Caltech: American Institute of Mathematics Moves to Caltech

The American Institute of Mathematics (AIM), an independent nonprofit organization funded in part by the National Science Foundation (NSF), is moving to Caltech’s campus from its current home in the Bay Area.

Founded in 1994 by John Fry, a math enthusiast and co-founder of Fry’s Electronics, AIM organizes and funds focused collaborations among pure and applied mathematicians, theoretical biologists, computer scientists, physicists, and other scientists working on long-standing math problems. The institute is one of seven mathematical sciences institutes funded by the NSF.

“AIM’s mission is to advance mathematics through collaboration. Like Caltech, we are committed to diversity, outreach, education, and research at the highest level,” says AIM executive director and mathematician Brian Conrey. “We believe this is a wonderful institutional fit and look forward with great enthusiasm to our partnership.”

AIM’s workshops, its oldest program, take place throughout the year at AIM’s headquarters and involve up to 30 people from various institutions. “Instead of a usual conference where people come and give talks, the workshops are aimed at solving a particular problem,” says Caltech’s John D. MacArthur Professor of Theoretical Physics and Mathematics Sergei Gukov, who has participated in several AIM programs and served on its scientific research board for many years. In fact, Gukov is one of more than 40 Caltech faculty members, postdoctoral scholars, and graduate students to have participated in AIM activities.

“Sometimes the problems are too hard to solve, but through the workshops you might discover small breakthroughs on the way to solving the larger problem,” he says.

AIM also sponsors smaller collaborations called SQuaREs (Structured Quartet Research Ensembles), in which only four to six people meet for one week a year for three years. Recently, due to the pandemic, the institute also developed online communities where up to 100 mathematicians have been gathering to scribble equations and notes on virtual whiteboards.

“The online communities are a lot of fun and helped us stay together during the pandemic,” says Gukov. “In general, AIM helps mathematicians and researchers make connections with other researchers—and new connections in their own mathematical work to create something unexpected.” Gukov credits his own experiences at AIM with seeding some of his most influential work in the field of knot theory and its connections to a branch of algebra called representation theory.

Gukov and many of his colleagues at Caltech say that the relocation of AIM to Caltech will benefit both parties. AIM will have access to the small, focused, and interdisciplinary communities of Caltech, while Caltech will benefit from the presence of a highly respected math institution.

“This will bring a large stream of the top mathematicians to Caltech,” says Professor of Mathematics Elena Mantovan. “We will have new opportunities to interact with them and form new collaborations. This is a benefit to faculty, postdocs, students, and is good for the recruitment of new students. We are a small department with less than 20 faculty members, so this move is enormous for us.”

Omer Tamuz, professor of economics and mathematics, agrees and thinks that the new partnership will transform Caltech into one of the top centers for math in the world. “Mathematics is a very social activity, and direct interaction with other mathematicians is crucial for our work. Bringing AIM to Caltech will roughly double the amount of mathematical activity on campus, giving us the benefit of interacting with hundreds of top mathematicians every year.”

The AIM programs are also designed to make connections between pure and applied math and computer science. Chris Umans, professor of computer science, says having AIM at Caltech will boost interdisciplinary research.

“AIM nurtures the convergence of different areas of mathematics and allied fields, and this aligns very well with the culture at Caltech, where we are drawn to fundamental, hard problems and where mathematics runs through research endeavors across campus,” he says.

“My colleagues and I are very excited to use AIM programs to build bridges across fields.”

Harry Atwater, the Otis Booth Leadership Chair of the Division of Engineering and Applied Science, agrees. “The arrival of AIM at Caltech will build new bridges between math, applied math, and computational science, and will shine a spotlight on the role that mathematical thinking plays across all our departments and options,” he says.

AIM, now housed in commercial space in San Jose, will be located on the eighth floor of Caltech Hall in the Institute’s new Richard Merkin Center for Pure and Applied Mathematics, a research center and conference space that has been established in connection with AIM’s move to Caltech, with support from Richard N. Merkin and the Merkin Family Foundation. The space, which is being renovated for use by AIM and to serve as a conference center for other Caltech divisions and departments, is slated for completion in early 2023.

Associated with the center will be three professorial appointments: the Richard N. Merkin Professor of Mathematical Finance, the Richard N. Merkin Distinguished Professor of Mathematics, and the Richard N. Merkin Distinguished Visiting Professor in Artificial Intelligence.

“Mathematical advances are the key to unlocking progress at the critical intersection of science and engineering,” said Merkin, a Caltech trustee and founder and chief executive officer of Heritage Provider Network. “I’m very excited to see what happens as people from different fields and backgrounds gather to brainstorm and bringing fresh mathematical approaches to difficult problems. AIM and Caltech are natural partners, both magnifying their impact, and bringing multiple perspectives to the forefront on important challenges.”

AIM is also well recognized for its educational outreach efforts and programs to support K–12 students and teachers. The institute’s core staff have helped establish and foster an extensive network of math teachers, students, and mathematicians around the country who regularly gather in groups, known as Math Circles, to promote mathematics education and training through math puzzles and problem solving. At Caltech, AIM will continue to grow its national outreach programs while also collaborating with Caltech’s Center for Teaching, Learning, and Outreach and with local educational partners to “support joyful and meaningful math education in the L.A. area,” says Brianna Donaldson, AIM’s director of special projects.

Fiona Harrison, the Kent and Joyce Kresa Leadership Chair of the Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy and Harold A. Rosen Professor of Physics, says, “I was really moved by the broad range of faculty who have engaged with the institute and with AIM’s potential to connect the fundamental mathematical underpinnings of many different scientific fields.”

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