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Nature? Do The Maths

Malcolm Tait

30th October, 2008

Mathematics is at the heart of any research and, in nature, it can be used to predict and enhance our surroundings and ultimately control it. The logical conclusio to the concept is frightening: there could be a mathematical formula for every aspect of life

Fill a thimble full of soil, analyse it, and you’ll have 10,000 bacterial organisms to look at. Isn’t that amazing? Well, it’s also, apparently, untrue. Investigators at New Mexico’s Los Alamo national laboratory have been digging deeper than most into the science of prokaryotes – single-celled beings – and finally announced in early September that there’s a damn sight more of them than we’d previously thought. 10,000 organisms in a thimble of soil? That’s small fry, yesterday’s figure. Try this number on for size – one million.

If that’s not mind-boggling enough, what about this? In a garden with one ton of soil there could be as many as 10,000 trillion prokaryotes – that’s about 10,000 times the number of stars in the Milky Way. 10,000 trillion! And to think that you and I once thought there were only about 100 trillion of them. How could we have been so short-sighted? Probably because we dropped out of maths after O level.

Mathematics is the new mantra in the extremities of nature study. No one, after all, is going to count the numbers of single-celled creatures in a ton of soil, but a computer program can. By inputting data such as behavioural patterns, reproduction rates, predatorprey systems, longevity and many other control factors, a reasonable mathematical model can be developed that can predict population sizes and movements of virtually anything from a bacterial community to a herd of antelope. It all comes down to making sure you’ve built in as many factors as possible. And of course, the models you end up with can then become factors in newer models. Developed a model for predicting weather patterns? And another for deer devastation of trees? Why not add them into your woodland management model to get an even clearer picture. Steadily this interdisciplinary research can help build predictive models for just about anything.

Of course this is not pure mathematics but applied. No one’s going to do this sort of work unless there’s a grant at the beginning of it or a consultancy at the end. The bacteria-in-soil conclusions have spun out of research into the toxicity of metals such as lead within soil. Another recent mathematical study of bacteria in sewage was conducted to help develop engineering projects to reduce health problems from sewage in developing countries.

On the face of it, hard to quibble with the justifications for these research projects. But just how far can we go? For many mathematicians and bioengineers, the answer is: as far as we can. ‘Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty,’ wrote the great mathematician and logician Bertrand Russell, ‘a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture’. There’s something rather prescient about those words. Sculpture is, of course, a human creation, and Russell’s equating of design with the science of mathematics is oddly predictive of today’s ability to create new strains of plant and animal through genetic manipulation – a science that is based at principle upon no less than mathematical models. If we can use mathematics to predict nature, and if complete prediction of nature can lead to its manipulation and control, then we have the rudiments of that most intimidating of concepts: a mathematical formula for all aspects of life. ‘Our experience up to date,’ said Einstein in 1922, ‘justifies us in feeling sure that in nature is actualised the idea of mathematical simplicity.’

Do we have the ability to discover such a level of ‘mathematical simplicity’, and stare at such a ‘supreme beauty’? Who can say? But even if we can, should we? As the answer is subjective, let’s let the world of fiction answer it for now. William Boyd’s fine novel Brazzaville Beach contains the character John Clearwater, a mathematician of great stature and intensity who spends his time trying to develop a way of reducing the ebb, flow, flux and chaos of all life into a series of manageable formulae and equations. The closer he gets, the more manic he becomes, and towards the end of the book, he appears to be on the brink of his mighty discovery. We then hear little about him for a while, and when we next come across him, it is to discover that he has drowned himself, his eyes staring up through the water under which he lies at truths that he either could not find... or could not bear.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist October 2005


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