I was recently talking to a friend of mine about real estate. In particular, he was interested in buying a beautiful house on a beautiful street with bright new siding and a shiny array of solar panels. We had the usual conversation that one has with a friend buying a house: trends in the market, accessibility by public transit, distance to the riverfront jogging path and whether or not the backyard was big enough to play croquet. And then the conversation took a turn that felt very particular to the times. He pulled up a map of the 100-year flood forecast of the area and began weighing the likelihood of his croquet pitch being underwater before the term of his 30 year mortgage.
Our planet is very vulnerable. This is a well known fact. But besides eating a plant-based diet, ditching your car, and having fewer kids, there are the big pushes in math and science that need to be made to really make a change.
For a wealth of information about the math of our teetering ecological crisis, an excellent resource in the #MTBoS is the work of mathematical physicist John Carlos Baez, who you should definitely follow on Twitter. Baez is a big time contributor to The Azimuth Project which is a forum for STEM-type folks to share information about topics pertinent to the threats to our global ecology, and Baez also writes the Azimuth blog.
Like with most things in the world, it’s relatively easy to nod in vigorous agreement when someone suggests that mathematicians have a lot they can contribute to our fight to save the planet, but for many people it can be hard to imagine just why or how (other than gathering lots of data and making graphs that are totally scary). But The Azimuth Project very handily connects the dots between mathematics/engineering and important topics in ecological science like sustainable energy and geoengineering.
The Azimuth Project shows that there’s a lot to be done, and they say “we need to do it now, because people don’t always get better at optimizing their collective behavior when things get worse.” Ugh. True. “When people are struggling to survive, they often do things like start wars. And then we’ll wish we’d taken action sooner.”
Perhaps you don’t feel in a position to develop the next big breakthrough in carbon sequestration — although I’d urge you to try! — but at the very least we are all capable of informing ourselves and our friends and students.
If you are interested in learning about more applications, you might consider joining SIAM’s activity group on Mathematics of Planet Earth, which exists “to provide a forum for mathematicians and computational scientists to study Planet Earth, its life-supporting capacity, and the impact of human activities.”
When I tweeted out a request for information on mathematicians studying sustainable energy last week I also got so many more recommendations of people doing cool things. Like Julie Lundquist studying the impacts of wind energy, or Ellen Webborn studying energy usage through smart meter data, or the Porous Media Group who study the math of geothermal energy and subsurface energy storage.
If you have more resources you’d like to share, and if you have any photos of cool looking leaves, you can tweet them at me @extremefriday. Enjoy the outdoors this summer!