Vladimir Rokhlin Wins Benter Prize: New algorithms compute net force on an object

Professor Vladimir Rokhlin gives a lecture following the William Benter Prize Award Ceremony. Image courtesy of CityU News Centre.

For years, the problem of calculating the net force on an object has baffled scientists — and computers. The computation involves millions of unknown variables. However, Vladimir Rokhlin, professor of computer science, has developed a new series of algorithms to solve this problem. The Fast Multipole Method (FMM) won Rokhlin the 2014 William Benter Prize.

Rokhlin received the $100,000 award from donor William Benter at the opening ceremony of the 2014 International Conference on Applied Mathematics in Hong Kong. The Benter committee awards the prize to one exceptional mathematician every two years. According to the Benter Prize website, the award “recognizes outstanding mathematical contributions that have had a direct and fundamental impact on scientific, business, finance, and engineering applications.”

FMM relies on a combination of algorithms to solve this fundamental question of collective applied force. The method allows scientists and mathematicians to complete this calculation with unprecedented accuracy, and thus has applications in many fields, including electromagnetics, computer-aided drug design, astronomy, and cell phone modeling. The American Institute for Physics named FMM one of the top 10 algorithms of the 20th century.

Rokhlin emphasized that a unique approach to the problem was the key to his success: “I was in no means the first to come up with the idea of FMM. However, many wrongly thought that the trick was to do one problem. We viewed it as an approach using several algorithms; that’s what made all the difference.”