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Robert May

Started by Recusant, April 29, 2020, 08:28:40 PM

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The Australian scientist Robert May has died. He was the Government Chief Scientific Adviser for the UK from 1995 to 2000.

"Robert May, former UK chief scientist and chaos theory pioneer, dies aged 84" | The Guardian

QuotePioneering Australian scientist Robert May, whose work in biology lead to the development of chaos theory, has died at age 84.

Known as one of Australia's most accomplished scientists, he served as the chief scientific adviser to the United Kingdom, was president of the Royal Society, and was made a lord in 2001.

Born in Sydney on 8 January 1938, May's work was influential in biology, zoology, epidemiology, physics and public policy. More recently, he applied scientific principles to economics and modelled the cause of the 2008 global financial crisis.

On Wednesday, his friends and colleagues paid tribute to a man who they said was a gifted polymath and a "true giant" among scientists.

Professor Ben Sheldon, the head of Oxford's department of zoology, said May's work had "changed entire fields" of science.

The current president of the Royal Society, Venki Ramakrishnan, said May was "an extraordinary man" who "drove great change in every domain he committed his talents to".

"Bob was a natural communicator and used every available avenue to share his message that science and reason should lie at the heart of society, and he did so with a fervent pursuit that resonates with those of the society's founding members."

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"Lord May of Oxford obituary" | The Guardian

QuoteHe first came to prominence in 1973 when he challenged the conventional wisdom that simpler ecosystems, such as the monocultures developed through commercial farming, are more vulnerable to collapse than more complex ecosystems containing many different species. His book Stability and Complexity in Model Ecosystems, published that year, showed mathematically that in a system with multiple species competing for resources, the more species there were, the less stable was the system as a whole.

This theoretical challenge provoked numerous field studies, concluding that diverse systems were generally more stable in the real world, but that stability depended critically on the nature of the relationships (such as predator and prey) within the community. Even diverse environments, such as rainforests and coral reefs, can still be highly vulnerable to changes they have not evolved to withstand.

He next explored mathematically why the number of individuals of a particular species might vary from year to year, often quite unpredictably. He showed that relatively constant numbers, cyclic boom and bust, or wildly unpredictable fluctuations, could all be explained by the same equation, with very small variations in initial conditions such as the number of animals or the rate of reproduction. This was one of the first applications of chaos theory to biology.

Although May enjoyed such puzzles for their own sake, he believed strongly in the responsibility of the scientist to work for the benefit of society. With the advent of the Aids crisis in the 1980s, he turned to studying the spread of infection. A model he developed with Roy Anderson of Imperial College London accurately predicted the rapid transmission of HIV in communities where encounters with multiple sexual partners were the norm.

Even May's closest friends were flabbergasted when he was offered, and accepted, the post of government chief scientist in 1995. With his wiry frame habitually dressed for hiking, and a taste for explicit language that was unusual in a university, never mind a government department, it seemed implausible that he, his civil service colleagues or his political masters would cope. But the headhunters had done their job well.

Despite a professed dislike of administration, May had in fact served for several years as chair of the research board at Princeton, New Jersey (effectively vice-president for research), and was on the boards of trustees of both the Natural History Museum and the Joint Nature Conservancy Council.

He put on a shirt and tie, rolled up his sleeves, and proved – mostly – a very civil scientific adviser. As he later related to the Australian broadcaster Robyn Williams, the then Tory minister William Waldegrave told May that he was probably the first person to use the word "bullshit" in the Cabinet Office – adding that "he hoped he wouldn't be the last". He was then able to do what he liked best: to "understand the points of leverage on a complex system and what you ought to be doing to make it work better".

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"Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration — courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and above all, love of the truth."
— H. L. Mencken

billy rubin

i'd never heard of him. had no idea that stability=complexity was being challenged. by the 1990s i was out of the loop.

what an interesting man.,

set the function, not the mechanism.


No way! Dead..? I totally missed that.  :(
Quote from: Ecurb Noselrub on July 25, 2013, 08:18:52 PM
In Asmo's grey lump,
wrath and dark clouds gather force.
Luxembourg trembles.