Why do Mathematicians do science?

I am busy taking my graduate math courses and I’m also taking an introductory level science course on the atmosphere and meteorology.  I am doing this because I would like to work with climate modeling.  I was chatting with a casual friend, who is also a mathematician, who asked me:

“why are you doing mathematics to work on climate change? why not just do science?”

My initial response sounded something like, “…cause I like math…”   But I realized I would be approached with this question repeatedly over my life and I should find a good answer.  My roommate and I have a saying, “Math + Science = WIN.”  We both believe this so intuitively that we never discussed why this equation would be true.  I’m going to try to do that now.

The Shodor Education Foundation developed an online simple climate model we are using in my science class.  They have an excellent page about creating models.   Scientists model things when they happen too fast for observation, they are unsafe to experiment on, or in the case of the climate, we  just can’t  several experiment on the global system.  As a result, the scientists make models to let them run experiments.  When scientists model something they have to ask one very important question, “How do we know the model is right?”  This is where the mathematicians can really help.

Mathematicians know a lot about models, and we know what kind of things models should do if they are robust.  We can look at the original equations of the model to see that they make mathematical sense.  As the models get more complicated, the scientists need more mathematicians to figure out if things are working together correctly or not.  So as a combined effort, the mathematicians can really support the science by using their abstract knowledge on a specific model.

And that’s one reason why math + science = WIN.  I’m sure there are more reasons, and perhaps better reasons.  Can you think of any?


About Samantha from SocialMath

Applied Mathematician and writer of socialmathematics.net.
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4 Responses to Why do Mathematicians do science?

  1. sarah-marie says:

    I think the question being asked is really “Why take a mathematics approach to a scientific question rather than a science approach?” It seems to me that because there’s only a finite amount of time in one’s life, one can’t be an expert on everything. You’re choosing to be expert in mathematics, not science. And in order make really good models, one has to know a LOT of math—more math than the average scientist has time to learn. So a reason why one might take a mathematics approach to a scientific question is that in order to get the best answers to the question, some people have to take science approaches and others have to take math approaches. You’re choosing to take the math approach.

    Maybe the quickie answer to “Why not just do science?” is, “Because science isn’t enough, by itself, to answer the important questions out there. I’m contributing my mathematical expertise to the expertise of scientists to get better answers.”

  2. Math Matters says:

    There is a long history of scientific discoveries made through mathematics as opposed to the scientific method (aka experimentation). The latest to hit the news (in a new biography of Paul Dirac) is the discovery of the positron (electron’s anti-matter). Paul Dirac so believed in the beauty (and thus truth) of his equations, that he predicted anti-matter so the real world would match the math. Of course, the prediction were true. Math has long been a path to insight and understanding.

  3. Ellen says:

    “The American Mathematical Society, the American Statistical Association, the Mathematical Association of America, and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics announce that the theme for Mathematics Awareness Month, April 2009, is Mathematics and Climate.”


  4. kibrolv says:

    math for fun; science for money.

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