Farewell address John Einmahl: Mathematics is too profound to fit the mold of usable science

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On September 8th, mathematician John Einmahl will deliver his farewell speech at Tilburg University. In a time when science is expected to be practically applicable and societally usable, the departing professor reminds us of the intrinsic importance of his beloved field of mathematics. Mathematics, the science of eternal truths, is too profound and all-encompassing to be reduced to a practical application.

Mathematics is timeless - once proven, its truths remain eternally valid. But even the field of mathematics cannot escape the current political and academic climate, which tends to give preference to practically applicable science. Since science is funded by public money, professor John Einmahl believes it is entirely justified to question the societal usefulness of research. The work of a mathematician, however, extends far beyond providing ready-made solutions for businesses, citizens or governments.

In his valedictory speech, Einmahl invites us into the captivating world of his field: mathematical statistics and probability theory. The speech touches on several practical applications he worked on, but above all, it highlights the beauty of fundamental mathematics. Mathematics is an adventurous science, a quest without certainties that - with a little bit of luck and a lot of hard thinking - ultimately allows us to solve many problems.

From natural disasters to sports records

Einmahl is a prominent expert in the field of extreme value theory, which makes predictions about rare events such as floods and earthquakes. These predictions, in turn, are used to determine the minimum height of sea dikes or the type of foundation required to make houses earthquake-resistant.

Extreme value theory can also be applied to more positive topics: in 2012, professor John Einmahl and student Sander Smeets predicted the ultimate record for the 100-meter sprint (9.36 seconds, slightly faster than Usain Bolt’s current world record), and in 2017, he teamed up with his son Jesson Einmahl and fellow mathematician Laurens de Haan to predict the maximum human lifespan (we will not get much older than 120 years).

Understanding the world better

Out of the roughly 100 scientific articles that Einmahl authored, only a few studies are as applied as his calculations of the fastest sports records and the maximum human lifespan. Most of his work focuses on fundamental mathematics - the mathematics that underpins almost everything around us, from climate policies to insurance premiums.

The work of a mathematician often doesn’t result in practical applications, Einmahl says. It brings something far more important: it enables other researchers to find answers to complex questions, and it helps us understand the world better.

Well-spent tax money

That is what has always captivated Einmahl about mathematics, and what led him from his school in the hilly region of South Limburg to the University of Nijmegen, and ultimately to his professorship at Tilburg University: mathematics is about wondering, understanding and uncovering the unwavering truths that are hidden beneath the surface.

Those who question whether that’s well-spent tax money clearly have yet to meet the most passionate mathematics professor Tilburg University ever had.

John Einmahl

Tilburg School of Economics and Management (TiSEM)

John Einmahl (1957) has been affiliated with the Department of Econometrics & Operations Research at the Tilburg School of Economics and Management (TiSEM) for the past 22 years. From 2019 to 2022, he held the Arie Kapteyn Chair, an esteemed title awarded to him for his many high-quality publications and impactful research.

Einmahl studied mathematics at Radboud University Nijmegen, where he also earned his doctorate in 1986. He worked at Maastricht University and Eindhoven University of Technology before being appointed as a professor of statistics at Tilburg University in 2001.