Math, artistry merged

Researcher helps Volvo design cars


"The human eye is the single most important factor in making a choice. all the car designers are extraordinarily conscious about it." — Dr. Björn Dahlberg

Volkswagen might have its Fahrvergnugen, but Volvo can counter the advertising blitzkrieg with something it could be excused for calling Dahlbergmatics.

Dr. Björn Dahlberg is a mathematician who isn't just interested in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. His life's work is employing more complex mathematical theories to solve problems such as how to make an automobile more visually appeal ing, acoustically perfect and easy to manufacture.

In a joint venture with Volvo Corp., Dahlberg used his math skills to create a computer software program the Swedish carmaker follows to design its automobiles in a fraction of the time it used to take. A new roof line and rear-end design in next year's models is the product of his research, he said.

The 40-year-old Swede will be trying to build on that kind of success from a new home base - the University of South Carolina, where he has recently signed on as a parttime research professor.

At USC, he'll be reunited with his friend, countryman and admirer, DrBjörn Jawerth, who calls Dahlberg one of the "world's most famous" mathematicians.

Dahlberg will be working with Jawerth and fellow researchers Dr. Ronald DeVore and Dr. Robert Sharpley, all of whom are involved with an "industrial mathematics (initiative) ... devoted to development of mathematical methods for solving problems arising in industry."

Simply put, they are trying to figure out new ways to apply mindboggling math theories in the business world using computer programming as a shortcut.

The research team is working with Southwestern Bell on a project experimenting with transmitting video signals via telephone lines. The U.S. Department of Defense has given the mathematicians a grant to try to develop improved radar detection devices.

It is that kind of corporate and government support that brought Dahlberg to the United States seven years ago.

"In this country, so much of the research is driven by military needs," Dahlberg said. "We don't have that back home."

"Back home" for Dahlberg is Gothenberg, an industrial seaport in western Sweden he calls "the Swedish San Francisco." His wife, a high school chemistry and math teacher, and two daughters, ages 16 and 11, remain there. Dahlberg said he plans to split his time between the two countries.

His first six-month stint at USC will begin in November, and at some point, he said, he'd also like to teach a graduate seminar.

Dahlberg, who likes to cook and dine on Italian food for relaxation, said he realized at age 12 he would make mathematics his life's work. He earned his doctorate from the University of Gothenberg at 21, the youngest person to do so, according to his colleague, Jawerth.

Early on, he decided he would apply his talent in math "to work on optical design problems" such as those posed by automobile manufacturers.

While in Sweden, Dahlberg said, he'll be able to use computers to do his research and keep in touch with DeVore, Sharpley and Jawerth, a permanent U.S. resident

Dahlberg said USC's commitment to modern computer equipment and research lured him to Columbia from Washington University in St. Louis, one of three American universities where he has worked since 1983.

Dr. Paul G. Huray, USC's senior vice president for research, told colleagues last month, "He brings a new dimension to our research efforts."

"I'm excited about coming here," Dahlberg said. "I want to work with the people here. It's a unique opportunity for myself. Hopefully, the university sees it the same way."

The math problem solution that Dahlberg and colleagues came up with for Volvo works this way: A photograph is taken of an automobile. A computer program using a math formula - sort of a shortcut the researchers worked out is able to analyze an immense amount of information in that photo that an ordinary computer would normally be unable to handle.

The information is then used by engineers who must calibrate the assembly-line machinery used to manufacture the automobile. Dahlberg describes it as "extracting data" and "synthesizing it into manageable components." His math formula shortcut and computer software approach to designing an esthetically pleasing car bypasses the need to use a costly supercomputer.

Traditionally, car manufacturers have relied on artistic designers usually using clay - to create the look for an automobile, and engineers would then have to figure out a way to set up machinery to manufacture the model. It can he a costly, trial-and-error method.

Dahlberg said the software system he helped develop reduces the time and cost of finding a compromise between artist, who is concerned with the car's visual beauty, and the engineer, who has more practical concerns.

"All I want to do is make the software that makes a bridge between those two viewpoints," he said.

"Anyone can make a dependable automobile. It has to sell.

"The human eye is the single most important factor in making a choice," he said. "All the car designers are extraordinarily conscious about it."