The shape of things to come: A new look at the Big Data revolution

Mathematical physicist, Jeff Murugan is obsessed with shapes and patterns. So much so that the deputy head of the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics and Head of the Laboratory for Quantum Gravity & Strings at UCT, believes that when we take shapes into account, we’ll start to see the universe in a completely new way.

And in a digital age so focused on extracting the right information from the right data to drive everything from business efficiencies to your video streaming recommendations, the arcane branch of mathematics quaintly referred to as Topology (the study of shapes) is fast becoming a hot topic of discussion.

Not your average mathematical physicist, Murugan has turned his attention and resources to the study of the shape of big data in data-space as a means of streamlining input into more traditional machine-learning algorithms.

Speaking at the Café Scientifique, a public science initiative that invites scientists to talk in laymen’s terms about their work, he brings a fresh perspective on how the world is changing on a fundamental level thanks to the explosion of data.

But why is Topology important at all?

“Topology, with its ability to assign numbers to complex things, is an invaluable tool to understand how information (both at the classical as well as quantum level) works. Using this idea, we can bring diverse sciences together in previously unimaginable ways to drive information processing in new and exciting ways,” he says.

Just imagine the possibilities when people can quantify shapes, take it back into the data space, and using the information to feed into a neural network to analyse. And while he admits that countries like the US and Canada have a lot more resources to throw at scientific problems, South Africa can focus on specific areas to innovate and lead in.

Naturally, one of these areas he believes should be in the application of topology to data science problems.

“The topological analysis of data is an area not many people are thinking about. Initiatives like Café Scientifique are key to show audiences how abstraction can sometimes lead to tremendous simplification.”

“We are entering the dawn of an era of information. And I for one cannot wait to see the shape of things to come,” he concludes.

Cafe Scientifique – a "science for the sociable" platform where UCT research is shared with members of the public is sponsored by leading international intellectual property (IP) law firm Spoor & Fisher.

This article was first publish on

Date published: 19 March 2019
Author: Spoor & Fisher