With a packed lecture theatre and the atmosphere to match, yesterday’s launch of Australia’s participation in Mathematics of Planet Earth was the big red-carpet event for maths and stats.
Australian Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, opened the proceedings by discussing the growing demand for mathematical and statistical skills in the Australian workforce. He then set the scene for the year: to demonstrate to the public that mathematics underpins every aspect of our culture, science and economy, and challenged us all to refute the claim that mathematics has little relevance to society.
Following the official launch, Professor Simon Levin, Princeton University, delivered the first in the international series of Mathematics of Planet Earth public lectures sponsored by the Simons Foundation. The lecture, entitled The challenge of sustainability and the promise of mathematics, opened our eyes to the parallels between financial systems, ecological systems and governments. Professor Levin demonstrated the immense power – and limitations – of mathematics as a tool for predicting the behaviour of these systems, and hinted at how we might identify the signs of impending crisis. Many were amused by Levin’s question posed in an early-2008 paper published in Natureasking, “Who knows, for instance, how the present concern over sub-prime loans will pan out?”
The lecture concluded with a discussion about models of collective behaviour, and how these may apply to achieving global consensus on environmental issues. Global cooperation really is the holy grail for achieving sustainability, and it seems that mathematics will play a central role. And it all starts with Mathematics of Planet Earth. As Professor Chubb put it, “This year is important for the whole of humanity.”