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March 17, 2021

Mathematics in the 21st Century

Posted by John Baez

I’m giving a talk in the Topos Institute Colloquium on Thursday March 25, 2021 at 18:00 UTC. I believe that’s 11:00 am Pacific Time. In any event, that’s when I plan to show up.

As usual for them, it will be broadcast live on Zoom and also on YouTube, where it will be recorded for posterity. Only Zoom lets you ask questions. The password for Zoom can be found on the Topos Institute Colloquium website.

I’ll say a bit about the developments we might expect if mathematicians could live happily in an ivory tower and never come down for the rest of the century. But my real focus will be on how math will interact with the world outside mathematics.

Mathematics in the 21st Century

Abstract. The climate crisis is part of a bigger transformation in which humanity realizes that the Earth is a finite system and that no physical quantity can grow exponentially forever. This transformation may affect mathematics — and be affected by it — just as dramatically as the agricultural and industrial revolutions. After a review of the problems, we discuss how mathematicians can help make this transformation a bit easier, and some ways in which mathematics may change.

Posted at March 17, 2021 2:34 AM UTC

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Great talk.

I think it’s important, like you say, to get a quantitative idea of the changes involved in this climate crisis. 38 billion tonnes of carbon waste thrown into the atmosphere is a huge, almost unbelievable number. I really appreciate you putting those numbers in. It makes it more concrete.

And I have noted that people involved in bringing the crisis to political attention are kind of hazy on the science of it all and which I find surprising since it was science that first brought the crisis out into the open. Perhaps this means that people who are like journalists will have to learn how to talk to people who are like scientists. It’s becoming a smaller world after all.

How about a talk about what physics can do about the climate crisis/anthropocene in the 21st C?

I think a lot of this will come down to education in teaching people there are more ways of capturing the energy of the sun than just by burning fossil fuels. I imagine a lot of people are still thinking there are no alternatives.

I find it deeply disturbing that even at this late stage that fossil fuel subsidies - according to the IMF - capture something like 85% of all subsidies globally. Thats roughly 5 trillion dollars annually. Really, that figure should be zero for fossil fuels and what subsidies there are should be going to green energy. Also, I don’t understand how the fossil fuel industry, a massively profitable industry, is even eligible for subsidies. It simply does not make sense. One good reason for subsidies is to help nurture new technologies that are required in the future. And its green energy, not fossil fuels that require that help.

It’s a great idea that we should plant more trees to enable more carbon capture. As a bonus it also means we can use this to increase biodiversity. Personally speaking, I’m somewhat uncomfortable in thinking we should value biodiversity economically. I think nature is a good in itself and should be valued as such. It’s what Oscar Wilde meant when he said that people who know the price of everything do not know the value of anything.

I appreciate that when it comes to policy makers that kind of thinking is what is expected. Nevertheless, I think it impoverishes the horizons of our imaginations when we value nature in a strictly utilitarian fashion. It means we think in a smaller way, and arguably, in the wrong kind of way.

A question:

When it comes to greening the world, would it be useful to think about greening cities? Especially seeing that more and more people are living in urban spaces? Or is the scale too small here?

Posted by: Mozibur Ullah on April 13, 2021 8:27 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

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