Serge Lang Undergraduate Lecture: When the precision of mathematics meets the messiness of the world of people

Lecture | November 2 | 4:10-5 p.m. | 60 Evans Hall | Note change in date

 Keith Devlin, Stanford

 Department of Mathematics

Almost all mathematicians are attracted to the subject by its certainty and precision. It’s one of the most finely sharpened blades in the human cognitive armory. It rules supreme in many parts of Physics and Engineering. It is almost as precise when applied to the activities of large populations of living creatures, including humans, though the precision then is a statistical one that applies to the group as a whole. But can math be useful when applied to living creatures on a more local scale? The answer is “yes”, but the contribution mathematics can make shifts from “providing precise answers to specific questions” to “providing data that helps a domain expert make a decision”. These newer uses of mathematics can be traced back at least as far as the early days of probability theory (concepts such as “utility”), but became prevalent much more recently, with applications in the financial markets (for example, the Black-Scholes model for pricing derivatives), workplace study and design (including workplace communication), and intelligence analysis. I’ll give examples from the last two domains, both of which I have worked in. Unless you find your way into a university mathematics department after graduation, you may find yourself using mathematics in this kind of way.