Kinetic discoveries

For mathematician and musician Isabelle Tristani, understanding what triggers an avalanche and playing a sonata are two sides of the same coin - analysing and explaining. Isabelle Tristani, an Ecole Normale Supérieure graduate, carries out her thesis on research problems related to the kinetic theory of gases at Université Paris-Dauphine’s Center for Research in Decision Mathematics. The equations she is currently working on are of major importance to applied fields such as plasma physics, noble gases, and granular media (understanding what causes silo explosions and avalanches).

Could you tell us a little bit about your research?

My research seeks to gain a mathematical understanding of equations from the kinetic theory of gases. The equations in my work are very useful in the study of granular materials and how they behave when agitated (e.g. avalanches or the formation of planets), as well as in plasma physics. Plasma is a state of matter that is both very widespread in the universe (stars are made of plasma) and commonly used by humans (televisions, nuclear fusion, etc.). Achieving a mathematical understanding of these equations enables us to better comprehend related physical phenomena, such as long-term changes in the density of the particles described by them.

In your opinion, what are the greatest things that science can achieve?

For me, science can accomplish many things in a practical way (for instance, improving our everyday life without damaging our environment) and in a more profound way (advances in the treatment of diseases).

What part of your work as a mathematician do you find particularly satisfying?

I love the freedom that I have, both in terms of choosing topics to investigate and managing my work from a practical standpoint. I love the feeling of completing a long project.

In your opinion, what are the essential traits of a scientist?

Intuition and its counterpart, creativity, play a fundamental role in science, more specifically in the process of asking questions and discovering new problems to tackle. It’s important to “ask the right questions”, but creativity is also crucial to more practical aspects of research – you have to be inventive in the techniques you use to approach problems.

Isabelle Tristani received a L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship in 2014.

For Women in Science

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