SIAM News Blog

Forward-Looking Panel Tackles Issues of the Mathematics of Planet Earth

By Lina Sorg

How has planet Earth changed over recent years? How will it continue to change? How have human behaviors influenced Earth’s physical environment and its life-supporting capabilities? Approaching these and other climate-related questions from a mathematical or computational perspective can inspire necessary change and yield new insight to the future health of our planet. 

The SIAM Conference on the Mathematics of Planet Earth (MPE16), held last week in Philadelphia, PA, featured a forward-thinking panel discussion about pertinent climate science issues and their relation to mathematics. Conference co-chair Hans Kaper (Georgetown University) moderated the panel, which consisted of Luc Doyen (University of Bordeaux), Louis Gross (University of Tennessee), Christopher Jones (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and University of Warwick), Claire Monteleoni (George Washington University), Christiane Rousseau (Universite de Montreal), and David Shmoys (Cornell University). The conversation revolved around six broad discussion topics: the multidisciplinary nature of MPE, communication of relevant information, responsibilities of those in the field, student exposure and professional development, relation to social sciences, and the transformative role of data.

Jones began by affirming that MPE’s multidisciplinary nature is certainly an asset, and could enhance the dissemination of information. “Mathematicians are good for ideas,” he said. “We need to convince universities in academic settings to respect multidisciplinary publications in journals outside of our disciplines.”

Monteleoni, who is particularly interested in climate informatics, an interdisciplinary field combining data science and climate science, agreed but added that the evaluation of interdisciplinary work can get tricky during tenure time.

In some cases, building structures that transcend institutions might also be necessary to target a broader audience. “We need strong, collaborative efforts that aren’t dependent on a particular university or institution,” Jones said, adding that educators cannot necessarily build the training strength required to help the population reach the desired education level without branching out.

Gross emphasized the importance of introducing MPE’s breadth to students as early as possible. At every level, we as mathematicians need to encourage our students to take an interdisciplinary approach. "At every level, we as mathematicians need to encourage our students to take an interdisciplinary approach," he said. This type of reach goes beyond learning the language of another discipline and may require students to step away from mathematics to earn double degrees or minors in other fields. Exposure to other fields, such as biology, will help build some intuition of what mathematics can do for biology students, and what biology can do for mathematics students. 

Given the massive amount of data in today’s world, Monteleoni encouraged the integration of data in class activates and would like to eventually see an online repository of climate-related data sets with which students can work. She also supported increased student participation in environmentally-themed competitions or Hackathons; last September, Monteleoni helped run a climate informatics Hackathon during which students predicted El Nino patterns in certain parts of the ocean. 

Jones also shared his thoughts surrounding data in the classroom. “I think to mathematicians, data is kind of scary,” he said, before encouraging educators to incorporate data into mathematical modeling analysis. While this incorporation may require the revision of certain courses, it will keep mathematics relevant in topics such as climate science. 

As both undergraduate and graduate students handle increasing numbers of data sets, privacy and security becomes even more important. “It’s important that students understand that we’re teaching them tools that are very powerful,” Shmoys said. “Part of education should be that they have the responsibility to treat a valuable resource in the way that it deserves. We have enormous power to do things with this data, and that power is ever-increasing.”

From left to right: Luc Doyen, Louis Gross, Hans Kaper, Christopher Jones, Claire Monteleoni, Christiane Rousseau, and David Shmoys at a panel discussion entitled “Shaping the Future of MPE."

When Kaper asked the panel how to most effectively communicate their knowledge, Gross had an immediate response. “Use terms that parents would understand,” he said. He also encouraged the audience to spend time with experts in different, related fields and learn the accompanying terminology. “Define things even if you think they’re common,” he said. “You don’t know as much as you think you do. Be prepared to throw out your naïve ideas when they tell you that you’re full of crap.”

Rousseau added that communicating with stakeholders is a big responsibility, and should be taken seriously in order to prevent superficial teaching. “You have to be careful about how you behave as an expert,” she said. “You should be able to say ‘I don’t know’ when you don’t know. You should behave with humility.”

Shmoys reminded panel attendees of the merits of working with a theme as broad-interest as planet Earth, and encouraged them to use that breadth to their advantage. “I would implore everyone to accept any opportunity you have to address a more general audience,” he said. “An advantage of working with an area that is so tangible and concrete to the general public is that you can motivate them to listen to subjects that they otherwise will not listen to.” 

While few people express an outward curiosity in mathematics, many more are interested in the idea of a sustainable Earth. This appeal can create an opportunity to attract a broader base and educate a larger audience about why mathematics is important in the context of climate. Rousseau also reminded everyone that the environment is currently a hot topic in the media, which is a powerful recruitment tool.

Because the SIAM Activity Group on the Mathematics of Planet Earth (SIAG/MPE) is perhaps the only group that addresses issues of social science, working to understand human behavior in the context of climate change and the environment is particularly important. “It’s easy to adapt the view, ‘if they build it, they will come,’” Shmoys said, “but it’s not always that simple. We’re not used to understanding that this is an issue we should be interested in.”

Gross added that true understanding requires a gradual shift in mindset, and discussed his 20-year involvement with a project that modeled restoration of the Everglades in South Florida. “We were continually asked to come up with one number, and we refused,” he said. “It’s a public policy issue with multiple stakeholders that frankly no optimization scheme is ever going to work for.” Instead, Gross and his team created a standard protocol with alternative ways of managing the system, allowing different stakeholders to compare, contrast, and eventually create their own ranking.

Ultimately, progress in the field of MPE is going to require a united voice to address government bodies and the United Nations, which in turn requires uniting with different disciplines and people in both hard and social science. “It’s not just studying the change,” Rousseau said. “One of the challenges is how we adapt to the change.” 

  Lina Sorg is the associate editor of SIAM News


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