Saving the Planet, from a Mathematical Perspective

June 8, 2006

Saving the Planet from a Mathematical Perspective


CONTACT: Michelle Montgomery, Marketing Manager

Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics

3600 University City Science Center

Philadelphia, PA 19104-2688

Phone: 215-382-9800 x368; Fax: 215-386-7999


WHAT: I.E. Block Community Lecture: Individual Choices, Cooperation and the Global Commons: Mathematical Challenges in Uniting Ecology and Socioeconomics for a Sustainable Environment

WHO: Dr. Simon Levin, Princeton University Professor and Director, The Center for BioComplexity

WHEN: Wednesday, July 12, 2006

6:15 – 7:15 p.m.

WHERE: The Castle at Park Plaza
64 Arlington St.

Boston, MA 02116–3901

Tel: (617) 457–2281

On Wednesday, July 12, 2006, from 6:15 PM – 7:15 PM, Professor Simon Levin of Princeton University will deliver the I.E. Block Community Lecture, "Individual Choices, Cooperation, and the Global Commons: Mathematical Challenges in Uniting Ecology and Socioeconomics for a Sustainable Environment."

Professor Levin's upcoming talk will explore the modeling challenges in dealing with problems associated with the interdependence of those ecosystems that form the complex web of life on this planet and the human societies in which we live.

Levin received the Kyoto Prize in 2005 from the Inamori Foundation of Japan for his honorable contributions to environmental science. The 50 million yen award (approximately $460,000) is given in recognition of lifetime achievement in the categories of basic science, advanced technology and arts and philosophy. "In proposing many methods of biological conservation and ecosystem management, Professor Levin has made fundamental contributions to environmental science," the foundation commented.

In old English law, the common (or commons) was a tract of ground shared by residents of a village, but belonging to no one. It might be grazing grounds, or the village square, but it was property held in common for the good of all. 1 Today the term "global commons" refers to the Atmosphere, Hydrosphere, Lithosphere and Biosphere that we all share and for which we all must take individual personal responsibility. We live in a place and a time in which not only individuals, but societies and nations, act in their own interest, leading to problems for the biosphere as a whole, including the depletion of common resources, the toxification of the environment, and even the loss of effectiveness of the antibiotics that are so fundamental to public health. In the terminology of economists, conventional markets have failed to restrain our harmful activities, like overconsumption, because those markets do not adequately incorporate the social costs, the externalities.

How can we resolve this situation and develop patterns of social behavior that hold out greater hope for a sustainable future? What can we learn from evolutionary theory, and how can mathematical approaches improve our ability to devise strategies? Ecological and socioeconomic systems alike are complex adaptive systems in which patterns at the macroscopic level emerge from interactions and selection mechanisms mediated at many levels of organization, from individual agents to collectives to whole systems and even above.

This fascinating lecture will explore these phenomena from the novel perspectives of dynamical systems and the theory of games, and will look at the mathematical challenges in dealing with such problems. In particular, Professor Levin will address our understanding of how, and under what conditions, cooperation and altruism have arisen in the process of evolution; why social norms, including punishment, have arisen to reinforce socially beneficial behavior; and how those social norms can lead to inter-group conflicts. Attention will focus on the socioeconomic systems in which environmental management is based, the lessons that can be learned from our examination of natural systems, and the ways in which we can modify social norms to achieve global cooperation in managing our common future.

Sponsored by The MathWorks ( and organized by SIAM (Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics,, this free lecture encourages public appreciation of the excitement and vitality of applied mathematics, by reaching out as broadly as possible to students, teachers, and members of the local community, as well as to SIAM members, researchers, and practitioners in fields related to applied and computational mathematics. The lecture is open to the public and is named in honor of I. Edward Block, a founder of SIAM who served as its Managing Director for nearly 20 years.

SIAM, headquartered in Philadelphia, PA, is an international community of over 10,000 individual
members, including applied and computational mathematicians, computer scientists, and other scientists and engineers. The Society advances these fields through a series of premier journals and a wide selection of conferences. With over 500 academic and corporate institutional members, SIAM serves the disciplines of applied mathematics and computational science by publishing a variety of books and prestigious peer-reviewed research journals, by conducting conferences, and by hosting activity groups in various areas of mathematics. SIAM supports regional sections and student chapters that provide many opportunities for students. One of the primary goals of SIAM is to increase the pipeline of students into applied math studies and careers. More information about SIAM is available at

The MathWorks is the world's leading developer of technical computing and Model-Based Design software for engineers and scientists in industry, government, and education. With an extensive product set based on MATLAB® and Simulink, The MathWorks provides software and services to solve challenging problems and accelerate innovation in automotive, aerospace, communications, financial services, biotechnology, electronics, instrumentation, process, and other industries.

The MathWorks was founded in 1984 and employs more than 1,400 people worldwide, with headquarters in Natick, Massachusetts. For additional information, visit

MATLAB, Simulink, Stateflow, Handle Graphics, Real-Time Workshop, and xPC TargetBox are registered trademarks of The MathWorks, Inc. Other product or brand names are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective holders.

1 A.R. Palmer, Institute for Cambrian Studies, Boulder, Colorado.

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