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Institute of Advanced Study

Models of the Future Public Lecture Series

Calman Learning Centre, room 202 

Models increasingly underpin much of how we live, in ways that we don't always appreciate. Our collective understanding of the past is that it is full of surprises, things we wish to avoid. Models become a means of making the future predictable. Futures that are predictable can be avoided and so controlled. As George Orwell said He who commands the future conquers the past. It is not surprising that models, then, increasingly permeate our day to day existence in ways that we rarely appreciate. However, there are occasions when our reliance on models emerges, often during times when they unsettle, undermine or simply fail to deliver the secure and predictable futures that we wish. During such occasions, not only do models come under scrutiny, but so do the very knowledge principles and practices of which they form a part, as we struggle to come terms with the uncertainty that is endemic to any understanding of the future.   The aim of these public lectures is to examine the value, power and reach of models, both mathematical and non-mathematical.  They will also interrogate what happens when models unsettle, undermine or fail to deliver through the way in which they are used in areas of current contemporary concern.

29 October 2007, 6.15pm
Paul Ormerod (Volterra Consulting)

21st Century Economics

Substantial advances have been made in economics in the past 20 years.  The list of economics Nobel laureates in the 21st century is largely made up of people who have worked outside the traditional Rational Economic Person paradigm of the textbooks. 

The most important advance is the large amount of work, often drawing on psychology, which tests how people actually behave.  The conclusions are a devastating blow to the postulates of the rational, maximising decision maker of conventional economics.  In general, people gather limited information, reason poorly, and act intuitively rather than rationally.  All scientific theories, even quantum physics which has survived the most rigorous empirical tests, are approximations to reality.  The question is in any application: how good is the approximation?  In limited circumstances, the conventional economic view of rational behaviour is a good one.  But most of the time it is a poor approximation, sometimes very poor.  And its use can give seriously misleading views of how the world actually operates. 

The challenge of reconstructing economic theory virtually from scratch makes it an exciting time to be an economist.  The lecture will give practical illustrations of the rapid advances which are being made, mainly by scholars outside the discipline of economics itself.


12 November 2007, 6.15pm
Professor Neil Ferguson (Imperial College)

Plagues, Prediction and Preparedness: Modelling the next Global Pandemic

The avian epidemic of H5N1 influenza poses a unquantifiable but ongoing risk of causing a human pandemic with potentially much more severe consequences - in terms of human mortality - than other candidate avian influenza viruses. Reducing this risk - via policies designed to contain or mitigate the spread of a new pandemic virus has been a key policy priority in many countries in the last 2 years. Epidemic modelling provides a powerful tool for understanding the dynamics of past pandemics, projecting the likely pattern of spread of future pandemics, and assessing the likely benefits of different control measures - though uncertainties about the biological and epidemiological properties of the next pandemic virus limit our ability to precisely predict the speed of spread and health impact of a pandemic. After introducing some basic epidemiological concepts, I will review what modelling has told us about the feasibility of containing a pandemic at source, before it has the chance to spread globally. If containment at source fails, an often discussed policy option is to try to slow spread by restricting international travel. I will present the results of modelling studies which indicate that significant delays are only possible if travel restrictions are almost completely effective at preventing population movement. Modelling has also been influential in forming opinion about the relative effectiveness of different options for mitigating the consequences of a pandemic in any one country. I will discuss the likely effectiveness of the two categories of control measures: medical interventions - including antiviral treatment and vaccination, and non-medical interventions - such as public health measures intended to increase social distance, such as school closure, household quarantine and case isolation. I will conclude with a discussion of how analyses of historical data influenza transmission can provide key data for refining estimates of control policy effectiveness.


26 November 2007, 6.15pm
Professor Donald MacKenzie (Edinburgh University)

$74,000 for Every Human Being on Earth:  Models and the Growth of Financial Derivatives Markets

In January 1970, there was no organized financial-derivatives exchange anywhere in the world.  Derivatives were often regarded (including by market regulators) as little better than bets on price movements, and indeed many of today's derivatives contracts would have been regarded legally as wagers, and hence prohibited in the US and unenforceable in the UK. 

At the end of December 2006, the total notional amount of financial derivatives outstanding worldwide was $486 trillion, the equivalent of $74,000 for every human being on Earth.  While the figure exaggerates the economic significance of financial derivatives, they have become crucial to the functioning of modern financial markets

This talk will discuss the role of economic models (especially the theory of options) in this transformation, and in particular will examine the extent to which the adoption of those models brought into being the 'world' (market conditions and price patterns) they posited.

14 January 2008, 6.15pm
Professor Sheila Jasanoff (Harvard University)

Modeling the World:  Vision and Representation in the Politics of Climate Change

Climate change emerged as an organizing concept for environmentalism in the 20th century along with new narratives of space, time, and nature.  Collectively, these narratives remodeled the world, influencing the prospects for scientific understanding as well as political action.  Spatially, climate change raised the scale of critical environmental degradation, as well as the need for solutions, to the global level.  Temporally, it extended the present into the future, intensifying the mandate for intergenerational equity embedded in the definition of sustainable development.  With respect to nature, climate change reinforced the catastrophist thinking of an earlier era concerned with the limits to growth.  In this paper, I use vernacular visual images to display the tensions and contradictions accompanying these narratives of climate change.  Shifts in the spatial, temporal, and natural orders of environmentalism, I suggest, are anything but neutral or innocent.  They displace other models of how the world works and other modes of organized political action.  By tracing the interplay of visual messages with formal and informal verbal discourses, I show why climate change, far from unifying the global community around a common threat, has exposed deep contradictions in our efforts to model and manage the human environment.


25 February 2008, 6.15pm
Professor Simon White (Max Planck Institut)

All from Nothing: the Structuring of our Universe

Telescopes allow us to see the past and have provided a detailed image of our Universe when it was only 400,000 years old. At that time it was hot, dense and almost smooth, no stars, no galaxies, no planets no elements heavier than helium, formless but not void. I will explain how gravity drove the emergence of present-day complexity from this primordial soup, why the pattern that we see suggests that the Universe consists primarily of some as yet unidentified material, and why it is now thought that all structure originated from the vacuum itself just after the Big Bang.  Everything, it seems, grew from nothing.


10 March 2008, 6.15pm
Rowan Douglas

Risk, Capital and Information: Modelling Catastrophe in a Networked World

Society shares the costs of catastrophes such as floods, earthquakes and windstorms through taxation or insurance. The reinsurance industry specialises in evaluating the frequency, severity and financial impact of these extreme events and ensuring that funds are available to cope with natural disasters as they occur.

The last twenty years has seen the rise of a new discipline: Catastrophe Modelling. This has revolutionised the way in which the industry confronts these challenges by integrating science and engineering with risk and reinsurance markets.

Rowan Douglas will describe the role and nature of this modelling challenge, identify avenues for future research and highlight areas in which Durham University is leading modelling developments.