20 February 2007

Useless Arithmetic

Today's New York Times includes a science section Book Review of Orrin Pilkey's new book on models. This fits our last Fundamentals lecture so well, that I can't help but get excited.

When coastal engineers decide whether to dredge sand and pump it onto an eroded beach, they use mathematical models to predict how much sand they will need, when and where they must apply it, the rate it will move and how long the project will survive in the face of coastal storms and erosion.

Orrin H. Pilkey, a coastal geologist and emeritus professor at Duke, recommends another approach: just dredge up a lot of sand and dump it on the beach willy-nilly. This “kamikaze engineering” might not last very long, he says, but projects built according to models do not usually last very long either, and at least his approach would not lull anyone into false mathematical certitude.

It isn't that he entirely opposes modeling, but he is clearly concerned that it is being overused and under-understood. The publisher has up some comments too.

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