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James Keener

James Keener

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Frontiers of Science Lecture

Heart Attacks Can Give You Mathematics

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Lecturer: James P. Keener, distinguished professor of mathematics, University of Utah
Date: Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2006
Time: 7:30 p.m.
Place: Aline Wilmot Skaggs Biology Building Auditorium, University of Utah


The biological sciences are advancing almost explosively on many fronts, and a number of commentators have already declared this "The Century of Biology." The reasons for this rapid progress are diverse, but in many areas, new techniques made possible by genetic engineering play a central role, often in concert with powerful new instruments for making images at the cellular, molecular and atomic scales, or for detecting tiny amounts of particular substances. Another factor, less widely appreciated, is the rapidly increasing use of mathematical tools and reasoning to elucidate the workings of biological systems.

For example, the study of abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias) and heart attacks is greatly influenced by mathematics. Cardiovascular disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States. Heart attacks can be fatal when there is a subsequent disruption of the normal electrical signal of the heart, leading to fibrillation, which is rapid, uncontrolled twitching that replaces the heart's normal pumping. Why this occurs is not fully understood, and there are no reliable predictors for the onset of fibrillation.

James Keener, a University of Utah distinguished professor of mathematics, will show how mathematical tools and techniques have improved our understanding of cardiac arrhythmias: what they are, how they occur and how they might be prevented. He will explain the ways in which mathematics can be used to give insight and understanding that cannot be obtained by non-mathematical means.

For example, the most effective treatment of fibrillation is with defibrillator devices that are surgically implanted into patients. The design and use of these devices has been made possible because of mathematical developments that allow the instrument to record an arrhythmia, and then apply the correct electrical impulse at the correct time to restore a normal heart rhythm.

Keener received his Ph.D. in mathematics from the California Institute of Technology in 1972. He began his career at the University of Utah in 1978, and attained the rank of professor in 1982 and distinguished professor in 2004. His research focuses on the application of mathematics to biological problems. He has written two textbooks - "Principles of Applied Mathematics" and "Mathematical Physiology" – that are used throughout the United States and around the world. “Mathematical Physiology” was named the Best New Title in Mathematics in 1998 by the Association of American Publishers. It was translated into Japanese and is used extensively in Japan.

The Frontiers of Science lecture series was established in 1967 by Peter Gibbs, a professor of physics. Frontiers of Science will celebrate its 40th year in 2007, making it the longest-running lecture series in University of Utah history. The series is now co-sponsored by the College of Science and the College of Mines and Earth Sciences. Keener's talk is the first of four to be presented during the 2006-2007 academic year.


University of Utah College of Science
1430 E. Presidents Circle, Room 220
Salt Lake City, Utah 84112-0140
(801) 581-6958 fax: (801) 585-3169

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James DeGooyer
public relations specialist, University of Utah College of Science
Office phone: (801) 581-3124
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James P. Keener
distinguished professor of mathematics, University of Utah
Office phone: 801-581-6089
Email address:
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