Big Ideas in Literacy
A Snapshot of an Applied Mathematician at Work
The paved playground at an elementary school in Los Angeles is being repaired. Groups of children and several teachers watch the process from a distance. As the backhoe digs into the pavement, a large sinkhole forms, and several of the children fall into it. What’s happening? What caused this sinkhole to happen? Did it occur naturally, or was it the result of faulty work on the part of the construction company? Charlie Eppes, a mathematician and professor at CalSci, is called in to investigate.
Eppes begins to speculate on causes for the sinkhole. Was it the result of something that altered the underground water flow? He creates a mathematical model of the underground water flow in that area using soil samples and a geological map. He looks at environmental reports for the area. Did the prior work of the construction company result in a slow drainage of the aquifer that created an underground cavern that then became the sinkhole?
As the episode unfolds, we learn that the paving material used for the school playground is a composite material made from treated and recycled toxic waste. We also learn that many of the students at the school have neurological ailments or cancers. These observations lead Eppes to use his mathematics expertise in two additional ways—first, in his analysis of the frequency of neurological ailments and cancers at the school site compared to the frequency in the larger area, and second, in his analysis of the amount of toxic waste taken in and processed by the construction company and the amount they report using in their construction work. As a result of Eppes’s mathematical contributions to the investigation, the FBI resolve the case. The CBS program NUMB3RS provides many interesting examples of how applied mathematics can be used in the investigations of a wide range of criminal cases.