SIAM News Blog

Math Scientists Worldwide Embrace MPE2013 Vision

By Hans Kaper*

By now, most mathematicians are aware of Mathematics of Planet Earth 2013, the year-long program created to encourage research on a range of topics related to Planet Earth. The distinctive logo has been featured at many conferences, workshops, and lectures. The program, initiated by major mathematics research institutes in North America, has grown to an international year involving more than 140 partners—including professional societies (SIAM, among many others), academic institutions, research institutes, scientific publications, and teacher organizations.

By the end of the year, MPE2013 will have sponsored more than 15 long-term programs at institutes all over the world, 60 workshops, dozens of special sessions at society meetings, two big public lecture series, summer and winter schools for graduate students, research experiences for undergraduates, and an international competition for museum-quality exhibits on MPE themes. In addition, MPE2013 is supporting the development of high-quality curriculum materials for all ages and grades.  All these materials, including the winning designs of the competition, are available free of charge on the web. 

Encouraging Research

Many of the activities sponsored by MPE2013 are directed to the mathematical sciences community, whose members are encouraged to identify fundamental research questions about Planet Earth. The program provides evidence that many issues related to weather, climate, sustainability, public health, natural hazards, and financial and social systems lead to very interesting mathematical problems.

Planet Earth is a dynamical system, with all the characteristics of a stochastic complex system, where mathematical models and data come together and interact in novel ways. Computer models and observation systems provide vast amounts of data, which lead to feedback and refinements of the mathematical models. Importantly, this process has also opened the door to new mathematical ideas that can enhance the modeling process. For example, ideas from algebraic topology have led to clustering algorithms for the analysis of large data sets; the abstract theory of percolation is used to characterize sea ice; bifurcation theory provides a natural framework for the study of phase transitions and tipping points. Data assimilation, which has been applied very successfully to improve weather forecasting, is finding its way into studies of current as well as past climates. Uncertainty quantification is another field that can give new information about the likelihood of “what-if” scenarios. Statistics of extreme events can play a critical role in the debate on climate change. It is increasingly clear that as mathematicians we have an opportunity to apply our know-how in ingenious ways and, ultimately, to weigh in on some of the big problems we face. 

Reaching Out

In addition to highlighting research opportunities for mathematical scientists, MPE2013 sponsors an extensive program of outreach activities. Fifty-nine public lectures have been given since the inception of the MPE2013 public lecture series (in June 2012); the program includes the MPE Simons Public Lectures, which are supported financially by the Simons Foundation. MPE2013 lectures have been presented to audiences on all five continents, by internationally known speakers from mathematics as well as several application sciences. Upcoming public lecturers are Martin Nowak (at the University of Minnesota, October 8), Walter Craig (in New Brunswick, October 10), Emily Carter (at UCLA, November 4), and Christiane Rousseau (in Québec, November 7). The program maintains a speakers bureau, supports the development of curriculum materials, and maintains a collection of posters and other educational materials.

The dual mission of MPE2013—stimulating the mathematics research community and reaching out to the general public—is reflected in the Daily Blogs (one in English, the other in French), each of which has already featured more than 200 posts on a wide variety of topics. Conference announcements and workshop reports can be found in the blogs, as well as short articles on topics from astronomy to uncertainty quantification.

Matching the Zeitgeist

The level of effort and cooperation demonstrated by MPE2013 is unprecedented in the annals of mathematics. Why has the MPE2103 movement been so popular with mathematicians? Undoubtedly, one of the reasons is the increased awareness among the general public, shared by the mathematics community, that our planet is in trouble. For too long, we have conducted an uncontrolled experiment, using natural resources as if they were infinite. Mathematicians, like the majority of the general public, agree that it is time to get a better understanding of our place and role within the Earth system. Mathematics has something to contribute to the discussion, whether on the subject of resource management, climate change, risk assessment, or any of the other issues related to Planet Earth.

Another reason for the popularity of the MPE2013 movement is that mathematical scientists are increasingly collaborative. Fifty years ago, the average number of co-authors of a mathematics paper was 1.3; now it is more than 2. Whereas dozens of or even a hundred co-authors are common on a single publication in the experimental sciences, the record in pure mathematics until a few years ago was surely fewer than ten. This new degree of collaboration can undoubtedly be attributed to the Internet, the ubiquity and ever-increasing power of computing resources, and the proliferation of workshops devoted to creating and promoting collaborations. In this sense, MPE2013 matches the spirit of the time. The issues related to Planet Earth require collaborative efforts more extensive than ever before, and the mathematics community is prepared to respond.

Because of the many opportunities for networking and interdisciplinary research, MPE2013 has drawn the attention of other disciplines as well. Among its partners are the American Geophysical Union, the International Association for Mathematical Geosciences, and the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics.

Looking Ahead: MPE2013+

All this leads to a natural follow-up question: What will happen after 2013? Clearly, identifying the research problems is not enough. Mathematics moves slowly, and we cannot expect great results in just one year. But MPE2013 has been a great start. With support from the National Science Foundation, we plan to sustain MPE activities in 2014 and beyond. Specifically, plans are in place for (1) five research workshops, each of which will define a set of future research challenges; (2) a Research and Education Forum (REF) associated with each workshop, with smaller follow-up group meetings held to flesh out the challenges, identify potential follow-up activities, and begin collaborations; (3) an education workshop that helps identify ways to integrate themes identified in the research workshops into undergraduate and graduate curricula; (4) a search for ways to involve the next generation of mathematical scientists, with special emphasis on under-represented minorities, in the MPE workforce of the future; and (5) dissemination of information about MPE via a website and other publicity materials for the project. MPE2013+ will be organized under the auspices of DIMACS, the Center for Discrete Mathematics and Theoretical Computer Science (

*Written by Hans Kaper, on behalf of the MPE2013 Steering Committee.

Christiane Rousseau of the University of Montreal chairs the Steering Committee, and various working groups coordinate MPE2013 activities. The program receives financial support from NSF and the Simons Foundation, is carried out under the patronage of UNESCO, and is endorsed by the International Council for Science (ICSU), the International Mathematical Union (IMU), and the International Council for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (ICIAM).

Hans Kaper is an adjunct professor of mathematics at Georgetown University.

blog comments powered by Disqus