PULLMAN — Although Kevin R. Vixie is a mathematician who works just two doors down the hallway from me, his work is a world away from mine.
I do easy stuff with rocks and words. Prof Vixie spends his days immersed in truly complicated equations.
One part of the abstract and difficult mathematics that Vixie is immersed each day can help computers recognize faces — such as those of people passing through the security areas of an airport. That practical application helps me feel I have a hold on what he is doing with his otherwise impenetrable equations.
The path Vixie and colleagues are following in their branch of mathematics is just the current twist of the journey that’s taken him from some tough times to a very interesting point in professional life at Washington State University and beyond. And his life gives me hope for students and creative people everywhere, including those who don’t necessarily fit in with the crowd too easily.
Vixie was home-schooled from the eighth grade onward. His family lived in rural New Mexico at the time, and he was free to “wander in the desert and become quite obsessive about playing the violin,” as he puts it.
That background, he said, helped him stay focused and free to learn. Most 8-year-olds, both he and I agree, are naturally full of that internal freedom. All too many 18-year-olds, for whatever reason, have lost touch with it.
But life deals some very tough knocks to even the young and gifted. The death of both of Vixie’s parents while he was young was a blow that took years to absorb. After college, Vixie spent considerable time in quite a diversity of pursuits.
“I did the living-in-a-cabin-in-the-woods thing in Oregon, and taught grade school for a year, and ran a lab in a medical school,” he said with a laugh.
Eventually, Vixie returned to graduate-level mathematics and blossomed there. That path led him to Los Alamos National Laboratory for intense study. While there, he began to focus on the branch of mathematics that makes image-analysis possible.
Vixie put up some of the basic equations from his field on the chalkboard in my office recently. (I’m pleased to report I have a real chalkboard in my office, one with chalk — a natural rock — available for writing whenever the mood strikes. But I digress.)
His equations don’t seem nearly so clear to me today as when he was helpfully explaining them bit by bit. But here’s one humble way I’ve thought of explaining a splinter of how abstract mathematics can help with practical matters like face-recognition.
Back in high school, your math teachers had you graph lines and sweat a bit over the equations that describe them. (The field of algebra can fully describe a straight line. Score one for the Arabs who invented it.)
To a mathematician, the image of a face cannot be fully described by equations. But it can be approximated by them. And approximations can be good enough. (Score one for Vixie and his colleagues.)
The name-of-the-game in face recognition is to improve the approximations. The face-recognition business depends on both abstract math and on computer programming. Both parts of the biz are getting better over time. With enough computing power and a high-quality videotape, faces of folks at security gates can now be meaningfully compared to digital photos stored in data banks.
The choice to do so or not, of course, is up to us as citizens in a democracy, Vixie said.
“But even if we don’t choose to do more surveillance,” Vixie said, “there are other applications for the same types of mathematics.”
Not many people can do highly technical work as Vixie. But he is adamant we all can do something well. He found a new start in mathematics at an older age than most, and he believes bright students who may struggle greatly for a time can come roaring back — even in what many of us consider difficult arenas.
Vixie’s outlook renews my hope for kids soon to plunge into the new school year — and for us old biddies, too.