A picture of pigeon perched on a bannister, in the distance a boatman steers his boat into port.

When mathematical and ecological worlds intertwine

When mathematical and ecological worlds intertwine


Published on 27 March 2024

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A profile image of Siddharth Kumar Blog post by: Siddharth Unnithan Kumar – RENEW Postdoctoral Research Fellow

It’s strange to write a mathematical model, particularly when the subject matter is ecology. Studying interactions between humans and the more-than-human world, I open my laptop and begin to calculate the probability that a human person will see a pigeon at a given distance in a forest.

Well, the person is a coordinate on a grid, as is the pigeon, and the forest is indicated by a smattering of yellow pixels on the grid.

Left is an image of geographic data on a map indicating pigeons in specific locations, juxtaposed against a real pigeon perched on a banister, in the distance a fisherman steers his boat into port. Above: Pigeon-in-the-code (left) and pigeon-in-the-flesh-through-a-camera (right). Image and photograph by Siddharth Unnithan Kumar.

Synapsed to the terminal, senses spellbound by the digital (to paraphrase David Abram), I do not realise the morning storm clouds have passed until a beam of sunlight covering my screen makes me squint. Turning my head to the right, breaking absorption with the task of coding, the view outside my window is also flat, two-dimensional, the clouds listless and the trees mute, the world no more immediately interesting than or fundamentally distinct from the pixelated grid I have just been looking at. My thoughts are still partially in the computational world, and there is a curious moment of dissonance wherein my mind doesn’t seem to know to which world it belongs.

A few moments pass before I register that the two cypress trees drawing my gaze are not two copies of the same entity; one is leaning at quite an angle, the other is more laden with cones. The latter is swaying in the wind, which I now feel moving through the open window over my hands. That feels nice. Oh, and there is the birdsong, entering my awareness for the first time that day! First, it is just birdsong; then it becomes the song of a blackbird, and as I give the audible field my attention more generously, let my ears bear witness to and perhaps even be carried by the sounds, I notice the lustre and lilt in the voice of this Other.

A picture of a kayak head resting on a lake with no apparent direction.Above. Sitting in a little boat in the Desolation Sound makes vivid the unfathomable depths of the more-than-human world, the hidden interiorities of the surrounding waters and rocks and trees.” Photograph by: Siddharth Unnithan Kumar

How different this fleshy and numinous, shapeshifting and rambunctious world is to that which I am conjuring on my computer; how disjunct the model now feels from the world it purports to approximate! Unless I am watchful, the language of mechanisms through which I quantify ecological relationships in my academic work starts to sediment in my consciousness as a belief that nonhuman animals are, ultimately, automatons which live and die according to a cost-benefit rationale without intelligence or agency. Indeed, if I approach mathematical models as the custodians of greater truth than the world as it appears to my direct perception, then I am blind to those ecological phenomena which do not fit their epistemological lineaments.

Is there a way through this apparent dichotomy of worlds, this impasse between the embodied and the abstract, the ecological and the mathematical?

An image of Raven stealing the moon, by Haida artist G̶uud san glans (Robert Davidson). Museum of Anthropology online collection, University of British Columbia.

Above. Raven Stealing the Moon, by Haida artist G̶uud san glans (Robert Davidson). Museum of Anthropology online collection, University of British Columbia. Here, abstraction is used not to effect a removal from the embodied and sensory world, but to bring it to life by drawing forth and making visible the metamorphosing quality of perceptual reality. Copyright: Robert Davidson.

I take inspiration from friends in fields such as postdigital education and digital ecologies, who elicit the ways in which technological devices can be used to invite one to become more, rather than less, sensitised and attentive to the animate powers of the encompassing landscape. What if a mathematical model – like a story, concept, image, or Rumi poem – is, foremost and simply, a tool for thinking through ecological questions instead of a method for laying claim to absolute knowledge?

A photograph of a forest clad ravine where paths move through the forest.

Above. A forest-clad ravine near the shores of the Whulge; a good place for thinking through how ecological and mathematical worlds meet. Photograph by: Siddharth Unnithan Kumar

Having trained as a mathematician, this presents to me a significant shift in worldview, to see mathematical laws not as underlying and essential to ecological phenomena but rather as a means for corresponding with them. Yet it is precisely in this balancing of the perceived relationship between ecology and mathematics that the expressive potency and unfathomable diversity of the more-than-human world begins to reveal itself; an invitation to deploy mathematical knowledge with humility and an openness to the mystery.

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