Meet the Researchers

Nicholas Higham

Photo of Nick Higham

Research Area: Numerical Analysis

What is it like being a researcher?

Research is about making new discoveries and it’s very satisfying when you find something that no one else has spotted before, such as a new theorem or a faster or more accurate algorithm for solving a computational problem.

What is the best thing about being a researcher/your job?

I get to do mathematics, write about it, give lectures and seminars, write computer programs, and travel to conferences all around the world.  These all expand to fill the available time, including evenings and weekends, but life is never boring.

What do you do in your free time?

Photography, though unlike in the old days with film, more time is spent selecting, processing, and cataloguing the photos than taking them, so a good workflow is essential.  Digital photography involves a lot of mathematics. Indeed much material in an undergraduate mathematics degree can be illustrated through concepts such as Jpeg compression, representation of colour, conversion of raw images, and cloning and healing to remove imperfections.

What is the first ‘science’ you remember doing?

At the age of about 8, making a database by creating cards with holes corresponding to particular features (as I was interested in ornithology, each card may have represented a bird and key points used to identify it).  All the items with a given set of features are retrieved by lining up all the cards and putting knitting needles through the relevant holes; the unwanted cards fall away and the desired ones are left, supported by the needles.

What’s the funniest/strangest/most surprising experience you have had in your career?

Once I was giving a talk at a conference and the computer kept advancing to the next slide before I was ready, without me pressing a key.  I was using someone else’s computer and their copy of Adobe Reader had been set to advance to the next slide automatically every 30 seconds.  Fortunately, I realized what was happening a few minutes into the talk.

What discovery or invention could you not live without?

TeX, the open source mathematical typesetting system that I use for producing all my papers, books and slides.  And Emacs, the open source text editor that I use to prepare TeX (and many other) files.