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Mathematics Awareness Month 2009

With April on its way out, it behooves me to take a moment and mention the focus of this year’s Mathematics Awareness Month. April has been bestowed with this glorious title every year since 1986 – last year the topic was Mathematics and Voting, which I discussed at some length in three earlier posts (see here, here, and here).

This year’s focus is on Mathematics and Climate. On the homepage you can find links to a variety of articles, most of which focus on the difficulty in coming up with mathematical models that can accurately reflect the complexity of the interconnected world in which we live. This is perhaps best summarized by Professor Pat Kenschaft, who writes the following in her essay, “Climate Change: A Research Opportunity for Mathematics?”:

How do we analyze the dynamics of the atmosphere, the oceans, the solid earth (especially volcanic emissions) and the biosphere (the system of plants, animals, and other living things)? Scientists have studied pieces of these systems, cutting them both conceptually and geographically, but even the pieces are not tractable by current mathematics, and the challenges as we try to understand the interplay of all phenomena involved are far beyond current conceptual and computational capabilities.

This is a theme that comes up in quite a few of the articles related to this year’s focus on the intersection of math and climate. As we begin to demand more from our models, those models will necessarily need to become more sophisticated. This requires mathematicians to create models that not only reflect reality, but are also optimized so that we can obtain results within a reasonable time frame.

There are a host of other articles discussing the interplay between climate and mathematics. Some of the articles cover related topics as well – for example, Professor Margot Garritsen’s article “Mathematics in Energy Production” provides a good example of the essential role mathematics plays in our current methods for procuring gas and oil, and briefly discusses the relationship between math and alternative energies.

With city-sized blocks of ice crumbling off of the Antarctic, there can be little doubt that climate change is happening, even if we don’t understand everything that underlies it. Will mathematics come to our rescue? Don’t worry – if it doesn’t, I’m hopeful that Captain Planet will.

Captain Planet: Math Spokesman for the 21st century?

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