### The Math of Environmental Sustainability at Harvey Mudd

#### Posted by John Baez

Ever wonder what mathematicians can do to help solve the environmental problems facing all of us? I do. Maybe this will help:

- 2010 Harvey Mudd College Mathematics Conference on the Mathematics of Environmental Sustainability and Green Technology, Harvey Mudd, Claremont, California, Friday–Saturday, January 29–30, 2010. Organized by Rachel Levy.

From the conference webpage:

On Friday night, a panel of researchers from the Claremont Colleges and representatives from environmental groups in Claremont will share what research and development are happening in the Claremont community and at the colleges. On Saturday, we will have four speakers from a variety of disciplines who will pose problems and challenges of interest to the mathematics community. This collection of talks from the perspective of mathematics, engineering, physics, and atmospheric science will provide an overview of the cutting edge of research in energy and sustainability. A poster session will provide an opportunity for participants, including undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, and faculty to share their research with attendees.

## Re: The Math of Environmental Sustainability at Harvey Mudd

As a related comment, aside from all the “deep” mathematical work on environmental issues, one area that hasn’t received as much attention as it deserves is the contextual numerical assessment of energy issues. By this I mean that it’s easy for enivronmental discussions to throw up isolated numbers that we don’t have an overall context for (eg, a nuclear power plant can produce 600MW: even though you may know technically what that means, relating it to other energy technologies and energy usage isn’t something we’re practiced at). Professor David McKay at Cambridge has produced a book (with a freedownload website for the book “Without hot air”, although you can also purchase conventionally published copies from bookstores/online) which attempts to put some order of magnitude estimates on both energy “generation” and energy usage in the UK, scaling things down to the per individual case so that it’s easier to see the effect of various items on both sides of the “balance sheet”. (Despite being able to pick the best brains in the top universities, McKay’s original research is in coding/machine learning and he’s not an specialist on any of the individual topics, so individual calculations may well be wrong. What’s brilliant is that he’s put the whole thing on a “whole system” numerical basis so that you can see what it might mean on the whole balance if, say, wind-power generation capacity was underestimated by a factor of five. Unfortunately critics seem to pick on individual calculations which may be inaccurate without taking the larger point of looking at the whole system numerically.)

I thought this was worthy of mentioning because it’s definitely not sexy mathematics, but it is an important contribution, and hopefully a lasting one, to the methodology of analysing enivronmental, and I applaud McKay for having the character to plug away at non-deep stuff to produce this.