Quantslut: A laywoman’s musings on the “hard sciences”and math


The discontinuities of climate change

The concerns with continuity that I mentioned in last month’s column are still top of mind, given that I’ve been learning about physical climate risk, which can be expected to impose radical discontinuities on the way humans on earth do almost everything. (Google, if you doubt it, “Twaites glacier” and “wet bulb temperatures.”) As far as I know, though, our financial climate modeling still assumes smooth functions, and has not yet integrated what pure math has discovered through the complementary disciplines of chaos theory and catastrophe theory. As I understand it, catastrophe theory describes in a very articulated fashion what happens when the shit hits the fan—e.g., why does the shit hit the fan at one particular moment and not another? So maybe it could be used to improve our estimates of how much time we’ve got to turn things around, and whether with certain interventions, we could buy ourselves more time.

Chaos theory could also help us prioritize both public spending and personal actions. It’s the mathematics of how small differences in initial conditions can magnify through chain reactions, in a so-called “butterfly effect.” So it could help us predict whether a dollar invested in public transit or solar energy, right at this moment, is more likely to “bend the curve” of carbon emissions downward in a way that matters for 2050. On a personal level, this analysis could help us figure out which bad habits we should be giving up first. Is flying worse or eating meat? Is there an area of my tiny, individual life that could actually make a difference, because having today’s baseline be just a smidge lower could make the difference, in 2050, between Earth being a post-apocalyptic wasteland and the Garden of Eden redux?

In my dreams, I get to moderate an ongoing conversation about this among mathematicians in those two disciplines and climate modelers and providers of scenario analysis. In an unrecorded, Chatham-house rules, safe-space kind of way, in order to get that conversation going. That, to me, would be something hygge:  a safe space to really think.

Euclid’s First Proposition

When not worrying about climate change, I’ve been pondering with a friend the fact that Euclid, in his first proposition, refers to the same circle with trios of letters in different orders.  I think this illustrates a friend’s point that the Greeks thought of circles as discs, whereas we tend now to think of the circle as the set of points a radius away from a center–even though we all know that is the definition of “circumference,” not of “circle.” Thinking of the circle’s circumference when we hear or read the word “circle” is like thinking of the banana peel when someone says “banana.”

This finding about the psycholinguistic differences between ancient Greeks and ourselves may be useful to consider in the context of the puzzle (introduced to me by that same friend this month) of how we can know for sure that the two circles Euclid describes in Proposition 1 must intersect. We came to the conclusion that if one rigorously reminded oneself at every moment that the circle is a disc and not a fence around emptiness, one might conceive the very notion of intersection differently, in such a way that this puzzle does not seem so puzzling. It seems more intuitive that discs (or in three dimensions, spheres) that are centered on the endpoints of a line segment with a radius of that line segment are going to intersect each other.  It’s so basic it’s almost tautological, in a way.

In any event: it seems to me that the “monogram,” if you will (meaning the three-letter combination) that Euclid uses to refer to a circle centered on A might as well be a single symbol, because you are not meant to retrace with your mind, when you read it, three stopping points (which the three letters, taken as individual signs, could have designated–and which they would do if they referred to a triangle). Instead, you are meant to use that monogram as a label, and when you read it, to call to mind the disc.

Anyhow, doing this kind of extreme close reading of Euclid’s Elements (with friends and for publication) is for me, a great winter evening entertainment.

Intellectual Discharge

Intellectual discharge is a notion, I have recently learned, in proof theory. I believe it refers, principally, to the need to no longer hold in mind a number of thoughts one has been intermittently revisiting (as one perhaps does, on some level, with all memories one maintains), because one has achieved the insight toward which they served as stepping stones. The thoughts thus discharged may have been revealed as erroneous or irrelevant, or they may have revealed what became axioms, forming subsequent discourse so thoroughly that the thoughts themselves no longer need articulation.

It seems to me that this process—of accumulation of thought toward an insight, followed by discharge—has an analogue in the process of dramatic catharsis (which I bet Aristotle envisioned as more complex than a simple release or outpouring). I wonder whether and how it may also relate to the accumulation of psychic energy that psychoanalysis designates with the term cathexis. Bringing scholars of Aristotle into dialogue on this point with proof theorists and with psychoanalysts (especially Bion specialists influenced by Wittgenstein, of which the field contains a fair number currently) could lead to some interesting work in the phenomenology of mathematics (if nothing else).

However, I’m too worried about climate change to think about much else for long.

The Gamification of Climate Scenario Analysis

I’ve been brainstorming with friends and colleagues about the idea of a video game based on climate scenario analysis.  I first thought of it because while I’m not a gamer, I’ve lived with some very serious ones, and I know how adept the whole field of video games is at capturing and seizing people’s attention. That is one thing we need—more attention paid to climate and all the difficult puzzles we are facing about how to transform our energy systems (including the political challenges involved). But right now, it seems technical and daunting and frankly, boring. People only turn their attention to it when they have to for work, and they feel like there’s a huge learning curve. But what if climate scenario analysis became a game tons of quants were playing all the time, when they were goofing off and supposed to be doing something else?

In my first vision of it, I thought of each player having an avatar who is doing something conventionally competitive: say, being a CEO and building a business, or being a king and building an army and conquering territory to build an empire. Players would go up levels and gain new powers when they achieved certain amounts of wealth and power, just like in lots of games. But the game would be programmed so that actions taken at lower levels probabilistically alter your prospects at higher ones, in ways related to climate. Like, if you consume a lot of fossil fuels as you build up your empire in the first few levels, you get through those levels faster, but you also ratchet up the odds that when you’re doing your final assault on your enemy’s city, your tanks are going to get bogged down in mud from an unseasonable downpour, or your soldiers are going to die of thirst in a newly desertified region they have to cross.

There could even be a carbon footprinting module embedded in this which somehow gets players interested in how much CO2 actually is emitted every year and what could change that. Like, maybe you could have settings in which global carbon prices are enacted at different levels and times, so that different outcomes become more or less likely. Maybe players would then get interested in doing research on carbon themselves, enjoy criticizing the simplistic assumptions of the game in YouTube videos, and suggest modifications to the game developers—all of which would draw more and more attention to what needs to happen. I want to channel our powers of pleasurable distraction for good.

~ Kimberly Gladman ~