Matemaatika ja statistika instituut

Vilistlasblogi | Jorn Baayen: Matemaatika, teadus ja energia

Jorn Baayen, Ph.D. on meie instituudi vilistlane, kes töötab suures rahvusvahelises energeetikafirmas. Ise peab ta ennast maailmakodanikuks, kellel on mitmekülgne haridustase, mitme keele oskus ning kirg matemaatika, avatud lähtekoodiga tarkvara ja energia ülemineku vastu. Jorn rõhutab intervjuus mitmesuguste matemaatiliste mõistete praktilist rakendamist ja julgustab üliõpilasi leidma kirge valitud valdkonnas. Ta peab teaduses oluliseks püsivust kui olulist edu saavutamise omadust ning soovitab valida valdkond, mis on kooskõlas oma huvi ja loomuliku kalduvusega.


Please tell us a bit about yourself. What are you doing for work, etc.

I consider myself a world citizen. I have studied in Estonia and the Netherlands, and taken a few courses in Canada too. Work has taken me all over the world. I speak Dutch (my mother tongue), German, French, English, Estonian (although very rusty by now), and I understand Persian. I’m father to two wonderful children. One of my passions is the small orchard we have at home, where we cultivate a variety of fruits and nuts. Professionally, I am passionate about mathematics, about open-source software, and about the energy transition. I work at Shell, where I am responsible for digital technology strategy pertaining to demand flexibility – more on that later.

What inspired you to become a mathematician and from then on, an optimisation specialist?

I started my career as a software engineer building graphical user interfaces. Within a few years I got bored of this and recognized that I could do more interesting work if I would have a more mathematical background. Back then, it was the linear algebra that underpins computer graphics that specifically pulled me towards studying mathematics. During my bachelor’s, I attended a course on classical, continuous-time optimal control theory. This resonated with me, and I decided to pursue optimal control – and optimization in general – further. 

Another source of inspiration has been family. My grandfather was a mathematician. He used to challenge me – since my childhood – with mathematical riddles and puzzles.

Many students often ask why they have to study one thing or another and whether they are ever going to use those things. How would you respond to those students if you were their math teacher?

I have used results from almost every subject that I studied during my university years, although perhaps with the exception of category theory (which I would have no doubt encountered if my career gone in a different direction). In addition to this, getting a broad perspective is important. When encountering real-life problems, a broad arsenal of concepts is prerequisite when it comes to the ability to formulate the appropriate abstract, mathematical representation.

What is it that you like best about mathematics? For example, has there been a situation or a problem that you found an ingenious solution to thanks to some theorems etc.

Mathematical concepts enable reasoning at a higher level of abstraction, and on this level the theorems enable leaps from one step to the next. Over the centuries, mathematicians have developed a vast collection of elegant (and useful) concepts that can be mined and combined to solve both theoretical and practical problems.

What are the qualities a scientist needs to be successful?

I would like to single out on quality in particular: perseverance. A scientist needs to be able to move the needle beyond the status quo, which is hard and increasingly competitive. A scientist needs to be tenacious in the pursuit of his or her goals.

In many fields there are so many different specialization paths a scientist could take, how would you encourage a young student to choose their field if there is an overwhelming amount of options?

Find a field that you are passionate about and that comes natural to you. If the field has practical applications, you will have more career options.

What does your typical day at Shell look like?

I live more than 200 kilometers from the nearest Shell office, and as such I tend to work from home. I am responsible for digital technology strategy in behind-the-meter flexibility across 3 continents, which makes time management especially important. Meetings with Australia tend to take place in the early morning, meetings with Europe during the day, and meetings with the Americas in the evening. I tend to split my week into “Australia days”, where I wake up early and end the day a bit earlier as well, and “Americas days”, where I start my day by bringing my kids to school and going to the gym, and end my day late. Every Friday I keep my calendar blocked for “hands-on” work, some of which is mathematical in nature. Remaining hands-on throughout my career has been essential to be able to develop and maintain a sound technology strategy. It is also the foundation for my ability to give effective steer to product and delivery teams.

What would you say is the hottest or most exciting topic in your work currently?

For me personally, my current remit, behind-the-meter flexibility, is very exciting. Traditionally, in the power sector, generation followed demand. Wind and solar, however, cannot always be ramped up to meet an increase in demand. Gas-fired power plants ramp up on demand above what solar and wind provide, but they do emit carbon (albeit much less than coal-fired plants). Demand flexibility is about a partial reversal of this paradigm. The idea is to let demand follow the availability of renewable electrons, by looking at forecasts and scheduling demand accordingly as much as possible. Much of this is underpinned by mathematical optimization.  

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