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Pushing math to the limit

You may not have taken a math class for many years, but you probably remember the equation “y = mx + b.” If pressed, you could probably recall the quadratic equation. And you might know that the square root of negative one is an imaginary number.

For most of the adult population — including scholars with advanced degrees — algebra exists in the deep recesses of the mind. It might reveal itself at the supermarket or the gas station, a tool used by the moderately mathematically inclined to figure out the best deal on chips and salsa for the Super Bowl party or the right time to fuel up before a road trip.

Northeastern mathematics professor Jerzy Weyman doesn’t do that kind of algebra.

Instead, he focuses his attention on one of the furthest reaches of mathematics called algebraic cobordism theory. Cobordism explores a variety of higher-dimensional objects, pushing math’s limits far beyond our perception or understanding of the physical world.

Weyman is currently in Essen, Germany, where he is conducting mathematical research with Marc Levine, a former Northeastern colleague and current faculty member at the Universität Duisburg-Essen. Levine sponsored Weyman’s application to become a Humboldt fellow and is hosting his 12-month stay in Germany, which will be spread over the next three summers.

The prestigious award is sponsored by the German government and the Alexander van Humboldt Foundation to bring talented foreign scholars to the country’s top universities and research institutions.

“This gives me the freedom to study a wide range of topics without all the distractions that come from being on campus,” Weyman said. “So now I can focus on my students during the academic year and use the summers to truly focus on my research.”