MadSci Network: General Biology |

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Dear Emily, I apologize for the delay. You need to understand that science is a mathematical endeavor. Math is the language and the currency of science. There are some areas of scientific investigation that are descriptive. For example the role of the naturalist comes to mind, people who describe the organisms they find, classify and categorize them. But as you will see, even this role has matured into a mathematical one. Marine biology and most other developed sciences have progressed from descriptive to predictive. That is, rather than describing what we see around us, most scientists seek to explain the processes at work and make some kind of prediction. These predictions are often made in the language of mathematics. Predictions help us test whether or not our explanations are correct. I will begin with some of the math I personally utilize. Much of what is done is the lab on a daily basis involves chemistry, preparation of standard solutions, media etc. at different concentrations. This involves relatively simple arithmetic calculations. Students most often get lost or confused in the long series of calculations sometimes required. Probably the single most useful technique for this kind of calculation is UNIT CANCELLATION, incredibly handy! Algebra and trigonometry as well as calculus are used to analyze data. These allow me to model the reactions I am studying. For example, one area that I have investigated is the relationship between light level and algal photosynthesis. There are several mathematical models or formulae used describe the curve that is generated from the data. One includes a hyperbolic tangent function, another uses exponents to the base e and there are others that are more complex. So how do we decide which is best? That is where statistics comes in. The models are tested statistically using model fitting statistics. These calculate how well the line described by the mathematical function we are using fits the data. These often require that derivatives of the variables be examined (= calculus). There are many other ways math is used in marine biology. For example, investigators examining field data (as opposed to experimental data) may use the principles of chaos theory to explain what looks like random fluctuations. Satellite oceanographers use a variety of algorithms to relate satellite color data to biomass. Even systematists and taxonomists, scientists who categorize organisms in order understand evolutionary relationships, utilize mathematics in the form of cladistics (a statistical grouping method). The list of math uses goes on and on, but it gets easier and easier to do the math with every new computer advancement. The one thing a computer can't do is understand why we choose the math functions it is told to perform, though. So, even though calculation gets easier, scientists still need to understand math. Hope this helps.

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