SIAM News Blog

Why Bring Maths Into It?

Speech by Goodwin Gibbons, student participant at Jamboree 2016

By Goodwin Gibbins 

Imperial College London and the University of Reading have joined forces to create the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in the Mathematics of Planet Earth (CDT MPE). As part of the effort, Jamboree 2016, a three-day get-together was held in March. This article features a speech by Goodwin Gibbins, a student participant at Jamboree 2016.

To thrive on planet Earth, knowing what it’s going to throw at us is key. We need to know what crops can be grown where and what time of year to plant and harvest them. We need to know whether the mosquito that’s about to bite us is likely to be carrying malaria. We need to know how to manage flooding, and how much snow or wind our structures have to withstand.

So how do we know these things? Experience, first. The security that what will happen tomorrow will probably not be too much different from things that have happened before. But more and more, we are profiting from a delicate and precise understanding of the “why” and “how” of the system encoded in mathematical models to deduce more exactly what tomorrow will bring: how much light will shine on the solar panels or even when to shut the roof on Wimbledon to avoid the rain. 

With climate change, the need for strong predictive structures becomes even more dire. Humanity is taking a complex, intricate system and dramatically altering a key component - greenhouse gases. We really are putting a cat amongst the pigeons, and, without doubt, things are going to change. The future is not going to be like the past: how it will change and how we can best avoid the worst--those are questions that require a mathematical and physical mastery of the system.

The combined average temperature over global land and ocean surfaces for August 2015. Image credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce.
And of course, this is desperately important. While we in Britain might have enough resources and padding to quickly adapt to these changes, a lot of the people who share the earth with us are in a much more precarious position. Think of what famine does to a country with ethnic tensions, what water shortages in a country with a strong military imply for its neighbors and how a poor country deals with a new set of diseases traveling in with the weather.

Realizing the patterns and quantifying the interactions and building models is not a fix by itself. We still have the problem of wanting ever more growth and energy at as low a price as possible, of prioritizing today over generations from now.

But what we, as mathematical and physical thinkers, can contribute is a demystification: revealing the behavior of the complex Planet Earth so that as a society, a species, we can make the large ethical decisions facing us with more determination and confidence.

   Goodwin Gibbins studied physics at the University of Cambridge before joining the Mathematics of Planet Earth CDT at the Imperial College London and the University of Reading. She is pursuing a PhD and studying climate change from a mathematical perspective. Gibbins' current research takes a top-down perspective on the Earth system, exploring the variability of the glacial-interglacial cycles and the implications for stability of our current climate state.

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