I am particularly lucky on my first contribution to the MPE2013 blog to be able to announce to you that MPE2013 received the patronage of UNESCO. This includes, in particular, the International launching of the Mathematics of Planet Earth Open Source Exhibition foreseen to take place in February 2013.
As you can see, we will have an MPE2013 blog. We expect to have occasional contributions in 2012, and we anticipate daily contributions as of January 1st 2013. This testifies to the magnitude of MPE2013.
Of course, we have not yet planned for 365 bloggers for 2013! We need your help with a contribution. What could be a contribution? It could be a personal commentary on any topic associated with MPE2013: a report on a meeting, a pointer to important research results, a website recommendation, a short essay on a key issue, a book review, a news item, or any other material that might be of interest to a broad audience. A contribution can be as short as a couple of paragraphs and may include a photo or illustration or even an audio or video clip. You may choose your date(s) and topic(s) to blog about your favorite event(s). We understand that last-minute changes are part of the action. To register, send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org, with an indication of preferred dates and topics.
I intend myself to blog regularly in 2013. On one side, I will use the blog to share with you the new developments of MPE2013. But you will also discover that one of my passions is popularization of mathematics. I am a regular contributor of the (French) magazine Accromath (www.accromath.ca). This magazine is preparing for the beginning of 2013 a special issue on mathematics of Planet Earth, and we hope for a wider distribution outside of the province of Quebec for this special issue. If you look at the archives of Accromath, you will see that we have highlighted all the articles that are related to MPE topics. If more magazines around the world do the same, then this will allow for significant material that teachers will be able to bring to the classroom.
It is now three years that I am working on MPE2013 and my main reward in this venture is that I am always discovering hidden mathematics in some MPE topics, learning about the beautiful mathematics in others, and understanding some of the mathematical challenges in the science of climate and sustainability. There are several important ingredients in good research: one is the significance of the question considered, and another is the power of the tools developed or used to solve it. These could be independent matters. Mathematicians are good problem solvers. They have powerful tools and they are able to create new tools for new problems. But this does not suffice. We need to ask the right questions, we need to use the right models. It could be very tempting to pass a line through a cloud of points, but what if the cloud of points is the beginning of an exponential phenomenon? Linear models can give good fit with data on short periods, but are we allowed to extrapolate on long periods? When we model a phenomenon, have we forgotten an essential parameter? Can we consider the model in isolation, or is the system influenced by other variables in a larger model? Let me share with you some of the new things I have learnt recently.
Daniel Pauly, from the UBC Fisheries Centre, gave recently a public lecture at Centre de Recherches Mathématiques (CRM) on the state of fisheries in the world, and he talked of the decline of the cod in the Atlantic. There were two contradictory signals: the catches by the small boats close to the Eastern Canadian coast were drastically decreasing, but there was no significant decrease in the deep sea fishing catches. Which signal to follow? The choice was made to ignore the first signal, with the result that there is nearly no more cod in the Atlantic for almost 20 years. We know now that there was no contradiction between the two signals: even when there are few cods they stay together over a reduced areas, thus allowing good catches.
Last week, I learned from Robert Smith? (sic) about the successful mathematical modeling of the Guinea worm. I was five years old in Guinea the first time I would hear the adults explaining the risk of catching this worm that could be a meter long and would live inside your body, usually your foot. The complicated cycle of this worm is well known, the disease is now decreasing, and we could dream of eradicating it in the near future. Among the many parameters, the one that proved the most important is … education! When one’s foot hurts, it is very tempting to put it in water. It is the moment that the worm chooses to lay 100,000 eggs… Education gives better results than chlorinating the water and the other techniques that have been tried. This example shows that we must have a very open mind for doing good research around MPE topics.
As an inhabitant of the Earth and a curious person, it is intriguing to better know our planet.
A year ago, not long after the earthquake in Japan, I received the following message by John McKay: “I am asking whether there will be a session on the effect of earthquakes on the rotation speed of the Earth?” And we started exchanging messages on the matter. He made me remark that a change of the rotation speed of the Earth forces many adjustments: recalibrating the telescopes since the polar axis of the Earth might have changed position because of the earthquake, readjusting the GPS, etc. Could this phenomenon be a good topic for a module for the MPE competition? Could it be a starting point for a modeling discussion in your course? The modeling could start with the physical situation: the closer the mass to the center of the Earth, the faster the rotation. Then, how do you orient the axis of the telescope, so that only one rotation movement suffices to keep the focus on a star during a long observation period? You need not solve all the problems. Asking questions is also part of the game…