Interview: Science through the language of art

Gloria Benedikt was born to dance. She started at the age of three and since the age of 12 she has been training every day—applying the laws of physics to the body. But with a degree in government and an interest in current affairs, Benedikt now builds bridges between these fields to make a difference, as IIASA’s first science and art associate.

Conducted and edited by Anneke Brand, IIASA science communication intern 2016.

 

Gloria Benedikt © Daniel Dömölky Photography

Gloria Benedikt © Daniel Dömölky Photography

When and how did you start to connect dance to broader societal questions?
The tipping point was when I was working in the library as an undergraduate student at Harvard University. I had to go to the theater for a performance, and thought to myself: I wish I could stay here, because there is more creativity involved in writing a paper than in going on stage executing the choreography of an abstract ballet. I realized that I had to get out of ballet company life and try to create work that establishes the missing link between ballet and the real world.

To follow my academic interest, I could write papers, but I had another language that I could use—dance—and I knew that there is a lot of power in this language. So I started choreographing papers that I wrote and rather than publishing them in journals, I performed them. The first work was called Growth, a duet illustrating how our actions on one side of the world impact the other side. As dancers we need to concentrate and listen to each other, take intelligent risks and not let go. If one of us lets go, we would both fall on our faces.

What motivated you make this career change?
We as contemporary artists have to redefine our roles. In recent decades we became very specialized, which is great, but we lost our connection to society. Now it’s time to bring art back into society, where it can create an impact. I am not a scientist. I don’t know exactly how the data is produced, but I can see the results, make sense of it and connect it to the things that I am specialized in.

How did you get involved with IIASA?
I first started interdisciplinary thinking with the economist Tomáš Sedláček who I met at the European Culture Forum 2013. A year later I had a public debate with Tomáš and the composer Merlijn Twaalfhoven in Vienna. Pavel Kabat, IIASA Director General and CEO, attended this and invited me to come to IIASA.

What have you done at IIASA so far?
For the first year at IIASA I created a variety of works to reach out to scientists and policymakers and with every work I went a step further. This year, for the first time I tried to integrate the two groups by actively involving scientists in the creation process. The result, COURAGE, an interdisciplinary performance debate will premiere at the European Forum Alpbach 2016. In September, I will co-direct a new project called Citizen Artist Incubator at IIASA, for performing artists who aim to apply artistic innovation to real-world problems.

Gloria and Mimmo Miccolis performing Enlightenment 2.0 at the EU-JRC. The piece was specifically created for policymakers. It combined text, dance, and music, and reflected on art, science, climate change, migration and the role of Europe in it. © Ino Lucia

Gloria and Mimmo Miccolis performing Enlightenment 2.0 at the EU-JRC. The piece was specifically created for policymakers. It combined text, dance, and music, and reflected on art, science, climate change, migration and the role of Europe in it. © Ino Lucia


How do scientists react to your work?
The response to my performances at the European Forum Alpbach 2015 and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (EU-JRC) was extremely positive. It was amazing to see how people reacted—some even in tears. Afterwards they said that they didn’t understand what I was trying to say for the past two days, but the moment that they saw the piece, they got it. Of course people are skeptical at first—if they were not, I will not be able to make a difference.

Gloria and Mimmo Miccolis rehearsing at Festspielhaus St. Pölten for COURAGE which will premiere at the European Alpbach Forum 2016.

Gloria and Mimmo Miccolis rehearsing at Festspielhaus St. Pölten for COURAGE which will premiere at the European Forum Alpbach 2016.

What are you trying to achieve?
I’m trying to figure out how to connect the knowledge of art and science so that we can tackle the problems we face more efficiently. There are multiple dimensions to it. One is trying to figure out how we can communicate science better. Can we appeal to reason and emotion at the same time to win over hearts and minds?
As dancers we can physically illustrate scientific findings. For instance, in order to perform certain complicated movements, timing is extremely critical. The same goes for implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Are you planning on doing research of your own?
At the moment I am trying something, evaluating the results, and seeing what can be improved, so in a way that is a type of research. For instance, some preliminary results came from the creation of COURAGE. We found that if we as scientists and artists want to work together, both parties will have to compromise, operate beyond our comfort zones, trust each other, and above all keep our audience at heart. That is exactly what we expect humanity to do when tackling global challenges. We have to be team players. It’s like putting a performance on stage. Everyone has to work together.

 

More information about Gloria Benedikt:
Benedikt trained at the Vienna state Opera Ballet School, and has a Bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts from Harvard University, where she also danced for the Jose Mateo Ballet Theater. Her latest works created at IIASA will be performed at the European Forum Alpbach 2016 as well as the International Conference on Sustainable Development in New York.

www.gloriabenedikt.com
Fulfilling the Enlightenment dream: Arts and science complementing each other

 

Note: This article gives the views of the interviewee, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Interview: Plants and their fungi to slow down climate change

César Terrer, participant in the IIASA 2016 Young Scientists Summer Program, and PhD student at Imperial College London, recently made a groundbreaking contribution to the way scientists think about climate change and the CO2 fertilization effect. In this interview he discusses his research, his first publication in Science, and his summer project at IIASA.

Conducted and edited by Anneke Brand, IIASA science communication intern 2016.

César Terrer ©Vilma Sandström

César Terrer ©Vilma Sandström

How did your scientific career evolve into climate change and ecosystem ecology?
I studied environmental science in Spain and then I went to Australia, where I started working on free-air CO2 enrichment, or FACE experiments. These are very fancy experiments where you fumigate a forest with CO2 to see if the trees grow faster. In 2014 I moved to London for my PhD project. There, instead of focusing on one single FACE experiment, I collected data from all of them. This allowed me to make general conclusions on a global scale rather than a single forest.

You recently published a paper in Science magazine. Could you summarize the main findings?
We found that we can predict how much CO2 plants transfer into growth through the CO2 fertilization effect, based on two variables—nitrogen availability and the type of mycorrhizal, or fungal, association that the plants have. The impact of the type of mycorrhizae has never been tested on a global scale—and we found that it is huge. I think it’s fascinating that such tiny organisms play such a big role at a global scale on something as important as the terrestrial capacity of CO2 uptake.

How did you come up with the idea? One random day in the shower?
Long story short, researchers used to think that plants will grow faster, and take up a lot of the CO2 we emit. They assumed this in most of their models as well. But plants need other elements to grow besides CO2. In particular, they need nitrogen. So scientists started to question whether the modeled predictions overestimated the CO2 fertilization effect, because the models did not consider nitrogen limitation. To find out, I analyzed all the FACE experiments and indeed I saw that in general plants were not able to grow faster under elevated CO2 and nitrogen limitation. However, in some cases plants were able to take advantage of elevated CO2 even under nitrogen limitation. I grouped together the experiments where plants could grow under nitrogen limitation and after a lot of reading I saw what they had in common: the type of fungi! It turned out that one type of mycorrhizae is really good at transferring large quantities of nitrogen to the plant and the other type is not.

How did that feel?
Awesome! When I saw the graph, I knew: this is going to be important. Of course, after this, my coauthors helped me to polish the story. Without them, the conclusions would not be as robust and clear.

So how does this process work? Where do the fungi get the nitrogen from?
Particular soils might have a lot of nitrogen, but the amount available for plants to absorb might be low. Also, plants have to compete with non-fungal microorganisms for nitrogen. So if there is not much there, the microorganisms take it all. It’s called immobilization. Instead of mineralizing nitrogen, they immobilize it so that plants cannot take it up, at least not in the short term. Some types of fungi are much more efficient in accessing nitrogen, and associated with roots they allow plants to overcome limitations.

Nitrogen mobilization abilities of different types of fungi. Growth of plants associated with fungi not beneficial for nitrogen uptake (illustrated as grass roots on the left) could be limited by low nitrogen availability in soil. Other plants have the advantage of increased nitrogen uptake due to their beneficial association with certain types of fungi (illustrated as yellow mushrooms connected to the roots of the tree on the right). ©Victor O. Leshyk.

Nitrogen mobilization abilities of different types of fungi. Growth of plants associated with fungi not beneficial for nitrogen uptake (illustrated as grass roots on the left) could be limited by low nitrogen availability in soil. Other plants have the advantage of increased nitrogen uptake due to their beneficial association with certain types of fungi (illustrated as yellow mushrooms connected to the roots of the tree on the right). ©Victor O. Leshyk.

What is the impact of your findings?
Plants currently take up 25-30% of the CO2 we emit, but the question is whether they will be able to continue to do so in the long term. Our findings bring good and bad news. On the one hand, the CO2 fertilization effect will not be limited entirely by nitrogen, because some of the plants will be able to overcome nitrogen limitation through their root fungi. But on the other hand, some plant species will not be able to overcome nitrogen limitation.

There was a big debate about this. One group of scientists believed that plants will continue to take up CO2 and the other group said that plants will be limited by nitrogen availability. These were two very contrasting hypotheses. We discovered that neither of the hypotheses was completely right, but both were partly true, depending on the type of fungi. Our results could bring closure to this debate. We can now make more accurate predictions about global warming.

What will you do at IIASA and how will you link it to your PhD?
I want to upscale and quantify how much carbon plants will take up in the future. If we are to predict the capacity of plants to absorb CO2, we need to quantify mycorrhizal distribution and nitrogen availability on a global scale. We are updating mycorrhizal distribution maps according to distribution of plant species. We know for instance that pines are associated with ectomycorrhizal fungi and always will be. To quantify nitrogen availability we use maps of different soil parameters that are available on a rough global scale.

© Adam Edwards | Dreamstime.com

© Adam Edwards | Dreamstime.com

About César Terrer
Prior to his PhD, Terrer studied at the University of Murcia in Spain and the University of Western Sydney in Australia.

Currently he is a member of the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London, UK. For this study he collaborated with researchers from the University of Antwerp, Northern Arizona University, Indiana University and Macquarie University.

In the IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program, Terrer works together with Oskar Franklin from the Ecosystem Services and Management Program and Christina Kaiser from the Evolution and Ecology Program.

Further reading

 

Note: This article gives the views of the interviewee, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

How coordination can boost the resilience of complex supply chains

By Célian Colon, PhD student at the Ecole Polytechnique in France & IIASA Mikhalevich award winner

How can we best tackle risks in our complex and interconnected economies? With globalization and information technologies, people and processes are increasingly interdependent. Great ideas and innovations can spread like wildfire. However, so can turbulence and crises. The propagation of risks is a key concern for policymakers and business leaders. Take the example of production disruption: with global supply chains, local disasters or man-made accidents can propagate from one place to another, and generate significant impact. How can this be prevented?

Risk propagation is like a domino effect. Credit: Martin Fisch (cc) via Flickr

Risk propagation is like a domino effect. Credit: Martin Fisch (cc) via Flickr

As part of my PhD research, I met professionals on the ground and realized that supply risk propagation is a particularly tricky issue, since most parts of the chains are out of their control. Supply chains can be very long, and change with time. It is difficult to keep track of who is working with whom, and who is exposed to which hazard. How then can individual decisions mitigate systemic risks? This question directly connects to the deep nature of systemic problems: everyone is in the same boat, shaping it and interacting with each other, but no one is individually able to steer it. Surprising phenomena can emerge from such interactions, wonderfully illustrated by bird flocking and fish schooling.

As an applied mathematician thrilled by such complexities, I was enthusiastic to work on this question. I built a model where firms produce and interact through supply chain relationships. Pen and paper analyses helped me understand how a few firms could optimally react to disruptions. But to study the behavior of truly complex chains, I needed the calculation power of computers. I programmed networks involving a large number of firms, and I analyzed how localized failures spread throughout these networks, and generate aggregate losses. Given the supply strategy adopted by each firm, how could systemic risk be mitigated?

With my collaborators at IIASA, Åke Brännström, Elena Rovenskaya, and Ulf Dieckmann, we have highlighted the key role of coordination in managing risks. Each individual firm affects how risks propagate along the chain. If they all solely focus on maximizing their own profit, significant amounts of risk remain. But if they cooperate, and take into account the impact of their decisions on the risk profile of their trade partners, risk can be effectively mitigated. Reducing systemic risks can thus be seen as a common good: costs are heterogeneously borne by firms while benefits are shared. Interestingly, even in long supply chains, most systemic risks can be mitigated if firms only cooperate with only one or two partners. By facilitating coordination along critical supply chains, policy-makers can therefore contribute to the reduction of risk propagation.

Colon's model analyzes how firms produce and interact through supply chain relationships. Credit: Jan Buchholtz (cc) via Flickr

Colon’s model analyzes how firms produce and interact through supply chain relationships. Credit: Jan Buchholtz (cc) via Flickr

Drawing robust conclusions from such models is a real challenge. On this matter, I benefited from the experience of my IIASA supervisors. Their scientific intuitions greatly helped me focusing on the most fertile ground. It was particularly exciting to borrow techniques from evolutionary ecology and apply them to an economic context. Conceptually, how economic agents co-adapt and influence each other shares many similarities with the co-evolution of individuals in an ecological environment. To address such complex issues, I strongly believe in the plurality of approaches: by illuminating a problem from different angles, we can hope to see it more clearly!

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

The mathematics of love

By Sergio Rinaldi, IIASA Evolution and Ecology Program and Politecnico di Milano, Italy

Is it possible to predict how love stories develop, progress, and end using mathematical models? I have studied this question over the past 20 years with a group of researchers at IIASA and at the Politecnico di Milano, and as we show in our new book Modeling Love Dynamics (World Scientific, 2016), the answer is yes. The emerging message is that prediction is possible, if we can describe in formulas the way each individual reacts to the love and to the appeal of the partner.

Consider a standard love story, which develops like those described in a classical Hollywood movie such as Titanic. This story can be easily modeled, if one considers reasonably appealing individuals who increase their reaction with the partner’s love – so called secure individuals. Starting from the state of indifference, where the individuals are at their first encounter, their feelings continuously grow and tend toward a positive plateau.

Mala Powers & José Ferrer in Cyrano de Bergerac, 1950. Credit: Public Domain

Mala Powers and  José Ferrer in Cyrano de Bergerac, 1950. – Public Domain

Love stories become more intriguing when one individual is not particularly appealing, if not repelling, as in the fairy tale “Beauty and The Beast.” Indeed, in these cases, there exists also a second romantic regime, which is negative and can therefore entrain, in the long run, marital dissolution. In order to avoid that trap, people who are not very charming, or believe to be so, do all they can to look more attractive to the partner. At the first date, she wears her nicest dress and he shows up with his best fitting T-shirt. However, after a while, the bluffing can be interrupted, because the couple has entered the safe basin of attraction of the positive regime. Needless to say, the model also supports much more sophisticated behavioral strategies, like that described by Edmond Rostand in his “Cyrano de Bergerac,” the masterpiece of the French love literature.

Not all individuals are secure. Indeed, some people react less and less strongly when the love of the partner overcomes a certain threshold. These individuals, often very keen to flirtation, are incapable of becoming one with their partner. The model shows that couples composed of insecure individuals tend, with almost no exception, toward an unbalanced romantic regime in which the most insecure is only marginally involved and is therefore prone to break up the relationship at the first opportunity. This is why after just 20 minutes of the very long “Gone with the Wind,” when one realizes that Scarlett and Rhett are both insecure, the model can already predict the end of the film, where he quits her with the lapidary “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” The same conclusion is expected if only one of the two individuals is insecure. This explains the numerous failures in the romantic life of some individuals, like the beautiful star Liz Taylor, who is described as very insecure in all her biographies, and went, indeed, through eight marriages.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in "Gone with the Wind."

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind, 1939 – MGM Pictures | Public Domain

Mathematical models can also be used to interpret more complex romantic behaviors. Particularly important is the case of individuals who overestimate the appeal of the partners when they are more in love with them (like parents who have a biased view of the beauty of their own kids). Interestingly, if insecurity is also present, biased couples can have romantic regimes characterized by recurrent ups and downs. In other words, the theory says that bias and insecurity is an explosive mix that triggers turbulence in the life of a couple.

In the second part of the book we focus on  the effects of the social environment and to the consequences of extra-emotional compartments. In this context, our analysis of the 20-years long relationship between Laura and the famous Italian poet Francis Petrarch shows that poetic inspiration is an important destabilizing factor, responsible for transforming a quiet relationship into a turbulent one.

Finally, we studied triangular relationships, with emphasis on the effects of conflict and jealousy. In all these cases the dynamics of the feelings can be very wild, up to the point of being chaotic and, hence, unpredictable. When this occurs, the life of the couple becomes unsustainable, because painful periods of crisis can virtually start at any moment: a heavy permanent stress. The model can thus explain why the relationship is often interrupted, sometimes even tragically, as in the famous film by François Truffaut “Jules et Jim”, where Kathe’s suicide is perceived as a real relief.

CaptureMore information: Watch a video of Sergio Rinaldi’s talk at the 2015 Systems Analysis Conference.

Reference
Rinaldi S, Della Rossa F, Dercole F, Gragnani A, Landi P, (2015). Modeling Love Dynamics. World Scientific, Singapore [January 2016]  http://www.worldscientific.com/worldscibooks/10.1142/9656

 

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Don’t dope – run the code!

By Andrey Krasovskii, IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program

During his workout in the IIASA gym, my colleague Pekka Lauri often runs on a treadmill. He adjusts the velocity of running using the control panel, and it indicates the distance and approximate calories burnt. While Pekka may not be thinking about mathematical models during his workout break, running and other athletic performance can be modeled using some of the same techniques that we use for other questions at IIASA.

Outside of my academic work at IIASA, I am highly interested in sports, and athletics in particular. My wife, Katy Kuntsevich, has won Austrian championships in high jump several times, and my brother, Nikolay, was on his university team as a 400 meter runner.

Visiting my hometown Ekaterinburg, Russia, back in 2014, I got into a dispute with my father, who is a university professor in theoretical mechanics. Namely, my argument was that the sprinters’ acceleration at the finish line of the 100 meter race should be negative. Later on, during the Christmas holidays, I decided to mathematically support my statement.

Left: Prof. Krasovskii with a page from his Lectures in Theoretical Mechanics (Chapter 2, Kinematics, in Russian) featuring Valeriy Borzov on finish. This page was a reason for my study. Top right: Portrait of Isaac Newton.

Left: Prof. Krasovskii with a page from his Lectures in Theoretical Mechanics (Chapter 2, Kinematics, in Russian) featuring Valeriy Borzov on finish. This page was a reason for my study. Top right: Portrait of Isaac Newton.

When athletes run a race, their horizontal velocity can be estimated by modern technologies such as high resolution cameras and lasers. Knowing the horizontal instantaneous velocity, one can calculate acceleration. According to Newton’s law, one can introduce the forces applied to the body center mass of the athlete. Outside a gym treadmill it gets a bit more complicated, with air resistance and headwind or tail-wind. Against these aerodynamic forces the runner applies horizontal force, which drags him forward. In reality it is an “aggregate” of impulsive normal forces generated by feet and the stroke frequency.

The dynamics of an athlete have been described by an ordinary differential equation studied in papers on sprint modeling, first published by physicist J. Keller. This equation has been considered in numerous papers, which have shown that the equation fits the real data for short-distance running (100 and 200 meters). The indicated studies are devoted to the calibration of parameters, to the wind impact analysis, and to the choice of force functions such that the solution satisfies the actual motions, e.g. the running records of Usain Bolt.

The problem of running dynamics reminded me of a type of model that we sometimes use at IIASA, called an optimal control model. Optimal control models are used to calculate the best or most efficient way of doing something, for example, driving from one place to another. If I want to drive from Vienna to Laxenburg, I start my car’s engine at my house (point A). I look at the time, and plan to arrive to IIASA (point B) in 30 minutes. In optimal control terms, the car is a control object, and the driver controls it by pushing the gas/brake pedals and steering the wheel. In the driving process the car meets certain constraints (e.g. the engine power, available roads, and speed limits) and disturbances (e.g. traffic jams, lights, and weather conditions). Obviously, there are many ways of controlling the car in order to reach IIASA in 30 minutes. What if among those admissible controls, I wanted to find an optimal control minimizing car’s energy expenditures during the 30-minute trip from A to B? Here energy is an intensity (cost) of control actions, i.e. fuel (petrol/electricity), or corresponding greenhouse gas emissions. Well, in this case one needs to solve the classical minimum energy control problem. The solution to this problem gives an optimal plan that the car driver (or autopilot) needs to implement. Note, that the corresponding time-optimal control problem consists in finding the fastest driving time to IIASA under given fuel reserve. Optimal control theory (OCT) is an efficient tool for solving such dynamic optimization problems.

My research question was: “Can one control his/her running similar to driving a car?” The answer is: “Yes!”

I applied an optimal control model to Usain Bolt’s performance data at the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, when he ran the 100 meter sprint in 9.69 seconds. According to the model, under the same conditions he could have distributed his energy optimally and run the distance in 9.56 s. It is worth mentioning that this time is close to his current world record, 9.58 s, achieved at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin. In the paper I also provide modeling results for optimal (energy-efficient) running over 100 m: calculation of the minimum energy and trajectories of acceleration, velocity, and distance from start.

In the conclusion, I argue that applying advanced science in the athletic training programs is far better than doping–better in terms of a healthy body, mind and soul.

Here is my hypothesis of what Usain Bolt is doing at his laptop. © Weltklasse Zürich - Marcel Giger

Here is my hypothesis of what Usain Bolt is doing at his laptop. © Weltklasse Zürich – Marcel Giger

Reference:
A. A. Krasovskii, “Application of optimal control to a biomechanics model”, Proceedings of the Steklov Institute of Mathematics, 2015, Vol. 291, pp. 118–126. http://dx.doi.org/10.1134/S0081543815080118

 

I would like to thank Sergey Aseev, Katherine Leitzell, as well as my colleagues in the IIASA Ecosystem Services and Management Program (ESM) for their interest and valuable discussions.

 

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.