Dr Hannah Fry: If you have a problem, she has the equation to solve it!

Dr Hannah Fry is an unusual scientist who uses a multidisciplinary approach to study human behavior and social issues, mainly in urban environments. In her book "The Mathematics of love: Patterns, Proofs and the Search for the Ultimate Equation" she argues that love, like maths, can be studied in patterns. She thinks the same theory could also apply to crime and to terrorism. Could her studies on our civilization help us forecast the future of humanity?

Mathematics: the answer to terrorism and riots?

Hannah Fry has created a mathematical model of the 2011 London riots and how the police handled them. Her work focused on three key aspects: the apparently contagious nature of participation, the distances travelled to riot location and the deterrent effect of the police response. This analysis allows her to explain why some areas face a greater risk of being out of control and underlines the importance of intelligent urban planning.

Such a theory could also apply to crime, explaining why some areas are more likely to become crime scenes than others, which she refers to as the ‘awareness spaces’ of potential offenders, i.e. the locations of opportunities and offenders' knowledge of them. These ideas inform the choice of spatial system in the model.

Her BBC radio episode Can Maths Combat Terrorism? is also a good example of her will to highlight innovative work within her scientific field: she presents the research of computer scientists who analyzed the frequency and severity of 30,000 terrorist attacks. They found a distinct pattern in the data, the so-called « power law » equation. The researchers overall ambition is to model «techniques be used to predict if, and when, another attack the size of 9/11 will occur ».

Future formula

Forecasting storms or predicting earthquakes, is something we’re accustomed to. But a scientist treating terrorism or crimes as a natural phenomenon? Big news! Even if this work appears a huge challenge – opening up crucial newperspectives on human behaviour - Hannah Fry responds to skeptics that: 

These models are a representation of reality, not reality itself. And I think that people who put too much faith in mathematical models are demonstrating as much of a misunderstanding of maths as people who don’t trust models at all.

A dream spokesperson for women scientists

Very active on social media, Hannah Fry seems to be the perfect public speaker, always trying to pass on the joy of science to people via all the means at her disposal: the TV, radio, theatre, or in pubs or schools. She was twice a TED speaker with her two successful talks « Is life really that complex ? » and « The mathematics of love ». No one knows quite as well as Hannah how to prove that science, and above all maths, can be fun and grounded in real life.

Even when the target of gender discrimination she remains true to herself and answers in an ironic tweet

When a SA national paper assumes you’re a guy because they haven’t bothered to google you and, y’know: Dr.

This self-described “Mathematician, complexity scientist and all round badass” hopes to inspire girls to follow careers in science because she believes that the main problem is that girls really lack confidence in their abilities:

You can see a difference between how men and women view their own mathematical ability. Boys are like, this maths is hard; whereas the girls are like, I find this maths hard. 

Would you find it reassuring or stressful if all your problems could be treated as a math exercise? And do you know any other woman scientist using her knowledge in very unexpected contexts? Share your thoughts @womeninscience !

Hannah Fry completed her undergraduate degree in Maths at UCL. She holds a PhD in fluid dynamics. After working as an aerodynamicist in the motorsport industry she began working on an interdisciplinary project at University College London at the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) where she started her research on connections between mathematical systems and human behavior.



For Women in Science

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