Friday, January 27, 2006

Counting things: mathematics and the past

Since my genetic genealogy post a week or so past, I've noticed a number of news items about using mathematical tools to get a handle on complicated phenomena.

For instance, I read recently that epidemiologists trying to predict how a new flu pandemic might work, have been paying attention to two on-line "games" called Where's George? and Where's Willy? In "Where's George?" you feed your address and the serial number of an American $1 bill (which features G. Washington on the front) into a web site, and you can then track it's further travels once it leaves your wallet -- at least if new owners are also feeding in information. Where's Willy is a similar game that uses Canadian $5 bills, which feature Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

Canadian historians -- did anyone ever call Laurier "Willy?"

In any case, if you have information about the travels of more than a single $1 or $5 bill, you have the results of a handy experiment (a South African summary) in how human beings move around and come into physical contact and maybe even give each other the flu.

More on the historical side is an article in the eminent journal Science where an atmospheric scientist has tried to use a commonly used model to show that we may have a higher proportion of the manuscripts from the Middle Ages than we think -- and this may tell us something about the survival of ancient texts and ancient science. Interestingly, a rebuttal by a historian also hinges on numerical estimates, and even more interesting, on arguments about what kind of model might be worth using to answer the question.

My comment: I'm all in favor of the survival of written material, but there's a lot more to science even in ancient and medieval times than whether you can read Aristotle. If Aristotle's on the shelf, will you actually read him? And if you do, will you believe him implicitly? Or will you do some independent work of your own?

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