By Queena Lee-Chua Inquirer MANILA, Philippines--After the 9/11 attacks in the United States, I visited a Muslim vendor at the Greenhills Shopping Center tiangge. I asked her if she had experienced any repercussions, but she assured me: “We are fine. We are all friends here.” For many years, Muslim and Christian stall owners have been engaged in friendly competition, as they ply their trade side by side. At an international conference, I asked a Singapore educator how their country had managed to remain peaceful despite the variety of ethnic groups and religions there. He replied: “Chinese, Malay, Indian, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu -- we grow up together. In school, each group can choose to learn its own dialect and its own faith, but everyone is required to mingle with each other, and all students must learn English. We respect one another’s religions; our temples, churches, mosques are near each other.” Violence is typically the subject of sociology or psychology. My classes at Ateneo de Manila University study violence in terms of prejudice, groupthink, aggressive instincts. A few years back, I tried using math to model conflict, specifically how game theory (popularized by Nobel laureate John Nash, portrayed in the movie “A Beautiful Mind”) could shed light on the Spratly Islands dispute and the 1986 Edsa Revolution. However, there were too many real-life factors that my simple model could not control, so I stopped that line of research. But math, it turns out, can prevent violence. Not game theory this time, but a new field called the science of complex systems, whose principles have long been used to study how chemicals, like oil and water, or solid, liquid and gas, behave in the laboratory, and the boundaries between them. Of course, humans are certainly more complex than molecules. But according to a landmark report that appeared in the prestigious journal Science (Sept. 14, 2007), math can help make sense of how different groups interact. The lead author of the report is a Filipino -- May T. Lim of the University of the Philippines’ National Institute of Physics in Diliman, Quezon City. “I have always been interested in science, as well as music, literature and the arts, although between science and recess, I would have picked recess any day,” Lim says. What motivated her to pursue physics? “MacGyver!” she says -- certainly prescient, because, as any 1980s TV buff knows, MacGyver does use his scientific skills to combat violence. The study on math and violence started three years ago, in the latter half of 2004, shortly after Lim went to the New England Complex Systems Institute (Necsi) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “My personal involvement started about a year later,” she recalls. “I had been working on using modeling to describe other systems during my doctorate work at UP before that. But my mentor and co-author, Necsi president Yaneer Bar-Yam, started research on violence seven years ago in his book ’Making Things Work.’” More than 100 million people have died in ethnic violence in the last century. Researchers try to pinpoint probable roots, such as resource competition, territorial squabbles, economic competition. But Lim and Bar-Yam, together with Richard Metzler, now focus on something that has been neglected so far—the boundaries between different groups. “We performed statistical analyses comparing the predicted to the reported violence, evaluating the ability of the model to determine both where violence occurs and where violence does not occur,” the scientists report. Different ethnic, cultural or social groups interact in various ways, depending on how much they are mixed. Social and political factors can trigger violence, but it is more likely to occur with specific types of boundaries. What boundaries? For one, violence tends to occur when boundaries between different groups are not clear. “When a group is large enough to impose its cultural standards publicly, but not large enough to prevent them from being broken, violence normally occurs,” Lim says. Think of islands or peninsulas composed of one cultural group, surrounded by a different one. These areas may most likely become hotspots of violence because the boundaries are not well-defined. By studying census figures, Lim and her group discovered that unclear boundaries were linked to violence during the Bosnian wars in the former Yugoslavia and recent conflicts in India. For their study on India, the scientists created a map based on the 2001 census showing the relative population sizes of different groups like Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains. By looking at the boundaries between the groups, they predicted -- with an astonishing 90-percent accuracy -- locations of extreme violence, especially in Kashmir, Punjab and other areas in Northwest India. The scientists also predicted accurately that other areas would have lesser violence, such as Jharkhand. To prevent violence, policymakers need to identify areas at risk and make boundaries clearer. (“Good fences make good neighbors,” said the poet Robert Frost.) True, groups that are separated by clear boundaries can still experience some antagonism because of other reasons. But boundaries prevent mixing, which minimizes the chance of violence. The scientists cite Ireland as an example. Because of historical and religious differences, we should expect unstoppable conflict there. But because of clear boundaries that hinder much mixing, violence has generally been prevented in the past years. Does this mean that we should erect fences among us, the higher the better? Not exactly, and certainly not all the time, say the scientists: “Caution is warranted to ensure that the goal of preventing violence does not become a justification for it. Even a peaceful process of separation is likely to be objectionable.” They urge us to think about negative effects of separation, such as displacement of populations. But there is another way. A friend told me once that he almost came to blows with a neighbor over the task of clearing a giant tree felled by a typhoon: “The tree lay practically between our gardens. After much argument, we finally came to our senses and cooperated. He cleared the tree, and I paid him for it.” This brings us to the second result of Lim’s study -- one I find more congenial than erecting high fences. Violence can be prevented by thoroughly mixing different groups so that islands and peninsulas do not even form. The study confirms what my Singaporean colleague told me. In Singapore, more than 80 percent of the population live in public housing, where rules specify the percentage of ethnic groups occupying housing blocks. National laws force cultural mixing, and various peoples literally have no choice but to live and grow up side by side. There are social tensions at times, but violence is generally absent. Why is this so? In places where people are highly mixed, no group becomes big enough to develop a strong identity, or to impose its culture on others. Groups “are neither imposed upon nor impose upon other groups, and are not perceived as a threat to the cultural values or social and political self-determination of others,” the scientists say. Lim and her group believe that their work can be applied to deal with violence in Iraq and Africa. The model has yet to be applied to the Philippines. “That would be an interesting project,” Lim muses. She adds: “The key is to understand how the boundary structure of the population and the geography interact. When violence is sporadic, like what happens in our country, the conditions are likely to be just barely meeting those that promote violence. “Ethnic violence is a very serious problem. But now we have the ability to help prevent it using a scientific approach.” Lim’s research has already proven my “suki” right. As long as different groups mix closely together, as they do in the Greenhills tiangge, there is hope for us. The author is a professor of mathematics and psychology at the Ateneo de Manila University. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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By Queena Lee-Chua Inquirer "EARLY in my working life i realized that I am not intellectually superior," says National Scientist Gelia T. Castillo. "But as a simple sociologist, I found comfort in the thought that science must serve a human purpose. This often means doing science from the ground up and then tapping into sophisticated tools to address problems. When doing workshops in rice breeding, drought, trees, weeds, malaria, or HIV-AIDS, I always look for the people factor. For example, in breeding rice, I ask questions like: For what? For whom? For where? For what purpose? These are all people issues." I am proud to call Gelia a friend. Her story "The Eloquence of Seeds," which shows her love for the natural world, is included in my book "Cogito Ergo Sum and Other Musings on Science," which won a National Book Award. Whatever Gelia may say, I affirm that she possesses not just intelligence, but wisdom as well. Take for instance, the fact that for scientists, progress is mainly counted by the number of journal publications; up to now, I still get a thrill when a paper has been accepted internationally. Gelia acknowledges this, but also adds, "Science pursued to address the problems of ordinary people often has other ways of communication than journals. When research fits into real life, the impact on human well-being makes it all worthwhile. Sometimes the proof of the pudding is in farmers' fields." Crossing disciplines When I began doing research in two fields, math education and psychology, some people said I had to choose only one of them. I tried my best to do so, but soon realized that the questions I wanted to answer, such as what kind of thinking processes are present in probability and statistics, or how to deal with gifted kids or slow learners, needed inputs from both disciplines. Happily, I learned that Gelia herself is proud to be interdisciplinary, and indeed, has been so for her entire career. Gelia talks about her working life with candor and wit. "I spent 40 years with the University of the Philippines (UP). What I loved best was that UP never interfered with my freedom to be and my freedom to do. This probably made up for the P18,000 salary of university professor I got when I retired." "But rice is my life. I have been a member of the board of trustees of Philrice for more than 20 years. I have survived four presidents and 10 department secretaries. How did I last so long? Since I am shy, I am probably regarded as harmless." Gelia has worked with international health and agricultural centers. "I learned about crops and genetic resources, but research is really about people even when the science focuses on commodities or nutrients. In health, I witnessed Nobel Laureates behave like ordinary mortals fighting the scourges of humanity, such as malaria and TB. They care for those who need care most. Science is their tool, but people are their driving force." Gelia has also evaluated several research programs, all of which promise to benefit the poor. However, "between promise and performance is a great distance." An exception is the International Development Research Center of Canada (IDRC), which "was not afraid to take risks in opening up new research platforms in developing countries." Gelia was on its board of governors. She laughs, "IDRC had an information sciences division before Bill Gates became a household name." Gelia is truly interdisciplinary. As a Ford Foundation program officer, Gelia has immersed herself in rural field work. Active in a micro-finance organization, she does not expect "to be acknowledged as a feminist among feminists," but her group has more than 300,000 women-members who have benefited from its activities. Lifetime responsibility "While being a National Scientist is a recognition," Gelia says, "it is also a lifetime responsibility to society. Values of science like intellectual honesty, objectivity, excellence, validity, innovativeness, systematic procedures and evidence-based conclusions are values which the rest of Filipino society can imbibe. These values are the opposite of what predominate in our country today. In science, we do not cheat because the truth will sooner or later come out." "Cogito Ergo Sum and Other Musings on Science," a collection of Filipino science poems, essays and stories, is available at the Ateneo University Press. E-mail email@example.com.
HERE'S an excerpt from Queena Lee-Chua's latest column piece:
Randles often credits the Greek geometer Pythagoras for insisting on harmony in music. What role does Pythagoras play here? Recall the study of waves in basic physics. Those with the shortest wavelengths are for invisible light (such as X-rays, microwaves and ultraviolet rays), followed by relatively short color waves (such as the rainbow). Longer wavelengths are for sound waves. According to Randles, the note "do" (from do re mi) has a particular frequency, measured in hertz. To ensure that music sounds good, the notes should follow a certain ratio, discovered by Pythagoras millennia ago. This ratio should be familiar to musicians: 1/1, 2/1, 3/2, 4/3, 5/4, 6/5, and so forth.