March 11, 2005

Prof Explains Math of Heart

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Prof. Charles S. Peskin, mathematics, New York University lectured Wednesday night on mathematical modeling and the human heart in Rockefeller Hall. The lecture was the fourth and final talk given by Peskin during his two-week visit to Cornell as A.D. White Professor-at-Large.

Peskin began the lecture, entitled “Muscle and Blood: Secrets of the Heart Revealed by Mathematical Modeling and Computer Simulation,” with relatively simple math, teaching the audience how mathematical equations can explain key concepts in the structure and function of the heart.

Before birth, the fetal heart receives oxygenated blood through the placenta. The ductus arteriosus and foramen ovale allow fetal bloodflow to bypass the lungs. After birth, oxygenated blood travels from the lungs to the heart, where it is pumped to the rest of the body.

“The question is, how can we understand the changes that happen at birth,” Peskin said. Peskin said that, “before birth, the two sides of the heart are balanced. That’s something that changes after birth.” He introduced an algebraic equation that explains why both the foramen ovale and the ductus arteriosus are necessary to maintain the balance between the right and left halves of the heart before birth.

Peskin then said that he “used more advanced mathematics to describe the fluid mechanics of the heart.” Peskin used a computer to calculate the force that the heart’s muscle fibers exert on the fluids they pump out. In the past, researchers have used magnetic resonance imaging and experimented on animals to learn more about these muscle fibers.

The one-and-a-half heartbeat simulation Peskin presented took about one week of “CPU time” to create. Peskin joked that using 16 processors, he “can do it in about a day, but I can’t do it in a heartbeat.”

“I thought it was interesting how you can start with simple equations that are algebraic and evolve into something that is very complex,” said Matt Bertenthal ’06.

A selection committee evaluates all nominees for A.D. White professorships and the appointments are approved by the Board of Trustees.

According to the A.D. White Professor-at-Large website, “Nominees should be at the apex of their own fields and professions, but the selection committee also seeks evidence of broad intellectual appeal across disciplines and fields of study, particularly for undergraduates.” Peskin is “one of the real leaders at the interface between mathematics and life sciences,” said Prof. John Guckenheimer, mathematics, who was involved in nominating Peskin for the professorship.

Guckenheimer is the director of the Integrative Graduation Education and Research Traineeship program at Cornell. Guckenheimer said that the “IGERT program encourages students to do research that crosses interdisciplinary boundaries, and this is as good an example as you can get of this kind of work.”

“I thought Charlie would be particularly appropriate to augment that part of the program,” he said.

Students were also impressed with Peskin’s syncretic approach.

“I thought it was a very good talk, a good connection between physics and biology,” said Faisal Ahmad grad. “To apply all these equations to the heart is amazing.”

Archived article by Josh Goldman
Sun Contributor