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ERC grant for Jan Vonk: 'Mathematics is the most powerful language to describe our universe'

On 22 November, Leiden scientist Jan Vonk received an ERC starting grant for his research on the building blocks of mathematics. This grant is not his first this year: in fact, this July Vonk also received a Vidi from NWO. Four questions to the scientist who got two grants this year.

What research will you be doing with this grant?

'I will be looking for general 'singular moduli'. This is quite an abstract concept that predicts a sort of bridge between different mathematical disciplines like geometry and numbers theory. Such a collaboration can often lead to surprising new insights.

Last August, for instance, scientists used mathematical research from the 19th century on this topic to crack a modern cryptosystem. This caused a global shockwave because people thought the system would be unbreakable, even using quantum computers. With my project, I want to contribute to the search for singular moduli, a search that has brought us so many powerful insights over the centuries.'

We all use the field in which I work on a daily basis

How important is this grant to you?

'This grant means a lot to me. It gives me the opportunity to bring together a group of researchers to work on the project. Mathematics can be a bit of an outlier in scientific research. In this case because the material costs of mathematical research are not that high.

That’s why we mainly invest in personnel, which means putting together the right team is key. This project, for example, requires a unique combination: energetic young researchers with expertise in areas we don't often combine.'

What is the societal relevance of your research?

'Mathematics is one of the most powerful tools for describing the world. It is a language that describes our universe in a fundamental way. Its applicability comes mainly from the fact that mathematics is so abstract and timeless.

As a result, fundamental research in mathematics often doesn’t have a single specific societal application but can remain relevant forever. The applicability of mathematics can keep changing constantly, depending on what society needs.

Most of us probably don't think about it, but we are all making use of the field I work in every day. Think about what happens behind the scenes when you check your e-mail for example, or what happens when you make an online payment.'

Two big grants in a year, how will you combine them?

'Personally, I am super excited about the new approach I want to apply in this project, and I am of course delighted that both NWO and ERC want to support me to implement these ideas. While applying, I certainly did not assume that I would be awarded both grants. So, we have to take a close look at how to do this in a practical sense. In any case, I am very much looking forward to it! I am enormously grateful to both the NWO and ERC for these opportunities.'

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