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The Nth Degree

The Nth Degree
At the nation's temple of measurement,
Ron Boisvert converts materials into numbers

Ron Boisvert photoIf you think the U.S. Bureau of Standards is a fortress where armed guards and rare gasses protect the one true meter stick, well, you're mostly wrong, but not entirely.

Whereas the units of time, length, and temperature have been redefined over the years in terms of unchanging physical phenomena (the meter is now set at the distance light travels in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458th of a second), mass remains elusive, and the kilogram remains the single unit of measurement defined by a physical standard. The "real" kilogram, a 100-year-old platinum-iridium cylinder, rests not on American soil, but in a vault in Sevres, France, where it is affectionately referred to as "Le Gran K."

But the Gran K won't be the standard for long, if some colleagues of Ron Boisvert '73 at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (no, it's not the Bureau of Standards anymore) have their way. They're busy turning the kilogram into something more precise than a fragile artifact – mathematics.

Set on a 500-acre campus in Gaithersburg, Md. ("about 25 miles northwest of the White House, as things are measured around here," says Boisvert), NIST is the nation's measurement laboratory, whose job, as their web site describes it, is "to develop and promote measurement, standards, and technology to enhance productivity, facilitate trade, and improve the quality of life." In short, NIST's main job is to help American industry do its job better.

‘To a computer scientist I look like a very good mathematician. To a mathematician I look like a very good computer scientist.’"The core of what NIST does," Boisvert explains, "emanates from some need to measure something more precisely." Head of the Mathematical and Computational Science Division of NIST's Information Technology Laboratory, Boisvert walks the line between mathematics and computer science. "To a computer scientist I look like a very good mathematician," he says. "To a mathematician

I look like a very good computer scientist." Life on the border, he says, "is much more fun" than residing in either camp.

What the math division does, Boisvert says, is ensure that the best mathematics and computational methods are applied to NIST problems. Professionals in his division translate material properties into the language of mathematics so they can manipulate numbers instead of the material itself to explore its properties. When NIST scientists want to build a new piece of equipment to measure some kind of stuff more precisely – possibly a multi-million-dollar project – first they need some numbers. Mathematicians will work with experimenters, theoreticians, physicists, and computer scientists to construct models, both tangible and theoretical, for a new machine that will look more closely than ever before at some exotic or everyday material.

‘You need good expository writing to make a cogent argument for a case. In science that’s an absolutely critical skill. You have to write well to get papers published.’Concrete, for example. "We work with people in the building industry," Boisvert explains. "Concrete is a pretty mundane material, but our country's built on it. We want to find out how to make it stronger, make it dry faster." To solve these problems, NIST physicists and chemists examine the material with scanning electron microscopes. NIST mathematicians develop techniques and tools to make the images sharper, developing procedures that work not only with building materials but also for medical research, or any enterprise requiring closer and closer looks.

NIST mathematicians have worked with scientists at GE on quality control processes for manufacturing turbine blades for power generators and airplanes – machines that operate at very high temperatures. "On the shop floor they can slice open a piece of the material and look under a microscope," Boisvert says, but translating the materials into mathematical models allows for more practical and precise experimentation than by manipulating the metal itself.

"Finite element analysis allows us to do a virtual experiment. What happens at 1,000 degrees? Will it crack? Will the coating separate?

"It requires that we understand the needs of material scientists, understand the basic physics of materials, how to abstract them into mathematics and computational models for solving equations – and to arrive at the solution on a high-performance computer."

"The typical person here went to an undergraduate school like MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford," Boisvert says. "It was a little different for me."

'The typical person here went to an undergraduate school like MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford,' Boisvert says. 'It was a little different for me.'A summa cum laude mathematics major at Keene State – with a perfect 4.0 GPA through four years – he also took numerous journalism and English courses and served as editor of the student newspaper (The Equinox was called The Monadnock when he joined the staff). "I wrote every day," he says. In an interview with the student magazine of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), he credits journalism professor and newspaper advisor Cornelius Lyle, "who taught me the importance of writing well, and how to thrive under tight deadlines." In his senior year, Boisvert was named co-winner (with David Gagne '73) of the KSC Student of the Year Award.

After Keene State, Boisvert traveled to Virginia to enroll in William and Mary's Applied Science Program, where he took a part-time job as a scientific programmer at NASA's Langley Research Center. "I was surrounded by very smart people doing research on difficult problems," he told the ACM magazine, "and it was fun. This is what I wanted to do." He took his newly minted M.S. to Purdue University, which housed the first computer science department in the country.

His writing background at Keene served Boisvert well at Purdue, where one of his first courses required a weekly research paper. "You were judged not just by your ideas – you had to write them well," he says. "The other students were aghast. But you need good expository writing to make a cogent argument for a case. In science that's an absolutely critical skill. You have to write well to get papers published. I'm fairly good at it; it's one of the reasons I'm division chief here."

His writing background at Keene served Boisvert well at Purdue, where one of his first courses required a weekly research paper.Winner of last year's KSC Alumni Achievement Award, Boisvert also points with pride to another award – an honor based as much on his communication skills as his math: the 1999 Outstanding Contribution to the Association for Computing Machinery Award. Named editor-in-chief of an ACM journal in the early '90s, he was learning the ways of the World Wide Web and building NIST's first web site, the Guide to Available Mathematical Software (GAMS). Hearing himself complain too often that ACM journals didn't have web sites, he took on the task of leading the effort to organize an ACM digital library – all in his volunteer capacity with the organization.

"Now all of ACM's journals and conference proceedings have been put online," Boisvert explains. "It's become the centerpiece of the ACM."

An ACM web search for Boisvert's name brings up the arcane ("A fourth-order-accurate Fourier method for the Helmholtz equation in three dimensions") as well as somewhat more accessible titles ("GAMS: A framework for the management of scientific software").

At NIST, Boisvert is pursuing other publications that merge English, mathematics, and other languages. He and a large team of researchers are developing an online reference handbook on the properties of the special functions of applied mathematics, a substantial update of the agency's bestselling publication of all time, at a million copies. First published in 1964, it is, Boisvert points out, "the most cited publication in the mathematics literature."

He is also working on projects in quantum information theory and improving Java programming language for use in scientific computing.

As someone who almost chose a career in journalism instead of mathematics, Ron Boisvert has a writer's gift of sensing an audience and writing to its interests and background. In an interview with a layman, he avoids jargon and condescension. He explains his work not so much as a study in mathematical complexity but as something that – while it's aimed at helping U.S. industrial capability – is a lot of fun. The nice thing about NIST, he says, is that "it's a great playground for an applied mathematician."

Michael Matros is editor of Keene State Today.