A Story of Math in the Himalayas

I’d like to share with you this problem that I’ve been really interested in for the past few years (that also happens to be one of the toughest questions I’ve ever been asked). In tenth grade, one of my buddies in math class turned to me and whispered, “Why are we learning this stuff? How does any of this matter later in life?” I thought for a few minutes, and realized I was completely stumped.

As strange as it might sound, I really believe that the finding answer to that question should be one of our nation’s top priorities – and at the very least, it is worth a lot more than we think. Based on economic value alone, Stanford economics professor Eric Hanushek estimates that we could increase our nations GDP by 4 percent (or roughly 500 billion dollars annually) alone if we could boost our test scores to match those of the world’s top performing nations. Of those scores, performance on math tests are shown to be most strongly correlated with future economic success. But I’m not so interested in sifting through big numbers and statistics – instead, I’d like to share a story with you. 

Let’s put aside the math conversation for a moment and talk about life in the Himalayas. Housing the world’s highest mountain range as well as some deserts, the Himalayas are a fuel-scarce environment to say the least. Historically, residents have resorted to collecting and burning yak dung as their primary source of fuel. This reliance causes problems, as yak dung supplies are not only inconsistent but dangerous – burning yak dung releases methane, which can reach lethal concentrations indoors. Unfortunately, some have no other option but to do so, because of the cold weather.

In 2008, a team of undergraduates from Wellesley and MIT found out about this problem and came up with an elegant solution. Knowing that solar panels would be infeasible to maintain in the rural Himalayas, they designed a lightweight solar cooker to produce cheap energy by focusing the sun’s rays. Their design turned into SolSource, a product that can be set up in less than a minute and withstand high winds and temperatures of below 40 degrees.

The fundamental insight behind SolSource is something that we all learn by the time we’re halfway through high school: the parabola. The parabola’s focus is a point where all rays parallel to the axis of symmetry intersect. By lining foil in the shape of a 3D parabola (or paraboloid), the team was able to focus the sun’s rays much like a magnifying glass would, except much more effectively.

What fascinates me about this story is that this team took a mathematical concept that nearly all of us learn, and directly applied it to literally save lives halfway across the world.

What saddens me about this story is that stories like these aren’t told enough, and certainly not to the people who need to hear it the most. Math can do (and is doing) amazing things for our planet, ranging from securing all wireless communications with prime numbers, to powering computers that can diagnose malicious cancer tumors using Bayes’ theorem. The basic mathematics behind these concepts are in fact taught in high school classrooms, but the motivation behind the equations are severely lacking, or not present at all. Take a moment to re-envision the math classroom as an environment where students still focus on principled learning, but also take five minutes a day to hear stories like these. Would your answer to our earlier question be different? 

| July 14th, 2013 | Posted in Uncategorized |

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