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Last Updated: Friday, 18 July, 2003, 10:33 GMT 11:33 UK
Maths-mad surfer's quest for perfect wave

By Phil Mercer
BBC, Sydney

A professor in Australia has embarked on an algebraic quest to help surfers find the perfect wave.

Neville de Mestre, from Bond University in Queensland, has told the International Congress on Industrial and Applied Mathematics in Sydney that the secrets of the surf could be unlocked by a series of calculations.

Neville de Mestre
Professor de Mestre says maths gives him an edge in competitions

"It involves lots of fluid mechanics, turbulence equations and a concept called vorticity or rotation,' he explained to BBC News Online.

He admitted it was all "quite intricate" and would take perseverance to understand.

For surfers and body surfers, conquering the ocean is an art form. Professor De Mestre wants to make it more of science, to make it safer and more fun.

"The practical application for me is the timing of catching a wave. Most people can't catch a wave because they don't know when to launch themselves," he said.

"We should put down a theory in quantitative form so that people will know which wave to look for."

The professor has been a volunteer surf life-saver for more than 50 years.

This Australian society [is] overcome with sport, we need to devote a little bit more time to science and culture
Professor Neville de Mestre

He said that mathematics had given him a decisive edge in many surf competitions.

"I've been using various theorems - like Pythagoras - which I can use by standing on a beach before a surf race to decide which route I'll take. It's like an operations research problem.

"If I go straight out, I go through all the waves - that uses up a lot of energy. If I run 50 or 100 metres down the beach I might be able to jump into a rip current and get an escalator trip beyond the waves, not use up much energy but perhaps travel a little further," he said.

Joy of maths

The conference in Sydney has attracted 1,700 delegates from around the world.

The President of the International Council for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, Professor Olavi Nevanlinna, said it was a celebration of their craft.

"Mathematics is a wonderful and unique blend of disparate concepts: depth, playfulness, beauty and utility," he said.

But explaining the joys of mathematics beyond the conference walls is not easy.

"Their eyes do tend to glaze over," Professor de Mestre lamented of the wet-suited army perched on their boards beyond the breakers at Bronte beach in Sydney.

Tony, a veteran board rider, said experience - not mathematics - was the key to success.

"You can sit here and watch the ocean and figure out where the rip (current) is. You need to understand it but when you're out there catching waves - after you've done it for a while - it's the feel you have for it," he said, looking out over the winter swell being pumped in from the Pacific.

You come down to the beach to get away from teachers and things like that
"No amount of science will tell you when to get on at the right time," he said.

Thirteen-year-old Susy and her friends reacted with horror at the thought of mathematics invading the school-free zone of the surf.

"You come down to the beach to get away from teachers and things like that," Susy explained.

"You don't really want to sit there worrying about the maths of the waves. You just want to go in and get the wave," she said.

As for Professor De Mestre, he accepts it will take time for his ideas to sink in.

"That's one of the shortcomings of this Australian society - that we're overcome with sport and we need to devote a little bit more time to science and culture," he said.

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