Duke Professor Wins One of the Most Prestigious Awards in Mathematics

Ingrid Daubechies is the James B. Duke Professor of Mathematics and Electrical and Computer Engineering at Duke University.

Born in a small coal mining town in Belgium, Daubechies got her start in research doing physics, not math.

It was after earning a bachelor’s degree in theoretical physics and then a Ph.D. in quantum mechanics, both from the Free University of Brussels, that she got involved in applications of math beyond physics. She was particularly interested in using a mathematical technique called the Fourier transformation, which breaks down complicated signals that vary in time or space, such as sound waves or images, into simpler building blocks.

After earning her doctorate in 1980, she became one of the world’s leading authorities on wavelet theory, a refinement of the Fourier technique frequently used to shrink digital photos and movies so that they take up fewer kilobytes without noticeably losing detail.

Digital images are composed of millions of tiny colored dots, or pixels, arranged on a grid. Each pixel is a single color or grey value represented by numbers. This is where math comes in. Compression with Daubechies’ wavelets computes averages and differences for the numbers in each row and column to construct a new grid that is more compact.

In the mid-1990s, her work on wavelets was adopted by the FBI to squeeze down their hundreds of millions of fingerprints to make them easier to transmit and store.

Any time you go to a movie theater, or watch live sports on ESPN, each frame has been compressed using Daubechies’ wavelet-based method -- the latter use she discovered while watching a soccer game on TV with her husband. “It was the artifacts in the grass,” she said.

Daubechies has also used wavelets to help geologists analyze the wiggly lines on seismograms from huge earthquakes and reconstruct what lies below the Earth’s crust, and to help neuroscientists read MRI images of brain activity.

In 2007, researchers affiliated with the Van Gogh and Kröller-Müller Museums in The Netherlands challenged Daubechies and other scholars to use their image processing techniques to analyze more than 100 high-resolution scans of paintings, mostly by Vincent van Gogh.

Using wavelets and machine learning to identify subtle differences in brush strokes, Daubechies and her team were able to distinguish copies or forgeries from true van Goghs.

Thus began an ongoing collaboration between mathematicians, computer scientists, museum curators and art historians. Their algorithms are now being used to compare artists’ styles, pinpoint when something was painted, even mathematically restore artwork that has cracked, faded, or been reduced to rubble by wartime bombing -- all without laying a finger on the actual art.

Daubechies held positions at Bell Laboratories, the University of Michigan, Rutgers University and Princeton University before joining the Duke faculty in 2011.

She was one of eight scientists and artists who received Wolf Awards in a ceremony hosted by Israeli President Isaac Herzog in the Knesset in Jerusalem on Tuesday, Feb. 7.

Past recipients of the prize include astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, artist Marc Chagall, architect Frank Gehry, geographer Jared Diamond and musician Paul McCartney.