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Daniel Rothman awarded math prize for work on Earth's carbon cycle

Professor of geophysics and co-director of the Lorenz Center at MIT honored with the 2016 American Mathematical Society Levi L. Conant Prize.
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Daniel Rothman
Daniel Rothman
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MIT Professor Daniel Rothman has been awarded the 2016 Levi L. Conant Prize from the American Mathematical Society (AMS).

Rothman's work has contributed widely to our understanding of the organization of the natural environment, resulting in fundamental advances in subjects ranging from seismology and fluid flow to biogeochemistry and geobiology. He has also made significant contributions to research in statistical physics. Recent areas of focused interest include the dynamics of Earth’s carbon cycle, the co-evolution of life and the environment, and the physical foundation of natural geometric forms.

The citation for the Conant Prize, which honors his 2015 paper, "Earth's Carbon Cycle: A Mathematical Perspective," in the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society, says: "Mathematics finds a place in Science by enunciating principles that at once classify, quantify and illuminate natural phenomena. This heuristic is often best displayed when phenomena are simple or at least isolated from external influences. In this sense, biological processes present a particular challenge for Mathematics because they are generally tapestries of confounding factors. It is nowadays common to approach such problems from a viewpoint that promotes data collection and data analysis as the pathway to knowledge. But, as Dan Rothman points out in this article, 'Data, however, require understanding'. Here, he gives us an understanding of the Earth's carbon cycle by applying classical ideas from applied mathematics to the data at hand.

"This article is especially timely as humanity grapples with the consequences of releasing trapped carbon by burning fossil fuels. The author, a geophysicist, concludes with an invitation to mathematicians to take up the challenge: 'Because the carbon cycle represents the coupling between life and the environment — metabolism at a global scale — its mathematical description inherits the difficulties of biology in addition to physical science. Thus, theoretical understanding of dynamics, so crucial to advancing knowledge of how the carbon cycle works, remains more qualitative than quantitative. Such problems present scientific opportunities with no shortage of social significance. Mathematics will surely play a central role in future progress.'

"But it isn't just the timeliness of the topic that draws us in and holds our interest. At every step the author takes care to explain the science as well as the mathematics involved in clear straightforward prose so that the entire article is accessible to a general mathematical audience. We often hear about Wigner's 'unreasonable effectiveness of Mathematics in the sciences', but it is not so often that we see this manifested in a beautiful exposition of a fundamental ingredient of our existence."

Rothman joined the MIT faculty in 1986, after receiving his BA in applied mathematics from Brown University and his PhD in geophysics from Stanford University. In 2011, Rothman and his colleague Kerry Emanuel co-founded MIT’s Lorenz Center, a privately funded interdisciplinary research center devoted to learning how climate works. He is a fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Geophysical Union.

Presented annually, the Conant Prize recognizes the best expository paper published in either the Notices of the AMS or the Bulletin of the AMS in the preceding five years. The prize will be awarded on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016, at the Joint Mathematics Meetings in Seattle.

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