“I speak Spanish, English, Italian, French, Portuguese, a little Yiddish,” Dr. Marco Centeno said, adding “but my main language is mathematics,” in his usual stately baritone.
At 63, Centeno, a mathematician who holds a PhD from Cornell, has developed a new set of theorems that, if valid, could hold the potential for various far-reaching applications.
Centeno’s field is computer algebra, which “is concerned with the development of methods for performing calculations in mathematics that are symbolic (or exact)” according to John Cannon, a computational algebra professor at the University of Sydney.
In simpler terms, computer algebraists come up with equations that take many factors for granted in order to process a lot of calculations in a very efficient way. On a practical level, computer algebra equations reveal the pattern of mathematics that governs all interactions; the same equation holds true for a rocket ship as for DNA replication.
“These theorems will be universal,” Centeno said. He has submitted them for publication in the Journal of the American Mathematical Society to come out in April 2015.
I contacted the AMS for verification that they are considering Centeno’s theorems, but they told me to “seek and receive the information from Centeno himself regarding whether he has submitted his paper for review and whether it has been accepted for publication.”
Mathematics in Unlikely Places
Centeno and his wife Juanita Darling, an International Relations professor at SFSU, have lived in the Excelsior for six years. I met Centeno in his garden on a sunny afternoon. With his curly grey hair, formidable goatee and a habit of gesticulating when speaking, he resembles a charismatic artist more than a buttoned-down mathematician.
But, according to Centeno, “math is art,” and he treats it that way.
Centeno often spends time in his garden, on an outdoor table by a redwood tree, drinking tall cans of Steel Reserve beer and pursuing his interests.
When searching for Centeno to get a follow-up interview for this story, I found him on a recent morning playing a piano in front of his friend Richard Ragazzone’s house on Lisbon Street, where they were holding an “impromptu open-air concerto.”
Ragazzone told me that Centeno came up with his new theorems following a conversation they had a few months ago. Ragazzone was concerned that Centeno was drinking too much and not making full use of his intellect. He notes that Centeno is looking better now that he has started working again.
Because he conceived of them in Richard’s back garden, in the heart of the neighborhood, Centeno is calling his latest works “The Excelsior Theorems.”
“This district has been neglected,” Centeno said, “but there are some intellectuals here. I love the Excelsior, and I want to put it on the map.”
If Centeno’s theorems are valid, that intention could be a real possibility, because they have the potential for applications in aeronautics, microbiology, cell biology and other sciences, according to Centeno.
“What happens is that, in my experience as a mathematician for years and years, I have known that theoretical mathematics goes into many sciences,” Centeno said. “My fourth theorem, the sum of the multiplicative of ideals, can be applied to explore how higher economics can be put into place through differential equations.”
Centeno has professional experience applying math to economics. “In New York, I worked on a [mathematical] model, Black-Scholes. Black was a physicist, and Scholes was an economist that ended up getting a Nobel prize over this model that predicted, through differential equations, the ups and downs of the stock market.”
Models like Black-Scholes predict how investments should be made for a stable, healthy market. Centeno opined that events like the 2008 crisis were precipitated by ersatz lending and little in-depth critical oversight. “What happens is that if the differential equation over an economical theory does not operate well, everybody suffers.”
Centeno’s wife, whom he slyly and accurately refers to as “Dr. Darling” provides a sounding board to discuss his work, but she has to keep him in check when his technical descriptions eclipse her expertise—and patience.
“Tom Stoppard had a play called ‘Hapgood’ in the eighties,” Darling said, explaining that the play concerned characters involved in international espionage and prone to discussions of quantum mechanics. The scientist character repeatedly asks “Do you understand?” to which a non-scientist character responds in the negative.
“Whenever Marco gets too technical, I just say ‘Hapgood!’” Darling said, open palms waving.
The Universal Idea
Like his wife, Centeno has made a living as a teacher, and he is passionate about math education. He has taught mathematics most recently at CSU Monterey Bay, and he has provided tutoring to high school and college students frustrated by conventional math instruction.
“I could teach high school kids with books that are no more than $5 a book, and teach them real math,” Centeno said. He expressed disappointment in unqualified educators, an emphasis on memorization, and the monetization of instruction materials like textbooks.
Instead, Centeno believes that a positive math education experience should impart “math thinking,” or an understanding of why and how equations work, to the point that students could comfortably write their own equations and explain their logic.
“In this country, people do not respect math as it should be respected,” Centeno said. Indeed, mathematics on a theoretical level is something to be respected, given that the same set of theorems can be applied to explain the mechanics of something as big as an airplane to the smallest chemical reactions within living cells, not to mention human-made systems like economies.
But with theoretical math, there is always the implicit ethical consideration: war technology.
Like many high-level mathematicians, Centeno has drawn paychecks from the Department of Defense during his career, specifically during his time at Cornell.
“This is one of the biggest criticisms of mathematics, that it can be used to destroy as easily it can be used to build,” Centeno said. “If somebody decides to pick up one of my theorems and design a weapon, there’s nothing I can do about it.”
What motivates Centeno to pursue publication is universality. By February, he should know whether the American Mathematical Society has accepted his new work for publication in their quarterly journal, at which point engineers and scientists could start developing applications based on Centeno’s math.
“The theorems are universal,” he said, “anybody can use them. That’s the idea, the whole philosophical idea.”