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Beautiful numbers

Volume 9 Number 3 March 11 - April 8 2013

Emma Bland and Stéphanie Pradier from the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute at the University of Melbourne report on a recent lecture by Princeton University mathematical ecologist Simon Levin, to launch Australia’s program for the International Year of Mathematics of Planet Earth.

Sustainability is arguably the greatest challenge for our generation. Amid our quest to make alternative energy sources economical, secure the food supply for a growing population, and mitigate the consequences of carbon emissions, the mathematical sciences community is taking sustainability back to its roots. 

The year 2013 is the International Year of Mathematics of Planet Earth, and Australian Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, has set the mathematical sciences community the challenge of communicating to the public the immense value of mathematics and statistics in our culture, science and economy. 

“Mathematics underpins almost everything we touch and everything we see,” Professor Chubb says.

“Food security, climate change, population growth and ageing populations are challenges that will be dependent on the work of mathematicians, as much as physicists, ecologists and epidemiologists.”

Achieving global sustainability counts on resolving the conflict between our ecological and economic futures – the former is driven by conservation, the latter by consumption. 

In a special public lecture to launch this international year, Professor Simon Levin, a mathematical ecologist from Princeton University, presented an insightful case for why, at the deepest level, our ability to secure a sustainable future may come down to what each side of the debate can learn from the other. 

His lecture, entitled ‘The Challenge of Sustainability and the Promise of Mathematics’, showcased the many parallels between physical systems, economic systems and social systems that become apparent when viewed through a mathematical eyepiece. 

“There are stark similarities between, for example, financial systems and food webs,” says Professor Levin. “Our financial systems seem to be getting more and more interconnected. When this happens in food webs, they collapse.”

He argues that looking for patterns in ecosystems on both the microscopic and macroscopic scales gives insights into how the decisions made by many individual investors may lead to a financial crisis. Identifying the early-warning indicators of such events is a hot topic in many fields, and remains a deep problem in mathematics. 

“If we could understand how individual behaviours give rise to these collective macroscopic phenomena, then we’d be much further down the road towards maintaining our system as sustainable,” Professor Levin concluded.

The International Year of Mathematics of Planet Earth provides a unique opportunity to emphasise the important role of mathematics in driving innovation, and more broadly within the Australian workforce. Unknown to most people, cutting-edge developments in science, technology, medicine, commerce and management rely increasingly on inputs from mathematical scientists. 

These ‘good with numbers’ folk are crucial in forecasting major weather events, managing our transport networks, and devising ways to make things better, faster, cheaper and more reliable. 

Most importantly, the work of mathematical scientists is vital to addressing the long-term, global challenges our planet is facing. The mathematical sciences provide a tool to model risk and uncertainty, evaluate performance, and give us unique insight into patterns that underpin our environmental and financial systems. While mathematics may not give us all the answers, it can help us to make smarter decisions about our future.

The Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI) is calling for a five-year national careers awareness campaign to bring the critical utility of the mathematical sciences to the fore. Over the past 15 years there has been a 30 per cent decline in enrolments in calculus-based mathematics subjects at Year 12. This is choking graduation rates to levels far below the OECD average. 

The mathematics skills shortage ultimately stems from a communication problem between the workforce and younger generations. It is the goal of Mathematics of Planet Earth to reignite this conversation. Students, academics and professionals are joining together to put Australian mathematical sciences research on the world stage, and demonstrate the immense power of mathematics and statistics in addressing global challenges.

A major international conference in Melbourne – MPE Australia 2013 – will bring together the scientific community to cultivate discussions and encourage interdisciplinary collaboration. This conference is the main academic event of Mathematics of Planet Earth in Australia, and aims to demonstrate Australia’s current contribution to global mathematical sciences research.

The Maths of Planet Earth blog, puzzles, competitions and interviews are designed to engage a wider audience with the fun and beauty of mathematics.

Mathematics may turn out to be our most powerful weapon against current environmental and economic challenges. Let’s prepare our nation to take them on. 

You can follow Australia’s participation in the International Year of Mathematics of Planet Earth at