Matt Simon describes cellular automata, a modeling tool that has allowed scientists to monitor, measure, and predict peat fires using probability. These fires are fueled by dead, underground vegetation that has accumulated over thousands of years. Understanding peat fires is critical because they can quickly spiral out of control, are dangerous to extinguish, and exacerbate climate change by releasing built-up carbon into the atmosphere.
1. The article demonstrates a form of renewal that is not necessarily positive. In what other ways might renewal be a devastating process?
2. What are some modern problems that rely on math for their solutions? How do people use abstract mathematical ideas (such as imaginary numbers, derivatives, or probability) to find these solutions?
The article notes that modeling the burn of forest fires was not the original purpose of cellular automata. Experiment with something related to your major (programs, tools, standard conventions, etc.). Brainstorm some ways that those things might be modified to do something new. If possible, try out your experimentation. Did it work the way that you expected it would?
Math is the kingdom of imagination. Any world you can imagine, you can create. But once you’ve set up the rules of your world, you have to keep playing by them. For example, I can declare that 10 = 0, if I want to, but I have to live with the consequences—now 17 = 7 as well. Actually, that’s the fun of it: seeing how the rules you dream up play out on their own. For people who love puzzles, patterns, logic, and a good intellectual challenge, there’s nothing more fun than math. When I was entering college, I loved math for its challenge, and for its beauty, but I had no clue about how powerful and wide-ranging its applications are. Math does everything from predicting the path of hurricanes, to constructing the images on a CAT scan, to deciding what video will play next on YouTube.
The article you’re about to read will tell you about how mathematical rules can be used to model the spread of fires, but more broadly, it’s about how math can be used to tackle complex modern problems, renew the environment, and improve people’s lives. I’d like you to consider how your major can be used to improve people’s lives—and don’t be afraid to do some research to find out. If a subject is worth spending four years of your life on, it’s worth finding out what you can do with it after that!
This video from TED explores the ways that math helps define the world around us.
Matt Simon is a science journalist at WIRED, where he covers biology, robotics, cannabis, and the environment. He’s also the author of Plight of the Living Dead: What Real-Life Zombies Reveal About Our World—And Ourselves, and The Wasp That Brainwashed the Caterpillar, which won an Alex Award.
Here are two additional sources on wildfires:
- This article from The Current looks at the relationship between climate change and wildfires as well as ways that this information is being used to fight fires.
- This article from Yes! looks at the impact of wildfires on Native Americans. It examines the roots of fire suppression and post-colonial vs. indigenous fire management practices.