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Maths forecasts may soon save lives

Julian Hunt, president of the Institute of Mathematics, yesterday held out the promise of mathematicians in the future being able to differentiate between natural and man-made variability in the climate.

Speaking at the launch of a campaign by the institute to raise the profile of mathematical research and application, Professor Hunt said that this differentiation will be made possible thanks to developments in statistics that are now gathering pace.

Professor Hunt, who is chief executive of the Meteorological Office, said that life-and-death decisions are made on the basis of forecasts of storms and tropical cyclones - the biggest cause of deaths from natural disasters.

He said that it had been thought that a massive reduction in error would only be possible by the use of data expensively acquired by special aircraft flights or by carrying out a huge numbers of computations of the intricate internal dynamics operating within each cyclone.

Last year a new but simple mathematical algorithm enabled the amount of error in the forecast of these cyclones to be reduced by 40 per cent.

Professor Hunt said that the "brilliant use and development of statistics has been crucial in the improvement of public health and medical treatments". Mathematics is also set to have a profound impact on decision making in business.

"I find it quite exciting to note that since business decisions have an essentially probabilistic basis, depending on the fickle tastes of people, exchange rates and so on, that it should be natural for business and government to accept scientific and mathematical results about inanimate but complex systems in a probabilistic form."

The behaviour of very large systems that are partially deterministic - such as traffic, the economy and competition between firms - present some of the biggest challenges for mathematics in the future. Professor Hunt said that such systems were very poorly formulated as mathematical problems.

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