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Maths of Planet Earth | Limitless Applications

A coffee with... Andy Pitman

Published on November 29th, 2012 | by Stephanie


Andy Pitman

Position: Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, UNSW

How do you introduce yourself at parties?

Depends on the time. If early, soberly. If late, potentially with a slur. I certainly avoid mentioning I am a climate scientist. Tends to bias the conversation … we are either saving the world or part of a global organisation of scientists conducting an orchestrated fraud.

Why mathematics?

I am not a mathematician – which means I am kind of an independent witness. “Why math” is simple. Climate Science has evolved from taking measurements in to a science that is utterly dependent on Mathematics, Physics, Computer Science and/or researchers with expertise in biology, Earth Sciences, Chemistry, Ecology etc *with* good mathematics.

So, I need bright students and bright researchers who are mathematically literate and I want more of them, and I want them now !!

Do you think that mathematicians deserve the “geek” tag?

Absolutely (see first sentence of my answer to the previous question). If you lot get the geek-tag, maybe Climate Scientists will get the “cool” tag. Ok, so I am hallucinating.

What area of mathematics and why?

No specific area – I utilise [via my students and postdocs] whatever area of math is appropriate to the problem at hand. So its sometimes statistics – like generalised extreme value theory, its sometimes far more into the applied math area, its sometimes techniques like wavelets.  But its always through my students and postdocs – they are far more capable than I.

What has maths done for you lately?

The latest area I have had anything to do with is some really smart Math a colleague has been developing with an Honours student that I have had the privilege to watch and learn from.

He has been working on how to determine if “n” models are independent – that is, if you run (say) 50 models, how many independent estimates of the result do you have. Alternatively, if you have one mathematical model and you perturb how that model is initialised, or how it represents parts of the system how independent are the results.

This has, I think, profound implications for climate projections and it is always fantastic to see Mathematics provide elegant solutions to something that is really directly important in a real-world sense.

Do you have a favourite application or theory of maths?

I have found wavelets fascinating, and have ideas on how they might be used more. I am also interested in how maths will help us transition our computer codes [more than 1E6 lines] from the petascale to the exascale computers. I also keep an eye on aspects of game theory ’cause I suspect there are more ways to use this than we have yet recognised.


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