Simons Foundation Honors UMass Amherst Mathematician

HongKun Zhang

AMHERST, Mass. – The Simons Foundation of New York City recently awarded University of Massachusetts Amherst mathematician HongKun Zhang with one of its coveted fellowships in mathematics. The $100,000 award will support her six-month leave over two semesters to work directly with colleagues at universities in France and in St. Louis to resolve an important mathematical conjecture arising in statistical mechanics.

The goal of the Simons Fellows Program is to make it easier to take such leaves or to extend sabbaticals. Fellows are chosen based on research accomplishment in the past five years and the potential scientific impact of the fellowship.

As Zhang explains, mathematicians use a simple framework such as the game of billiards to study and model such chaotic systems as the weather, the stock market and the way gas molecules behave, in order to make predictions about them. As a leading expert in chaotic billiards, she has developed an innovative coupling technique that represents a significant advance in the field.

With her co-authors, Zhang will use her leave to seek both a theoretical understanding as well as new ways to connect mathematical ideas to a variety of complex phenomena by investigating the statistical properties of physical systems and their mathematical models. In particular, her research will investigate mathematical problems arising in equilibrium and nonequilibrium statistical mechanics, notably in the theories of gases and diffusion phenomena.

While working in the fall 2015 semester with co-author Sandro Vaienti at the Centre de Physique Theorique, Luminy, France, and with Renato Feres of Washington University, St. Louis, in spring 2016, Zhang says they hope to improve “both our conceptual understanding of physical systems and our ability to predict their behavior. For example, a precise understanding of the relationship between diffusivity and microstructure may lead to new technique for gas separation in industrial processes.”

The Simons Foundation, established by noted mathematician and investor James H. Simons, awards fellowships annually to leading researchers in mathematics, theoretical physics, neuroscience and other fields. It provides funds for up to a semester-long research leave from classroom teaching and administrative duties to increase creativity and provide intellectual stimulation. The foundation awards a maximum of 40 fellowships in mathematics annually to faculty in the U.S., Canada and the U.K.