Mathematical Digest

Short Summaries of Articles about Mathematics
in the Popular Press

"Design by numbers", by R. McNeill Alexander, Nature, 9 August 2001.

"Optimization theory is a branch of mathematics that was developed largelyby economists, and which is used enthusiastically by some biologists andviewed with grave suspicion by others. It seeks the best possible solutionsto problems: for example, the best investment strategy for a banker, thebest breeding strategy for a bird and the best design for a girder or bone."The author, a biologist, asserts that optimization theory is used "not toprove evolution or learning works, but to check our understanding." Theauthor cites some problems in which optimization is used: it helps explainhuman high and long jumping (using models to calculate the speed and anglesof the athletes), and helps explain the swimming performance of squids. "Inmathematical language, the squid has failed to reach the global optimum, butit may well be near to a local optimum.... The value to biology of properlyapplied optimization theory has been splendidly demonstrated by GeoffreyParker and John Maynard Smith, but their message may have to be repeatedmany times before the doubters are convinced."

--- Annette Emerson

American Mathematical Society