistleblowers heard about the site and before the young activists knew it, they had been sent the operating manual for the Guantanamo Bay prison.

Fast forward to now and Daniel is content to be out of the limelight and courtrooms of the WikiLeaks world.

This extraordinary mind is making a difference to the world in practical as well as many abstract, abstract, abstract ways.

“You make all these amazing connections between vast intellectual structures in the human mind. Sometimes they happen to be sitting there in the real world as well.”