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Typhoon Haiyan and the science of disaster

Florin Diacu and book

Professor Florin Diacu at The Banff Centre and (right) his latest book. Photo: Meghan Krauss.

When I met Florin Diacu, I almost felt like I was in the presence of a great power. This, after all, is the man who predicts megadisasters. He’s one of the world’s top analysts specializing in the ‘science’ of forecasting  the next major catastrophe – tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, rapid climate change, hurricanes, collisions with asteroids or comets, stock-market crashes, and pandemics. He’s here at the Banff International Research Station, and doing a public talk on using math to predict the next catastrophe.

So I asked him about the recent natural disaster in the Philippines: was the extent of the power of Typhoon Haiyan fully predicted by scientists?

We knew very well the path of the hurricane and the authorities evacuated some 800,000 people but it wasn’t enough. It was such a strong hurricane –we call it hurricane here, in Asia they call it typhoon and in Australia they call it cyclone, but it’s all the same thing. With any hurricane we can predict about three days in advance a very good approximation of its path, but what we’re not so good at yet is predicting the strength of the hurricane. About two days before this one hit, we knew it was going to be particularly strong. The problem was logistics, not that science couldn’t predict it. They tried their best ….but time was short.

Watch Diacu’s BIRS talk here.

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BIRS: How to become invisible

Gunther Uhlmann is an internationally renowned mathematician. He solves complex scientific problems. He’s received several honours for his research including Guggenheim and Sloan Fellowships, has held post-doctoral positions at Harvard and MIT and is generally regarded as a mathematical genius.

Gunther Uhlmann is doing research on invisibility. Photo illustration:  Steve Zylius/UC Irvine Communications.

Gunther Uhlmann is doing research on invisibility. Photo illustration: Steve Zylius/UC Irvine Communications.

Yet for Uhlmann to simplify complex mathematical material into layman’s terms, he always consults his children — if they can understand it, then the rest of the world will, too.

“I try to explain these things to my kids, I find that helps a lot,” he says. That’s exactly what he did in preparation for a talk on the science and mathematics behind Harry Potter’s famous “Invisibility Cloak” in the popular children’s book (and film) series.

Invisibility has always been a subject of human fascination, from the Greek legend of Perseus versus Medusa to the more recent  Star Trek, The Invisible Man, The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Preparing a public talk in partnership with BIRS (the Banff International Research Station)  Uhlmann describes how inverse problems help in making invisible objects seem visible and, conversely, how visible objects are made to seem invisible.

Using the science behind the cloak that famously protects “The Boy Who Lived”, Uhlmann attempts to debunk the traditional notion of invisibility, and explain the process that deflects light off objects to make them appear invisible to the naked eye. “Science is fascinating because things that seem impossible are usually always possible,” he says.

So as the idea of interfacing on phones and computers was an outlandish concept back in the 80’s, could we expect to see a real Harry Potter-style invisibility cloak hit the shelves and become a regular commodity any time soon? “Anything is possible,” Uhlmann muses. “Wouldn’t everyone like to be invisible, even for just one day?”


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BIRS: Surfing the planet’s algorithms

“You can surf on waves in Hawaii that were generated in New Zealand,” says Dr. Paul Milewski (University of Bath), speaking to me with his colleagues over a lunch break during a recent session on water waves at the Banff International Research Station. “Why is that?”

Inside the high-end math of the water waves conference at the Banff International Research Station. Photo: Meghan Krauss

Inside the high-end math of the water waves conference at the Banff International Research Station. Photo: Meghan Krauss

It’s one of many questions that brought together mathematicians from a cross-section of scientific disciplines for this week-long conference. It’s the fifth in BIRS’s Mathematics of Planet Earth series, a year-long cross-disciplinary study of dynamic planetary processes, shared among more than 100 scientific organizations, societies, universities, and research institutes around the world.

Waves tend to share very similar mathematical properties, whether they’re made of light, sound, or water. Milewski explains that this commonality often brings scientists and mathematicians together in conversation about waves. One of the mathematicians tells me, between bites of his sandwich, about rogue waves – massive, spontaneous waves that are the dream of pro surfers and the nightmare of ship captains – and how they mirror the patterns of certain light waves. Not much is known about rogue waves, so scientists study light waves to learn more about them.

The study of water waves is relevant to a community much larger than mathematicians, or surfers. Water wave research informs our understanding of climate, and helps to guide safety measures against dangerous, unpredictable rogue waves and tsunamis. There’s a stereotype about mathematics that it’s a discipline detached from science, its methods, and more worldly concerns. The mathematicians here for the Mathematics of Planet Earth series, like all BIRS mathematicians, move between science and math in ways that are fundamental to an understanding of the world.

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Eight things I learned about art + science collaboration while eating a sandwich

Banff  Centre president Jeff Melanson (left) and CIFAR president and CEO Alan Bernstein take part in a panel discussion following an announcement of a partnership between the two organizations. Photo: Kim Williams, The Banff Centre

Banff Centre president Jeff Melanson (left) and CIFAR president and CEO Alan Bernstein take part in a panel discussion following an announcement of a partnership between the two organizations. Photo: Kim Williams, The Banff Centre

Yesterday the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) and The Banff Centre announced a new partnership aimed at strengthening Canada’s capacity in creativity and innovation.

In his opening remarks Banff Centre president Jeff Melanson, tongue planted firmly in cheek, suggested that he and CIFAR CEO Alan Bernstein were announcing their engagement. But behind the smiles lay the essence of this partnership – which is aimed at establishing productive relationships between scientists and artists. CIFAR and The Banff Centre together represent many of the world’s best minds engaged in the arts, and in research in the natural and social sciences. The aim is to get those minds talking – together in Banff, adding to the rich conversation already established through the Banff International Research Station (BIRS).

The partnership was kicked off with a luncheon and panel discussion about colloboration in the arts and science. Herein, eight things I learned while munching my egg salad sandwich:

  1. Quantum physicists can be awesome dancers – and they can even use dance to illustrate the principles behind quantum computers: meet our panel moderator Krister Shalm and his Quantum Dance project. Krister has promised to bring his dance to Banff in the future!
  2. From Alan Bernstein: Nobel Laureates in the sciences are 14 times more likely to be artists and ten times more likely to be engaged in creative writing than other scientists. Continue Reading →
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Dedicated group developing new resources for First Nations mathematics

The group involved in the First Nations Math Education week at Banff International Research Station gathers outside the Max Bell Building. Photo: Brent Kearney.

Teachers + educators + Aboriginal elders + mathematicians = results that prove to be very interesting.

Since their first meeting in 2007, the First Nations Math Education group has made more and more connections and developed more and more resources every time they have gathered together. “We’re really a team – our goal is to create a community of learning by pulling resources together and creating new ones,  all for the advancement of mathematics and the learning of mathematics,” says Melania Alvarez, UBC Mathematics outreach coordinator.

Recently, this group was here in Banff working on developing mathematical resources in which Aboriginal students in Kindergarten through to first-year university, “can see themselves reflected in the curriculum. Where there is rich cultural content and interesting mathematics.” The intention behind these resources is not intended solely for Aboriginal youth either. “We want everybody to have access to them,” Alvarez makes clear. Continue Reading →

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The creative nature of mathematics

Mathematician Dr. Richard Guy wearing his famous “Peace is a disarming concept” pin. After attending a peace walk in the late 1960s in Calgary Dr. Guy and his wife had 200 of these buttons made and have handed them out to anyone who liked them and agreed to wear one. Photo: Kim Williams.

Dr. Richard Guy is an inspiration. Period.

At the age of 96, this English mathematician is still as passionate about the teaching of mathematics as he is about mathematics itself. Sitting down with Dr. Richard Guy I wanted to ask to him about the role that creativity plays in math. I was curious to see what’s kept him interested in the field for so many years.

Dr. Guy started teaching math in 1939 at a grammar school in northern England. After taking a five-year break as a meteorologist and member of the air force during World War II, he returned to teaching math and hasn’t stopped since. He taught for 10 years in Singapore and helped set up the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi before making his way to Calgary in 1965. He has published more than 100 papers and books, made many discoveries in the field of mathematics, and is just as committed to the education of math. As a professor in mathematics with the University of Calgary he still goes in to the university every day.  Continue Reading →

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