Can mathematicians contribute to planetary challenges?

August 7, 2018, 9:10 pm

Can mathematicians contribute to planetary challenges?

Researchers in Botswana use stochastic differentials to study optimum levels of rain to support industry in the southern Africa nation. The economy simultaneously depends on wildlife (for the tourism industry) and domestic livestock. But, rainfall shortages create an ongoing worry that there will not be enough grass to feed both animal types.

Edward Lunga

Edward Lunga from the newly established Botswana International University of Science and Technology said a multi-disciplinary approach is vital in a desert climate. “Our government expects mathematicians to be involved because it is a tool that they believe will bring about effective change. For a long time, we have worked separately, mathematicians on their own, chemists on their own.” But, he said, that is changing. “We want to see forensic scientists working with computer scientists. We want to see bio-technologists working with mathematicians.” Fellow faculty members are “in the process of organizing ourselves to ensure that there are opportunities for mathematicians in the other areas where they didn’t think they were needed.” This approach is already paying dividends, he added.

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Maria Esteban

Collaboration is vital in mathematics, agreed Maria Esteban from Ceremade Paris-Dauphine, who said the most successful scientific partnerships “are based on personal relationships” from the outset. Mathematicians have a multi-faceted role in confronting the environmental challenges that face humanity, she said. “We help to quantify risk, make decisions, alert risks, and alert decision makers.” Mathematicians work “in alliance with other scientists” in this mission, she concluded, pointing to “joint benefits” from such collaborations. Esteban highlighted a difficulty faced by colleagues in mathematical modeling. “We must read a lot at the initial phase, and discuss with experts. The problem is that this this time can’t be measured.”

A multi-national panel brought together researchers from France, Brazil, Botswana and India at ICM this evening to discuss how mathematics can contribute to planetary challenges. “They are issues which may involve not just physical, biological and life science or economic issues but even social and political science issues,” said Georgetown University’s Hans Engler, who moderated the session. “Mathematics is an international scientific enterprise with universal applications and therefore has a role to play” in facing these planetary challenges,” he said. “Some of these challenges are already successfully being met, there are challenges we can do better on, and there are opportunities for mathematical work.”

Drought may be the problem in southern Africa, but Amit Apte, from the International Center for Theoretical Sciences faces problems on the opposite side of the scale. The Indian researcher spoke of frustrations understanding the Indian monsoon rains, which he said “are still not well understood” with shortfalls in predicting when these downpours are likely to occur. “There is no good understanding in simple math terms.”

Claudia Sagastizábal

Weather systems El Niño and La Niña cause concern in Brazil, said Claudia Sagastizábal from Brazil’s Unicamp university. “Brazil is very advanced in knowledge regarding the management of hydro energy,” she said, saying these weather systems can cause uncertainty for mathematicians working in the area. Sagastizábal highlighted the need to address energy problems from “a larger perspective,” and cited an example in Denmark, where researchers have developed alternate methods to store abundant wind energy.

Pedro Leite da Silva Dias, from the Institute of Astronomy, Geophysics and Atmospheric Sciences in Sao Paulo, Brazil pointed to recent advances. “If you told people in the 1980’s that you would be able to predict the weather for up to fifteen days ahead, you would look like a dreamer. But, it became feasible.” He said that many opportunities are on the horizon for international mathematicians, with the threat of climate change. “There are some new players in this process, for instance the insurance business is very much interested in finding out the risk associated with climate change.” Insurance companies are already funding research in this area, he said. “This is a very interesting opportunity, and it requires interdisciplinary cooperation in order to build this kind of study.”