Saturday, November 24, 2012

Mathematics for Sustainability 4

RiskAnother theme I want to address in the course is how we evaluate risk. This is a tricky but important task... On the one hand, there is an effective mathematical language, the language of probability theory, for quantifying risk and expectation. On the other hand, there is extensive behavioral literature which strongly suggests that when we actually make our decisions, we do not always do so in the ways in which probability calculus would suggest.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Falling on Aid

A couple of years ago, I fell from 400 feet up a cliff in Yosemite.

As expected, I did not take the big ride all the way to the ground.  My climbing partner caught me on the rope before I'd gone very far and I swung, ignominiously but safely, as I had done many times before.

But something was different this time.  Though the fall was "clean" - that is, in climber lingo, there were no ledges or projections of rock for me to hit on the way - I somehow swung hard enough into the wall to break my ankle in several places.  We eventually got down with the help of Yosemite's amazing mountain rescue team. (I wrote a more detailed account of the adventure here.)

What made the difference? I'd taken falls before, some just as long, without damaging anything except my pride.  Probably luck had a lot to do with it: but, when I think about the experience, I remember something else as well.  This was the first significant fall I had taken when aid climbing.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

How Climate Change Denial Is - and Isn't - Like Creationism

Here's an interesting video interview with Katharine Hayhoe. She is an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech and the author, with her husband, of the book "A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions".(Her name also came up in this year's Republican primary campaign, when Newt Gingrich thought it politic to remove a chapter that she had written for his forthcoming book Environmental Entrepreneurs.)

In this video she is talking about the connections between creationism and climate science denial.  (I shared some thoughts about this in an earlier post.)  One LOL quote: "To talk about human-caused climate change we only have to agree that the world is at least three hundred years old."  She also talks quite a bit about the upside and downside risks of climate change action (i.e. what if we take action and it isn't needed, vs. what if we don't and it is?)  Or, as this cartoon puts it....

Friday, November 9, 2012

Mathematics of Planet Earth

I mentioned a few days ago that i was planning to give a talk on "The Mathematics of Planet Earth" to the Penn State student math club, and this duly took place last week. There was a good crowd, including a few students from my Math 230H course lat year, and a group from the local chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World. I was encouraged by the turnout - and still more so (though a little scared) by a couple of requests that the lecture be posted online. So, above is a link to a YouTube video (in five parts) of the event.

I probably (okay, definitely) tried to say too much.  There were three points I wanted to make:
  1. The paradigm shift from "empty world" to "full world", and mathematical ways of understanding that.
  2. Pretty simple calculations can help us get a feeling for the magnitudes of the challenges ahead - I tried to illustrate that by doing some global warming calculations, though I maybe included too much chemistry (one person walked out when I put up the hydrocarbon combustion formulae, but maybe that was unrelated)
  3. There are contributions mathematics can make through education and through research (probably the weakest part of the talk, partly through time pressure, partly because some of my ideas were a bit unfocused).
You might recognize some of the ideas from "Do the Math" and "Azimuth", which I've mentioned many times before, being used in this talk.  I still feel I'm developing a personal way of speaking about these matters.  Having brooded about them for a while, it is hard not to want to say everything at once when one does get an opportunity to talk!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Remember when environmental protection was a bipartisan effort?

That's the subtitle of an interesting historical article published today in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  It reminds us that many landmark US environmental laws (the Clean Air and Water Acts, the Endangered Species Act, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency) were the work of the Nixon administration, and date from a time when "Democrats were trying to appropriate the mantle of environmentalism from Republicans".   Sounds strange now.  What changed?  Here's how the article begins:

A prediction: When all the votes have been counted and the reams of polling data have been crunched, analyzed, and spun, this will be clear: Few scientists will have voted for Republican candidates, particularly for national office. Survey data taken from 1974 through 2010 and analyzed by Gordon Gauchat in the American Sociological Review confirm that most American scientists are not conservatives. A 2009 study by the Pew Research Center found that only 9 percent of scientists self-identified as conservative, while 52 percent called themselves liberals. Only 6 percent of American scientists self-identified as Republicans. This state of affairs is bad for the nation, and bad for science.

It was not always this way. (Read the full article here.)

Sunday, November 4, 2012

A talk to the PSU Math Club

For those readers in my home area (State College), I will be giving a talk to the Penn State Math Club on Monday evening, on the title "Mathematics of Planet Earth". 

I'll talk about some of the basic mathematics underlying global warming issues, as well as giving a preview of some of the themes of my 2014 course.  If you are around campus, and interested, you are welcome to attend!  The talk is at 6:00 p.m. in 114 McAllister Building on the University Park campus.

If you can't attend, the link above is to a video of a talk by John Baez to the South African Mathematical Society on a similar theme.  I think this is a wonderful, inspiring talk!  For more about John's work visit the Azimuth Project.