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Mathematics Of Planet Earth 2013 Essay

2013 is the year of Mathematics of Planet Earth. This international initiative is being run by mathematics research organizations and institutes in the United States and Canada, with the support of UNESCO, the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the International Mathematical Union (IMU).Over these months the program has sought to demonstrate the essential role that mathematical sciences must play as we tackle the challenges facing our planet. Every phenomena on Earth is subject to mathematics, which is the only language we can use to describe them. Moreover, mankind must factor mathematics into any approach it takes to addressing said challenges. Climate change, protecting biodiversity, tackling pollution, controlling epidemics, ocean sustainability, averting natural disasters (volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis) and manmade disasters (fires) are all subject to equations. In short, the sustainability of planet Earth depends on mathematical science.

The Earth is subject to constant change: its interior mantle, terrestrial crust, atmosphere and the life that it sustains are all subject to dynamic processes. Describing these processes requires mathematical models, most of which are enormously complex. Developing models that come ever closer to recreating real processes allows us to understand the processes better, meaning we can anticipatethem, controlthem, and alleviate their potential effects.

Mathematics not only helps us to understand natural phenomena, it also allows us to sustain the majority of human activity on the planet. Transport networks, the Internet and business transactions are all practical applications of research, graph theory and number theory.

As we have seen, mathematics is essential for many knowledge areas concerning our planet. The Mathematics of Planet Earth project, which will be repeated in successive years due to the importance of the message and the strong public response it has garnered, has four major themes:

  • A planet to discover, focusing on oceans; meteorology and climate; mantle processes, natural resources and solar systems.
  • A planet supporting life, covering issues such as ecology, biodiversity and evolution.
  • A planet organized by humans, looking at political, economic, social and financial systems; organization of transport and communications networks; management of resources; and energy.
  • A planet at risk, covering climate change, sustainable development, epidemics; invasive species and natural disasters.

These four topics will keep researchers busy for decades, not just one year. But we must make a start now. It is in these critical years that our society is gambling with the planet’s sustainability, and mathematics is at the heart of the issue. The initiative has determined three key challenges:

  • Promoting mathematicalresearch in order to identify the major problems facing the planet and their solutions.
  • Encouraging teachers at all levels of education to raise awareness of the key issues.
  • Informing the general public of the essential role that mathematics has to play.

This year, hundreds of events have been organized all over the world, all focusing on these core issues, including school courses, congresses, conferences, publications, competitions and many more. The program’s website features all the activities that have been run and the materials that have been generated over the year.

Soon the organizers will take stock and try to evaluate whether the program has been a success. The main aim of the initiative is to emphasize the role of mathematics, but nor does it overlook the other sciences, because the problems that we face demand a multidisciplinaryapproach. It is also important to assess whether the message has be conveyed to the public, and whether confidence in the precision of mathematics has helped to raise awareness of the grave situation facing humanity. We will see in a just a few months.

 

Manuel de León

(CSIC, Royal Academy of Sciences, Academy of Sciences of the Canary Islands) Research Professor at the CSIC and Member of the Executive Committee of the IMU.

By Evelyn Lamb, Scientific American:
(click here for original article.)

What do polar ice caps, guinea worm disease and wildfires have in common? All are being modeled with cutting-edge mathematics. Mathematical societies and institutes around the world are participating in "Mathematics of Planet Earth," or MPE, this year. They aim to study the math that underpins geologic and biological processes on our planet as well as encourage more math researchers to tackle these problems. Events are planned for the year 2013, but the organizers hope that the initiative will have lasting effects.

MPE is the brainchild of Christiane Rousseau, past president of the Canadian Mathematical Society. She had the idea several years ago of uniting mathematicians from across the globe to study problems ranging from climate change and sustainability to earthquake prediction and disease pandemics. It was a lofty goal but it resonated within the community and took off. Just one week elapsed, she says, from the time she conceived the notion to when “all the North American research institutes” came onboard. Enthusiasm spread from North America overseas, and now MPE partners include societies all over the world, including schools and centers in Europe, Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa.

Climate change is the poster child for MPE. Mathematicians routinely travel to Antarctica to study polar ice; they are working on figuring out how quickly Earth is warming, what crops will be most affected by climate change and where the tipping points are if we want to try to mitigate damage. But even before questions of the climate and sustainability became paramount, Rousseau says, mathematics was, and still is, vital for discovering many aspects of the planet itself: Ancient scientists determined that the world was a sphere by observing the angle of the sun at different points on the planet. In the 1930s Danish seismologist Inge Lehmann used mathematics to determine that Earth is not molten liquid throughout, but has a solid core. "You cannot see what's inside the Earth with your eyes," Rousseau says. "I like to tell students, 'you put your mathematical glasses on, and then you understand.'"

Some mathematicians themselves don't realize that all of this modeling actually uses novel techniques. Barry Cipra, a freelance mathematics writer, says, "Within the mathematics community there can be the view that these are differential equations that were worked out hundreds of years ago," but in reality the models aren't all "off-the-shelf." Real ingenuity and new ideas are needed to develop them. One goal of MPE is to convince more mathematicians that climate change and other planetary problems are not only important but also interesting. "That's what the mathematicians like when they choose a problem," Rousseau says.

Other goals of the MPE initiative are increasing public understanding of the mathematics behind climate change and other planetary problems as well as using these real-world questions to excite students about math starting as early as elementary school. In addition to preparing educational materials for schools, partner organizations are offering public lectures about all sorts of topics related to the mathematics of the planet—and its residents—from global warming to crime patterns.

MPE itself is only a framework. It has a Web site with information about related events and a daily blog written by volunteers. But partner organizations such as the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI) and the Simons Foundation host and sponsor the lectures, courses and exhibitions held in conjunction with the initiative. "We have no budget—the partners have a budget," Rousseau says.

The initiative officially launched in Canada on December 7, 2012, and in the U.S. on January 9, 2013 at the Joint Mathematics Meetings in San Diego. Other countries have had inaugural events since then. The European launch was held March 5 in conjunction with MPE day at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Events that day included a screening of the film Exit (about human global migration), a panel discussion on what mathematics can do for the planet and a public lecture by Edward Lungu of the University of Botswana on utilizing the environment to manage HIV/AIDS.

Rousseau hopes that the initiative will help nurture new ideas for dealing with climate change and encourage changes at the political level. Rousseau says that communicating the economics of the situation to politicians is key. "They want to know how much it will cost if you act now, and how much it will cost if you don't act now. It will be so much more expensive if we act later."

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