Popular Science’s Brilliant 10

Each year the magazine Popular Science dubs 10 young scientists their “Brilliant 10”, highlighting the scientists’ work and its implications. In the 2010 edition, more than a few of the profiled rely on mathematics. The work of two, Iain Couzin and Paul Rabadan, are especially mathematical and I’ll mention them here.

Iain Couzin, “the Pattern Maker”, works in ecology and biology, and specializes in identifying the rules that underlie the movements of groups of animals.

The shuffle of life—the wheeling of birds, the silver flash of escaping fish—looks mystically organized. Iain Couzin, who models collective behavior in nature, identifies those patterns mathematically. And he’s finding that certain patterns extend across otherwise unrelated units of life, whether bugs or cancer cells.

This is, of course, one of the great strengths of mathematics: once abstracted, it is easy to recognize a pattern that occurs in different places. Some of Couzin’s earlier work—featured in articles in National Geographic and the NY Times, for instance—involved divining the rules that army ant colonies use to direct their devastating raids. His most recent work, mentioned in Discover, provides an explanation for the large migrations seen in so many animal species. The model, if correct, also provides a warning: tampering with the migrating herds, through hunting or habitat alteration, could devastate the migration instinct itself.

Migration could disappear in a few generations, and take many more to come back, if at all. Indeed, bison in North America no longer seem able to migrate, a fate that may soon be shared by wildebeest in the Serengeti. Migration may vanish at a scale measured in human years, and recover at time scales measured in planetary cycles.

Raul Rabadan, “the Outbreak Sleuth” has a background in string theory, but his numerical experience is serving him well now in his hunt for the agents behind various biological diseases.

Raul Rabadan hunts deadly viruses, but he has no need for biohazard suits. His work does not bring him to far-flung jungles. He’s neither medical doctor nor epidemiologist. He’s a theoretical physicist with expertise in string theory and black holes, and he cracks microbial mysteries in much the same way he once tried to decode the secrets of the universe: He follows the numbers.

Rabadan has been a pioneer of a data analysis technique called Frequency Analysis of Sequence Data that has been able to pinpoint previously unknown viruses as the cause of major disease outbreaks in various animal (and human) populations. Some of his work focused on tracing the origins of the H1N1 swine flu virus, with articles about the work appearing in Wired and online at CNN and USA Today.

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