Professor of industrial mathematics popularises science - 10,000 views on YouTube and an award from the university

26.3.2018
Samuli Siltanen, professor of industrial mathematics and this year’s J. V. Snellman Award winner, enjoys performing for his audience.

There are many ways to bring science to the public, and the University of Helsinki awards its researchers for their efforts to do so with the annual J. V. Snellman Award. Professor Samuli Siltanen, who has won this year’s award for popularising scientific research, is known as a charismatic performer who often tours schools to talk about mathematics.

“My best audience is definitely in the schools, particularly when there are both upper- and lower-secondary school pupils in the room. Those are the events where they ask the best and most difficult questions,” he explains.

How is it possible that Siri or navigators can talk to us – this is the kind of question Siltanen may tackle in class. He may then discuss good and bad machine speech with the help of one of his latest videos. At the same time he’s really talking about voice synthesis and inverse filtering technology, since the generation of speech by a computer programme has required decades of research in inversion mathematics as well as the division of the vocal sounds into two parts: vocal cord stimulation and vocal tract filtration.

YouTube is a favourite in disseminating research information to the public

To Siltanen, the best way to present science is through live performance, as it allows for interaction with others. His second favourite option is video. Siltanen’s YouTube channel, Samun tiedekanava, recently broke 10,000 views after one year online.

This delights Siltanen, whose work centres on the visualisation of information.

“In my own field, the mathematics of medical imaging, finding a visual approach is fairly easy, but it’s usually not too difficult to do for other fields of mathematics either. I can’t use formulas, which is of course terrifying to a mathematician,” he says.

“On the other hand, it’s not like musicians perform by holding up sheet music – they just play. That’s the real music.”

Scientific information is reliable

When asked why science communication is necessary, he returns to the fundamentals: Research uses up a great deal of public funding, and for that reason alone, tax payers have a right to hear about its results in a way that they can understand.

“Since humanity has laboured so much to produce the scientific method to find things out, everyone should be aware of it. The scientific method is the most effective and reliable way of generating information. Particularly during our ‘post-truth’ era, it’s good to remember that scientific information is the most reliable information we have.”

He also points out that making scientific phenomena approachable also attracts new scientists to the field. That is also important!

Watch and read more:
Samun tiedekanava on YouTube
Test your tomography skills on the Yle website (link in Finnish).
In 2015, Samuli Siltanen won the Science Slam Helsinki science communication competition.
He also received the Scientific Conference Power Player Award in 2015.
Samuli Siltanen on Tuhat website.

Contact details:
Samuli Siltanen, Professor, Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Science, samuli.siltanen@helsinki.fi, @SamuliSiltanen, 029 415 1420, www.siltanen-research.net