The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Do the math

Posted by Ron George on October 3, 2010

Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson

Mario Livio asks, “Is God a Mathematician?” That’s a clever way of putting a question that apparently has plagued scientists for a long time: Are mathematical principles discovered or invented? Livio’s 2009 book is a clear presentation of the issue, although math dummies like me get lost in the subject itself; still, it’s worth the read, and the basic question has implications elsewhere that even a math dummy can appreciate.

Frankly, I hadn’t a clue that math was as powerful as Livio says it is. I’ve always thought of it as a clever tool, something invented, a means to an end for scientists, engineers, economists, CPAs, the IRS and God knows who else. I was naive, at least that’s how it seemed as Livio patiently began with Euclid, the Pythagoreans and Archimedes then worked his way through Galileo, Newton, Einstein and a host of others I’d never heard of. (For some reason, though, there’s no mention of Alan Turing, an astonishing omission given his key role in the development of computer science.)

Math seems to be powerful because it’s elegant – precise, neat, simple, the shortest route between two points. It can arrive at conclusions that are indisputably true. It can accurately predict outcomes. It can demonstrate that our sense perceptions ain’t necessarily so. It can and has opened the doors of the cosmos and chaos of the universe in either direction, casting our understanding into the farthest reaches of space and into the nearest and most tiny bits of matter. And, as Livio marvelously points out, theoretical mathematics has often come up with solutions to problems before they exist. Albert Einstein, who wasn’t a great mathematician, didn’t know he needed the mathematics of non-Euclidean geometry to express his theory of general relativity until he asked mathophile friend for help. There it was, just waiting for him, and a relatively recent discovery – or invention – at that.

All of which suggests that we’re a clever species. Either we’ve discovered truth itself or have invented ways of discovering types of truth susceptible to measurement and prediction. We seem to have a yearning for this kind of thing, and maybe that’s one of the reasons we’ve survived. Lacking size, speed and strength, our brains have equipped us to adapt, play smart and predict outcomes. It’s made us successful hunter-gatherers, agriculturalists, industrialists and empire builders. It’s also made us especially dangerous, entirely too capable of being unpredictable and not very smart. We’ve overrun the planet with our kind, and now we wonder what comes next, as the products of our habitation threaten the planet’s ecological equilibrium.

We’ve managed to perceive some of the problems that come with intelligence. We’ve invented systems of ethics and morals by which we may measure the value of intangible though no less important decisions. It’s a messy process no one knows where it’s leading, though for millennia we’ve looked to prophets and seers to tell us. We’ve also butchered millions of our fellow humans for daring to dispute whatever moral “truth” we’ve found worth defending. In my lifetime, we once settled for nuclear missiles and mutually-assured destruction (MAD) to “keep the peace.” It worked for a while, but now what? Experts predict a terrorist nuclear or biochemical attack in the United States within the decade.

It seems to be increasingly clear that the math of our ethical and moral decisions also leads to predictable outcomes. What seemed strange and even dubious 30 years ago – that Earth’s atmosphere was being dramatically affected by human consumption – becomes less dubious with each passing year of accumulated data. The more data we have, the more likely we will be able to predict what will happen and when; however, more data also means less time for making decisions that could alter predictable outcomes and save millions of lives. Most climate experts say there will be a point of no return. There’s no consensus about when that will be, but it’s almost universally indisputable that such day will come. Do the math.

It doesn’t matter whether mathematics was invented or discovered. If its predictions are true regarding global warming, then it’s time for ethical and moral reflection, personal as well as global, and it’s time to change how we live our lives. Frankly, I don’t know where to begin with that. I feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem. I’m as complicit as anyone else, but I can’t imagine what to do except take baby steps that seem inadequate. I’m not sure we will be able to change course; in fact, I rather doubt it. We’re addicted to petroleum products and fossil fuels. Our financial stake is unimaginably large. By the time we hit bottom – intolerable suffering brought on by our addiction – it will be too late, and the losses will be enormous. Recovery will be unlikely. 

Science first predicted in 1896 that burning fossil fuel could cause global warming. It took a century for that theory to be confirmed, and we’ve had 20 years to ponder our plight. Most Americans today, however, don’t believe humans are principal contributors to global warming, although most of us do believe it’s a serious issue. More than a third of us seem to believe it’s not a problem. Meanwhile, all of us, regardless of what we believe about global warming, are voracious consumers of fossil fuels.

God knows where this is going, mathematician or not. It’s no secret. We know, too, and not because God told us. We’re a clever species, after all, but dangerous – to ourselves and to the Earth we often call our mother.

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One Response to “Do the math”

  1. Charles R Shamel said

    Betty and I went to a meeting for folks in Rockport-Fulton ostensibly to gather and educate folks who wanted to save our whooping cranes. We lost 23 last year because water-use policies dried up food and water supplies in their drought-stricken South Texas winter habitat. I wrote the following to the folks from TAMU who put on the program:
    The format for the presentation seemed to ignore the elephant in the room: The GUADALOUPE RIVER AUTHORITY and the agenda of Victoria development minded interests, coal fired and nuclear power plants, water allocations in excess of what the river flows.

    I am all for cooperative learning and encouraged the model in schools I served in. The folks I saw and associated with are all environmentalists and folks dependent on ecotourism. We love and want to save the birds and fishing, but need to be educated in ways and means of protecting our interests. The river authority does not even recognize Aransas County as part of its jurisdiction and hardly relevant to its decisions for water allocations. This has to change! AND it is POLITICAL as are all environmental problems and solutions.

    Making the meeting about saving the cranes seems logical; it’s what the US Fish and Wildlife Service does, and the endangered species act is about the only tool we have for saving our wetlands. However, when the issue comes down to “people or birds” as it is cast by politicos for the simpleminded, the power companies win the election. A member of the river authority at the break, said something like — the decline of blue crabs was not proven to result from less water coming down from the river. He probably denies the human contribution to global warming and feels dependent on the politicians who hired him.

    The people need to be shown that the birds, from hummers to whoopers are all canaries in the coal mine, and that the survival of humans on earth depends on changing our world view and our ways. It begins by understanding finite resources and the need for sustainability and limited population growth.

    One of you gave a definition of the cranes as “charismatic megafauna, what ever that means…[chuckle]” It probably means they are doomed to extinction as have been all the megafauna, from the mammoth to the dodo, when humans enter their ranges. I pray this is not the case, but we have much history to learn from and to overcome.

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