Monday, April 18, 2011

The Simplicity of Complexity

There is no use in hiding it. I am a math nut. Yes, one of those really weird people who really love mathematics, fooling around with numbers and all of that possibly outside-the-norm stuff. In fact, I dream in numbers and think of numbers when I am conscious at some of the least expected times. But before all you therapists out there start emailing me your next available slot, I think I am relatively OK otherwise. Just crazy about numbers.

Which bring me to today’s topic – Mathematics Awareness Month! You can hardly imagine how excited I was when, after all these years, I found out only this past weekend of this fantastic annual event. My discovery came during the April 16 program on NPR in which Sanford University Professor, Keith Devlin, was describing this year’s topic, Unraveling Complex Systems. What really got me hooked was his statement that, “Complex systems are inherently non-unravelable. The best you can do is gain a holistic understanding by running simulations.”

Holy quadratic equations, Batman! Isn’t that what emergency preparedness is all about? [OK, how many of you were trying to see how I was finally going to make a connection...] Preparing for disaster is in essence preparing for everything. Floods, earthquakes, fires, terrorism, tornadoes. That is a complex and a daunting task. Which, incidentally, is why so many people delay getting prepared, or deny that preparedness does them any good.

So, if we think of what Dr. Devlin said, that we gain an understanding by running simulations, then we are all closer to simplifying a very complex problem by doing just that – running simulations in the form practice drills, practicing your fire escape, practice turning off the gas to your house (but DON’T turn it off until you have a real emergency!), practicing what to do when an armed gunman enters your classroom, practicing drop, cover and hold on... It is all simulation to help you understand how the real thing works, then being able to do it when the real thing occurs.

Complexity to simplicity. It can work. You just have to play with the numbers.

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