Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Travels in a mathematical world

Throughout my career in O.R., I have had a dilemma about the role of mathematics in what I do. When I talk to other people on a casual, friend to friend basis, I often say that I do mathematics, and immediately add that I do the "Interesting stuff, the stuff with everyday applications". When I talk to clients or those sponsoring projects, I may talk about modelling. With students, I will talk about the mathematics that lies behind models, but will stress that these models need to be appropriate, easy to understand, and applied with political and psychological insights. As has been said many times, "A manager would rather live with a problem s/he can't solve than a solution s/he can't understand".

So I am not sure whether or not I ought to be recommending the website:
www.travelsinamathematicalworld.co.uk. It has accounts of careers in mathematical areas, as part of a process of making information about these available to a wide readership or listeners to podcasts. I came across the account by Professor Mike Maher, whose title is Professor of the Mathematical Analysis of Transport Systems at the (UK) University of Leeds. He describes the use of O.R. models in several areas of transport, mainly traffic assignment. He concludes:

"The skills that I enjoy employing are modelling skills - taking a real-world problem, and trying to formulate it as s mathematical problem with sufficient realism that the outputs can be taken seriously but simply enough to stand a chance of solving it. Then formulating some method, an algorithm, by which the problem can be solved efficiently and robustly. And in the field of transport, there is no shortage of problems!"

Isn't that what O.R. is about? Especially, I hope, "enjoyment".

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