Geometry funding at a downward angle

by Peter Kauffner

The University’s Geometry Center specializes in techniques for visualizing abstract mathematical concepts. But more recently the center has found it necessary to visualize a future without federal funds.
While the focus of the center is on harnessing computer power to help researchers visualize and solve problems in geometry, the software developed there has found applications that range from education to 3-D movies. This software could prove key to the center’s survival after federal funds dry up.
The National Science Foundation announced last July that in August 1998 the center’s grant will expire. Earlier, officials at the center had expected that the grant would be renewed until 2001.
“There’s been a lot of pressure from the math community for math research money to be used more directly for math research,” said Mark Phillips, technical staff manager for the center. “What we do here is largely software development.”
The center currently receives about $2 million a year from the foundation’s Science and Technology Center program.
A negative report on the site made in 1993 may have played a role in the foundation’s decision to cut off funding, said Richard McGehee, the center’s director.
That report criticized the center for lack of financial accountability and for isolation from the larger scientific community.
Albert Marden, a professor of mathematics and the center’s director at the time, said that the foundation’s investigators might also have been influenced by unfavorable statements made about him by some University administrators.
“I fought very hard in the University for the resources over many years, like everybody. But I think I annoyed people, especially administrators,” Marden said.
When the center was founded in 1987 as the Geometry Supercomputer Project, it emphasized the use of supercomputers to solve problems in mathematics. As the computing speed of workstation computers increased, the center largely abandoned supercomputers in favor of the smaller, less expensive machines.
“The workstations now are more powerful than the supercomputers were when the project started,” McGehee said.
McGehee replaced Marden as director as a result of the National Science Foundation report.
Later foundation reports claimed that the center had made substantial progress in addressing the concerns expressed in the 1993 report. But the latest report, issued in February 1996, says that the changes made in the last three years have resulted in “a loss of focus on research.”
Whatever the reasons for it, the foundation’s decision to cut off funding appears to be final.
“There are other possible sources of funding in NSF, but my feeling is that this particular source of funding has come to an end,” said McGehee.
“The University might find a way to keep some of (the Geometry Center’s) activity going by folding it into existing programs,” said Donald Riley, associate vice president for information technology.
To help fill the funding gap, the center might begin licensing the software it has developed.
“Part of the original grant was that we were developing this stuff for everybody, so we just developed it and gave it away. But now the climate has changed quite a bit,” McGehee said.
One software package with commercial potential for the center is WebEQ, said McGehee. WebEQ is a program for displaying mathematic equations on the World Wide Web.
“We expect that later this spring we will release (WebEQ) to a broader group of people,” McGehee said.
The center’s flagship computer program is Geomview, an interactive 3-D graphics package. It was developed to help researchers visualize abstract mathematical concepts, such as a sphere turned inside out. But the program is now being used for a variety of other purposes as well.
“There’s a group at Indiana University that is using it to make 3-D movies of athletes. They can run the 3-D movie and the athlete or the coach can speed it up, slow it down, look at it from different angles, different perspectives,” said McGehee.
Geomview was also used by Martin Marietta, Inc., to design the fuel tanks of the Cassini orbiter, a spacecraft that in October will be launched on a mission to Saturn.
“The goal in this particular project was to come up with a fuel tank shape that had the property that as the fuel was sucked out of it that a vacuum bubble formed,” Phillips said. “The bubble would force the remaining fuel toward the outlet.”
The center has recently developed a spacecraft design program based on Geomview called Crafter. The program is currently being used at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Crafter is much easier to learn than traditional computer-aided design programs, although the designs produced are not as detailed.
Mathematics teaching material developed at the Geometry Center is currently being used in many public schools. The center has created videos, computer programs and model mathematics courses for use in K-12 education.
Despite the center’s current funding problems, administrators are confident that it will remain open.
“The University is preparing a new space for us in Lind Hall. It’s hard to imagine that they would let the place evaporate,” Phillips said.