For more than 40 years, Don Saari has been using math as a tool for solving real world problems like how voting systems may not always result in the top candidate being selected.  While the concept has yet to revolutionize the way democracies vote, it is being put to use by sports writers to more accurately rank college football teams.  His knowledge of numbers is also being put to use in trying to solve a seemingly impossible problem with universal implications - how much dark matter may actually exist in space.  

It is fitting, then, that when the Society for Industrial Applied Mathematics – an organization whose goal is to promote the use of applied mathematics in solving real world issues – created its fellows program this year, Saari was among the inaugural class of 188 professionals selected.  Established to honor those who have made “outstanding contributions to the fields of applied mathematics and computational science,” the first group will be formally recognized at the society’s general meeting in Denver this month.

But Don won’t be there.  The announcement comes as one of several noteworthy accomplishments for Saari who this month published his tenth book and will be traveling to Finland where he will receive an honorary Ph.D. from the University of Turku, Finland.  He is also being named as a foreign member of the Finnish Academy of Sciences and Letters, an honor which adds to his already long list of accomplishments including acknowledgements as a member of the National Academy of Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and as a Guggenheim Fellow, as well as several others.  

“What adds a strong personal touch to these honors from Finland is that I am of Finnish-American ancestry,” says Saari of his recent honors.  “More generally, I am delighted to see how the importance of mathematics in addressing complex problems from the social and behavioral sciences is being recognized.”

It has been a busy year all around for the witty mathematician who says he chose to study the topic nearly half a century ago because he didn’t enjoy the chemistry and electrical engineering labs required of the two majors he once planned to pursue.  As an undergraduate at Michigan Technological University, math provided an opportunity to use theory to solve practical problems.  

“It also spared a lot of broken lab equipment,” he jokingly adds.

He further pursued the topic as a graduate student at Purdue where he pulled in his interests in astronomy and science.

“There’s a strong symbiotic relationship between science and math,” he says.  “Discoveries in one oftentimes lead to discoveries in the other,” like, for instance, his use of mathematical analysis in predicting the distribution of galaxies based on Newton’s laws.

He spent 32 years as a professor at Northwestern where he published a number of studies on dynamical systems and celestial mechanics until he began shifting his mathematical interests to the study of social science problems.  

He officially came to UCI in 2000 as a distinguished professor, a move he largely attributes to the recruiting skills of UCI’s Duncan Luce, internationally acclaimed psychologist and mathematical behavioral scientist.  Three years later, he took the reigns as director of UCI’s Institute for Mathematical Behavioral Sciences where he, Luce and 59 other social scientists, engineers, computer scientists and biologists use math to solve complex social and behavioral issues like voting and how the economy does – or doesn’t – function properly.  

“You can use the muscle power of math to solve an infinite number of problems,” he says.  “It’s our hope in IMBS to develop the same sort of symbiotic relationships between math and social and behavioral sciences,” he says.  

He has certainly done his part, says Luce, commenting that Saari has received a good deal of honorary acclaim for his continuing highly original work both in cosmology and in the behavioral sciences.

Says Luce: “Of my scientific discoveries, Don Saari is one of the greatest.”

 

-Heather Wuebker, Social Sciences Communications

 

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