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Blog - prospects for a green mathematics

This page is a blog article in progress, written by John Baez and David Tanzer. To see discussions of this article while it was being written, visit the Azimuth Forum. To see it in its final form, go to the Mathematics of Planet Earth 2013 blog.

contribution to the MPE 2013 blog by John Baez and David Tanzer

It is increasingly clear that we are initiating a sequence of dramatic events across our planet. They include habitat loss, an increased rate of extinction, global warming, the melting of ice caps and permafrost, an increase in extreme weather events, gradually rising sea levels, ocean acidification, the spread of oceanic “dead zones”, a depletion of natural resources, and ensuing social strife.

These events are all connected. They come from a way of life that views the Earth as essentially infinite, human civilization as a negligible perturbation, and exponential economic growth as a permanent condition. Deep changes will occur as these idealizations bring us crashing into the brick wall of reality. If we do not muster the will to act before things get significantly worse, we will need to do so later. While we may plead that it is “too difficult” or “too late”, this doesn’t matter: a transformation is inevitable. All we can do is start where we find ourselves, and begin adapting to life on a finite-sized planet.

Where does math fit into all this? While the problems we face have deep roots, major transformations in society have always caused and been helped along by revolutions in mathematics. Starting near the end of the last ice age, the Agricultural Revolution eventually led to the birth of written numerals and geometry. Centuries later, the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution brought us calculus and eventually a flowering of mathematics unlike any before brought us calculus, and eventually a flowering of mathematics unlike any before. Now, as the 21st century unfolds, mathematics will become increasingly driven by our need to understand the biosphere and our role within it.

We refer to mathematics suitable for understanding the biosphere as green mathematics. Although it is just being born, we can already see some of its outlines.

Since the biosphere is a massive network of interconnected elements, we expect network theory will play an important role in green mathematics. Network theory is a sprawling field, just beginning to become organized, which combines ideas from graph theory, probability theory, biology, ecology, sociology and more. Computation plays an important role here, both because it has a network structure—think of networks of logic gates—and because it provides the means for simulating networks.

One application of network theory is to tipping points, where a system abruptly passes from one regime to another. Scientists need to identify nearby tipping points in the biosphere to help policy makers to head off catastrophic changes. Mathematicians, in turn, are challenged to develop techniques for detecting incipient tipping points. Another application of network theory is the study of shocks and resilience. When can a network recover from a major blow to one of its subsystems?

We claim that network theory is not just another name for biology, ecology, or any other existing science, because in it we can see new mathematical terrains. Here are two examples.

First, consider a leaf. In The Formation of a Tree Leaf by Qinglan Xia, we see a possible key to Nature’s algorithm for the growth of leaf veins. The vein system, which is a transport network for nutrients and other substances, is modeled by Xia as a directed graph with nodes for cells and edges for the “pipes” that connect the cells. Each cell gives a revenue of energy, and incurs a cost for transporting substances to and from it.

The total transport cost depends on the network structure. There are costs for each of the pipes, and costs for turning the fluid around the bends. For each pipe, the cost is proportional to the product of its length, its cross-sectional area raised to a power α, and the number of leaf cells that it feeds. The exponent α captures the savings from using a thicker pipe to transport materials together. Another parameter β expresses the turning cost.

Development proceeds through cycles of growth and network optimization. During growth, a layer of cells gets added, containing each potential cell with a revenue that would exceed its cost. During optimization, the graph is adjusted to find a local cost minimum. Remarkably, by varying α and β, simulations yield leaves resembling those of specific plants, such as maple or mulberry.

A growing network.

Unlike approaches that merely create pretty images resembling leaves, Xia presents an algorithmic model, simplified yet illuminating, of how leaves actually develop. It is a network-theoretic approach to a biological subject, and it is mathematics—replete with lemmas, theorems and algorithms—from start to finish.

A second example comes from stochastic Petri nets, which are a model for networks of reactions. In a stochastic Petri net, entities are designated by “tokens” and entity types by “places” which hold the tokens. “Reactions” remove tokens from their input places and deposit tokens at their output places. The reactions fire probabilistically, in a Markov chain where each reaction rate depends on the number of its input tokens.

A stochastic Petri net.

Perhaps surprisingly, many techniques from quantum field theory are transferable to stochastic Petri nets. The key is to represent stochastic states by power series. Monomials represent pure states, which have a definite number of tokens at each place. Each variable in the monomial stands for a place, and its exponent indicates the token count. In a linear combination of monomials, each coefficient represents the probability of being in the associated state.

In quantum field theory, states are representable by power series with complex coefficients. The annihilation and creation of particles are cast as operators on power series. These same operators, when applied to the stochastic states of a Petri net, describe the annihilation and creation of tokens. Remarkably, the commutation relations between annihilation and creation operators, which are often viewed as a hallmark of quantum theory, make perfect sense in this classical probabilistic context.

Each stochastic Petri net has a “Hamiltonian” which gives its probabilistic law of motion. It is built from the annihilation and creation operators. Using this, one can prove many theorems about reaction networks, already known to chemists, in a compact and elegant way. See the Azimuth network theory series for details.

Conclusion: The life of a network, and the networks of life, are brimming with mathematical content.

We are pursuing these subjects in the Azimuth Project, an open collaboration between mathematicians, scientists, engineers and programmers trying to help save the planet. On the Azimuth Wiki and Azimuth Blog we are trying to explain the main environmental and energy problems the world faces today. We are also studying plans of action, network theory, climate cycles, the programming of climate models, and more.

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category: blog