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25 November 2013

Mathematics for a Sustainable World

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2013 is the year of Mathematics of Planet Earth. This international initiative is being run by mathematics research organizations and institutes in the United States and Canada, with the support of UNESCO, the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the International Mathematical Union (IMU). Over these months the program has sought to demonstrate the essential role that mathematical sciences must play as we tackle the challenges facing our planet. Every phenomena on Earth is subject to mathematics, which is the only language we can use to describe them. Moreover, mankind must factor mathematics into any approach it takes to addressing said challenges. Climate change, protecting biodiversity, tackling pollution, controlling epidemics, ocean sustainability, averting natural disasters (volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis) and manmade disasters (fires) are all subject to equations. In short, the sustainability of planet Earth depends on mathematical science.

The Earth is subject to constant change: its interior mantle, terrestrial crust, atmosphere and the life that it sustains are all subject to dynamic processes. Describing these processes requires mathematical models, most of which are enormously complex. Developing models that come ever closer to recreating real processes allows us to understand the processes better, meaning we can anticipate them, control them, and alleviate their potential effects.

Mathematics not only helps us to understand natural phenomena, it also allows us to sustain the majority of human activity on the planet. Transport networks, the Internet and business transactions are all practical applications of research, graph theory and number theory.

As we have seen, mathematics is essential for many knowledge areas concerning our planet. The Mathematics of Planet Earth project, which will be repeated in successive years due to the importance of the message and the strong public response it has garnered, has four major themes:

  • A planet to discover, focusing on oceans; meteorology and climate; mantle processes, natural resources and solar systems.
  • A planet supporting life, covering issues such as ecology, biodiversity and evolution.
  • A planet organized by humans, looking at political, economic, social and financial systems; organization of transport and communications networks; management of resources; and energy.
  • A planet at risk, covering climate change, sustainable development, epidemics; invasive species and natural disasters.

These four topics will keep researchers busy for decades, not just one year. But we must make a start now. It is in these critical years that our society is gambling with the planet’s sustainability, and mathematics is at the heart of the issue. The initiative has determined three key challenges:

  • Promoting mathematical research in order to identify the major problems facing the planet and their solutions.
  • Encouraging teachers at all levels of education to raise awareness of the key issues.
  • Informing the general public of the essential role that mathematics has to play.

This year, hundreds of events have been organized all over the world, all focusing on these core issues, including school courses, congresses, conferences, publications, competitions and many more. The program’s website Ā features all the activities that have been run and the materials that have been generated over the year.

Soon the organizers will take stock and try to evaluate whether the program has been a success. The main aim of the initiative is to emphasize the role of mathematics, but nor does it overlook the other sciences, because the problems that we face demand a multidisciplinary approach. It is also important to assess whether the message has be conveyed to the public, and whether confidence in the precision of mathematics has helped to raise awareness of the grave situation facing humanity. We will see in a just a few months.


Manuel de LeĆ³n

(CSIC, Royal Academy of Sciences, Academy of Sciences of the Canary Islands) Research Professor at the CSICĀ and Member of the Executive Committee of the IMU.

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