“The power to predict your world”: interviewing Samuel Arbesman and Mark Daley

Here’s a new one for the coincidences-leading-to-cool-ideas file: Who would have guessed that stacking up old journals in someone’s office could inspire a new field of research! For my latest Skeptically Speaking episode, I spoke with applied mathematician Samuel Arbesman about his book The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date. He filled me in on the many ways that mathematical modeling can be used to better understand scientific knowledge, from predicting how the number of scientific studies will grow to how quickly different types of knowledge are overturned or modified.  One of the fields that is most concerned with these questions, scientometrics, got some of its first inspiration when Derek J. de Solla Price was asked to store some journals on the floor in his office. The library at Raffles College (now part of the University of Singapore) was undergoing renovations and they sent various volumes out to staff offices for safe keeping. De Solla Price wound up with the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society from 1665 to 1850 stacked up in piles on his floor. The piles looked suspiciously like an exponential growth curve, and he was struck with a great idea. During our interview, Samuel shared many more stories like this of unexpected patterns that are found in everything from operas to how cities grow.

Continuing on that theme I also chatted with Mark Daley from the Brain and Mind Institute at Western University. Mark is a professor of both computer science and biology (and a musician and composer!). He uses computational modeling to understand the network connections in our brains and how different areas work together on tasks. Much to my delight, he also surprised me with some cool examples of how his work applies to popular music, but I’ll let you check out the episode to hear more about that one.

So why do an episode about why mathematical and computational models are so valuable? Mark expressed it perfectly:

Math is a tool for helping you understand the world. It’s by far not the only one, but it’s a very useful one, a profitable one. So when kids ask “Why should I learn math?” — because it gives you power to understand your world, to model your world and maybe even to predict your world.

You can find the episode on the Skeptically Speaking website: Episode #224 The Half-Life of Facts

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