Day: February 3, 2009

A Little Help from Software and Monte Carlo

My sister, who has an advanced degree in business, has been telling me for years that there is no problem, large or small, that can’t be ameliorated by throwing money at it.  This is something she has in common with Bill and Melinda Gates, malaria being the case in point.

It is a deadly and obstinate disease.  All through the twentieth century science made steady advances–and several scientists won Nobel prizes for these advances–and it has been eradicated in wealthy countries like the U.S.  But it is still a grim presence in many less-developed countries, where it kills more than a million children a year.  As was recently mentioned in the Wall Street Journal, the Gates Foundation has spent a lot of money attempting to address the causes and prevention of this stubborn disease in poorer countries.

In the first annual letter reporting the activities of the Gates Foundation, Bill Gates makes special note of the fact that because there are many weapons against malaria, none of which is a total solution, the foundation brought in a specialist in Monte Carlo simulation to analyze the best way to combine the tools. "This modeling work," he says, "which will show where we can eliminate malaria and where we can just reduce the disease burden, is a wonderful use of advanced mathematics to save lives, and if it goes as well as I expect, we will apply it to other diseases. "

He is not predicting an exponential decline in malaria.  But evidently there is no problem, large or small, that can’t be ameliorated by throwing a little Microsoft Excel statistics and Monte Carlo software at it.