How Joel Cohen uses math to make sense of a complicated world
Inside Joel Cohen’s
head is a 3-D grid of the world, in which 100 million or so
interconnected dots pulsate irregularly, sometimes swelling or
contracting in slow-mo fashion and then rapidly reversing. To
Cohen, who is the university’s Abby Rockefeller Mauzé
Professor and head of the Laboratory of Populations, each of these
dots represents a species and it’s his life work to figure
out their dynamics and interactions.
Within this dynamic, Cohen looks for coherence.
He and his lab team use the tools of mathematics to search for
patterns in the data and to test ideas. “The role of math in
biology is to take a simple idea about how a complicated system
works, understand the consequences of that idea, and see how the
expected consequences compare with actual observation,” he
says. The art of Cohen’s work is to look for features that
seem more persistent within this dynamic web, in order to deduce
the rules from which all flux is generated.
Understanding populations of lake and farm
dwellers is useful, but the big questions Cohen gets asked are
often about people. It’s often a variation on: How many
humans is too many?
Today, Cohen can be found encouraging the use
of the mathematical methods he’s long applied to groups of
organisms to tackle the questions that take place within those
SIDEBAR: Where estimation meets litigation
March 18, 2005
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