Tag: computer science

2 Minutes With … Justin Williamson: Galaxies collide in simulation project

Justin Williamson ’22 used Lawrence’s Experiential Learning Funds to complete a computer science simulation project he had been working on for years. (Photo by Danny Damiani)

2 Minutes With … is a series of short features to introduce us to the passions and interests of Lawrence students on and off campus. Find more 2 Minutes With … features here.

Story by Isabella Mariani ’21

When he was in high school in his hometown of Phoenix, Arizona, Justin Williamson ‘22 spent lunch periods asking his physics teacher all kinds of questions about how the world works. Now, his curiosities about physics and space have culminated in his first big 3-D graphics project.

With the help of Lawrence’s Experiential Learning Funds (ELF), the computer science and French double major finished a long-running attempt to simulate two galaxies colliding. Supported by alumni and other donors, the fund helps students access summer internships, self-directed research and projects, and more opportunities that enhance their learning experiences.

The simulation Williamson completed over winter break is just one iteration of a project he has been tinkering with for about five years. His earlier version of the simulation depicted between 100 and 200 stars. That’s grown to about 50,000 stars in a collision that takes place over 750 million years. More stars mean more computing power and, well, more skill. The difference lies in programming on the CPU (central processing unit) versus the GPU (graphics processing unit).

“Most programs run on the CPU, which is good at running serial calculations, but not 50,000 of the same calculation,” Williamson said. “But the GPU is good at that kind of calculation. It’s very different because you have to think about everything happening at the same time, rather than sequenced.”

Help from the ELF

That’s where the stipend comes in. Williamson had been working with the Career Center to hunt down internships when they sent an email detailing the ELF. This was Williamson’s first time programming on the GPU, so some extra research, which comes with added expenses, was necessary to achieve his goal.

“[The fund] allowed me to get books very easily,” Williamson said. “Also, a little bit of hardware for my computer to make it run better. I don’t think I would’ve finished it over the break if I hadn’t had the stipend.”

Programming a simulation like this can be a gamble. Williamson put faith in his calculations. He recalled the final moment of truth: letting the simulation run overnight.

“I didn’t know if it was going to work the night before or not,” he said. “That day I encountered two or three subtle bugs. Once the calculation started, all the stars would instantly disappear. So, it all could’ve been for naught. But I was amazed at what was happening when I actually could see the simulation.”

A needed assist

It wasn’t just the financial boost that helped Williamson achieve his goal. His passion for programming was met with support from his past.

“I’m so thankful to my high school physics teacher,” Williamson said. “I spent two or three hours on the phone with him trying to fix my math.”

The successful simulation is a testament to Williamson’s growing skills in computer programming, but it’s anything but the end. He hopes to eventually simulate galaxies of one million stars. But those are calculations for another day.

Watch the galaxies colliding here.

Isabella Mariani ’21 is a student writer in the Communications office.

On Main Hall Green With … Scott Corry: New frontiers for a mathematics scholar

Portrait on Main Hall Green: Scott Corry (Photo by Danny Damiani)

About the series: On Main Hall Green With … is an opportunity to connect with faculty on things in and out of the classroom. We’re featuring a different Lawrence faculty member each time — same questions, different answers.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Scott Corry is leading the Department of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science into new territory.

The professor of mathematics is the chair of the newly renamed department, which has grown significantly, adding two faculty positions, one last year in statistics and one upcoming in computer science. Multiple new courses have been added to the curriculum, the mathematics major has been redesigned, including the addition of a statistics track, the computer science major has been reconfigured, and a new minor in statistics and data science has been launched.

Corry joined the Lawrence mathematics faculty in 2007. He returned to the department chair position in 2019 after previously holding that post in 2014-15 and 2017-18. He has taught calculus, algebra, number theory, and geometry courses while pursuing his research interests in analogies between Riemann surfaces and finite graphs. He was a visiting fellow at the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Cambridge, England, in 2009, and was recognized with Lawrence’s then-named Young Teacher Award in 2011.

He earned his doctoral degree at the University of Pennsylvania and his bachelor’s degree at Reed College.

We caught up with Corry to talk about his interests on and off campus.

IN THE CLASSROOM

Inside info: What’s one thing you want every student coming into your classes to know about you?

Students should know that I believe they can enjoy math. Too often, people have fixed ideas about whether or not they are “math people,” and they carry anxieties about their mathematical abilities. This is the wrong approach. I want students to relax into the creative play that lies at the heart of mathematical exploration, and to feel the joy of solving problems and studying interconnections between ideas. As in all things, the more you enjoy your work, the more likely you are to succeed at it.

Getting energized: What work have you done or will you be doing at Lawrence that gets you the most excited?

In recent years, more and more of my energy has been devoted to chairing the Department of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science, and I’ve been surprised at how much I enjoy hiring and supporting new colleagues, working with them to revise our curriculum, and collaborating to support students in new and more substantial ways. My own mathematical work and teaching will always be the bedrock of why I love being at Lawrence, but the recent challenge of department-building and curricular revision is exciting.

Going places: Is there an example of somewhere your career has taken you (either a physical space or something more intellectual, emotional or spiritual) that took you by surprise?

A few years ago, I wrote a book called Symmetry and Quantum Mechanics that describes the exquisite mathematical structure underlying the central physical theory of the microscopic world. While I’ve been interested in physics for a long time—I started out as a physics major before switching to math—I never expected to make a scholarly contribution. But I found myself writing that book as a labor of love after embarking on a reading project with my good friend Doug Martin from the LU Physics Department. This is a great example of the power of collaboration to push us in unexpected directions, and it was honestly the most fun I’ve ever had with an intellectual project.

OUT OF THE CLASSROOM

This or that: If you weren’t teaching for a living, what would you be doing?  

I think it would be nice to be a science journalist, doing the important work of explaining scientific developments to a popular audience. I’m thinking especially of someone like Natalie Wolchover and her writings for Quanta magazine. Over the past decade or so, I’ve discovered a real passion for writing, and I enjoy the challenge of learning and explaining new things.

Right at home: Whether for work, relaxation or reflection, what’s your favorite spot on campus?

There is a secluded bench next to the Buchanan-Kiewit Wellness Center that looks out to the Fox River over the LU Sustainable Garden. Although I haven’t been there recently, in my early years at Lawrence I often ate my lunch there, weather permitting. It is a nice place to take a break, read a book, or simply catch your breath during an otherwise busy day.

One book, one recording, one film: Name one of each that speaks to your soul? Or you would recommend to a friend? Or both?

Stanley Cavell’s The Claim of Reason. This ambitious and unusual book of moral philosophy traverses a wide swath of thought, beginning with Wittgenstein’s ideas about language, moving through the epistemological challenge of skepticism, and culminating in an exploration of Shakespeare’s tragedies. It had an immense impact on me as a college student, and I continue to return to it to this day.

Mahalia Jackson’s rendition of If I Can Help Somebody. Just listen.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. An ensemble cast delivers a complicated and touching performance tied together by an excellent Aimee Mann soundtrack.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu