Friday, August 31, 2012

Can Loving Penquins Save The World?

Photo courtesy: Derek Keats/CC BY-SA 2.0

I know that penquins are just possibly the cutest things that have ever waddled upon the face of the earth; but, saving the planet by loving them...seems like a stretch to me. But, not to Francois Blanchette.

Applied mathematician Francois Blanchette of the University of California at Merced was inspired by the fluid movement of penguins huddling from the cold in the hit documentary "The March of the Penguins." Now he hopes his work will inspire others, leveraging the power of penguin-love:
Nearly everybody seems to love penguins and not enough people love math," he says. "If we use math to study penguins we could potentially teach more people to love math too!
Seeing a perfect opportunity to apply his skills, Blanchette and his partners -- Arnold Kim and Aaron Waters -- developed mathematical models of penguin huddling which demonstrate that a selfish strategy to minimize individual loss of warmth optimizes heat sharing in the penguin mass.

Initial models with simple assumptions such as constant wind and identical penguins evidenced the fluid movement of the huddle, slowly migrating to leeward as cold penguins on the outer edge seek a warmer spot away from the wind. But these simple assumptions evolved a longer, narrower huddle than is typically seen in nature.

Adjusting the variables a bit to account for wind eddies and penguin variations resulted in that rewarding "Eureka" sensation, the moment when a mathematician knows their work is correct because it "fits" -- in this case fitting the shapes and flows Blanchette has seen on film.

As is common with a Eureka moment, Blanchette found the awe and amazement that scientists seek when studying nature. Blanchette describes the new insight his models triggered: "Even if penguins are only selfish, only trying to find the best spot for themselves and not thinking about their community, there is still equality in the amount of time that each penguin spends exposed to the wind." Blanchette further notes that the animals-alone-against-nature aspect may be critical: "A penguin huddle is a self-sufficient system in which the animals rely on each other for shelter, and I think that is what makes it fair. If you have some kind of obstacle, like a wall, then I think it would stop being fair."

Blanchette's hope to inspire future mathematicians must not be in vain. These types of mathematical models, accounting for a large range of variables while predicting behavior observed in nature, will be critical in measuring, predicting, and reacting to global climate change as well as for managing a wide array of complex interactions between mankind and our planet's ecosystems.

Blanchette's research has been published in PlosOne: "Modeling Huddling Penguins".

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