Add it up: Math saves lives, expert says
Published Sunday, July 17, 2011 2:02PM EDT
For the countless kids who sit through math class and wonder about the usefulness of algebra, geometry or calculus, Arvind Gupta would say that it saves lives.
With some of the world's leading mathematicians and scientists preparing to gather in Vancouver next week for the International Congress on Industrial and Applied Mathematics (ICIAM), Gupta wants people to know that, rather than being boring or a waste of time, math is "real and exciting."
"It's a funny thing," Gupta, president of the 2011 ICIAM and professor of computer science at the University of British Columbia, told CTV.ca in a telephone interview. "When kids are in school we tell them all that you have to work really hard at math and be good at math because you use it the rest of your life. Then I get asked, ‘Well, what do you use it for in the rest of your life?'"
While even the worst math students can understand the importance of knowing the basics of addition, subtraction and multiplication, it is harder to imagine how some of the more complicated concepts will be useful in day-to-day life.
Gupta, who is also the scientific director of research firm Mitacs, says applied mathematics is present in every facet of life, even if it's not readily apparent to those who aren't looking for it.
Applied mathematicians collect data and build models to predict, for example, the spread of an infectious disease or the best evacuation route in the event of a natural disaster. These models are what allow everyone from doctors to politicians to make good decisions during the scariest times.
"We want to have better decisions. So as we get this data we expect our policymakers to somehow use it to do the right thing. And what does that right thing mean? Well, if you're talking about the spread of disease, you have to come up with some policy. With H1N1, (it is) who to inoculate and when. Or with SARS, how to stop the spread of the disease because it's an airborne virus," Gupta said.
At the height of the H1N1, or swine flu, outbreak in 2009, researchers from Toronto's St. Michael's Hospital used air traffic pattern data to accurately predict how the virus would spread around the world.
By looking at the flight itineraries of more than 2.3 million passengers who left Mexico on flights in March and April of that year, researchers determined which countries were at a higher risk of importing cases of the virus.
The team was able to begin its analysis less than 24 hours after the virus first appeared, and they built upon a model that was established in 2003 after the SARS crisis to study the relationship between air travel and how a disease spreads.
Before the swine flu outbreak, the team had issued a report identifying Canada's most vulnerable cities to global infectious disease threats based on the SARS air travel model.
‘The quantification of society'
Gupta points out that at the height of the H1N1 outbreak, the Public Health Agency of Canada was consulting with both mathematical modellers and epidemiologists simultaneously. The mathematicians built the models to predict and prevent the spread of disease, while the doctors and public health workers ran the model in real time.
To build models, mathematicians compile data particular to the issue. With H1N1, for example, they factor in details such as the probability that a disease carrier will pass on the virus, how many people a carrier comes in contact with, travel patterns, and the amount of time it takes to exhibit symptoms and become infectious.
Experts can also look at subpopulations, such as pregnant women or the elderly, to determine who is more or less likely to contract the disease and therefore who should be the target of vaccination programs.
"And that's what the mathematical model is doing for you," Gupta says. "The science is telling us this is your best shot of slowing this down."
In the wake of the Japanese earthquake or with all the recent flooding in parts of Canada, having effective evacuation plans becomes particularly important for emergency services personnel.
Gupta says mathematical modellers must compile "a huge amount of data" to model the flow of people, including crowd size, time of day, potential bottlenecks and desired destinations.
"In an actual emergency we can gauge whether our assumptions of distributions were correct," Gupta says. "In an actual disaster, things are more complicated as some escape routes get blocked necessitating a re-routing of people along those that are open. Trying to model the shut-down or routes ahead of time is particularly complex."
Gupta points out that mathematical modelling is nothing new. The ancient Egyptians used geometry to model the world as they knew it and to predict when the Nile River would flood.
But in the last 50 years, Gupta says, modern technology has given mathematicians that much more data, which leads to better models, which leads to better policies.
"Whereas the Egyptians were every year sampling the height of the Nile in a few places, we can put sensors in and we can automatically be gathering data 24/7 on whatever phenomena we're interested in," Gupta says.
"Some people call this the quantification of society. Quantifying means we're actually turning what's happening in life into data."
Gupta says while mathematicians have made significant contributions in fields such as health care, they must work harder at forging ties with industries such as law enforcement and the financial sector. But they also must do a better job of telling the average person, particularly young students, about the importance of math.
"While public health agencies are using mathematics more and more, we can't really expect them to highlight the role of mathematics in their decision making. After all, they are using many tools, not just the ones we help them develop," he says. "But I think it's important that the mathematics community showcase the role we are playing and use this to excite kids and the public on the power of mathematics."