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Media Advisory


NSF PA/M 03-33 - June 10, 2003

What's Next as Biology, Math Combine Forces, Reciprocate in Discovery
NSF '21st Century Biology' lecture series presents populations professor Joel Cohen on Thursday

ARLINGTON, Va.—As if caught in some Venn diagram whose intersection just keeps growing, mathematics and biology are increasingly commingled in efforts yielding discoveries. Joel E. Cohen, director of the Laboratory of Populations at Rockefeller University, will examine the convergence Thursday, June 12, in a lecture titled, "Mathematics is Biology's Next Microscope, Only Better; Biology is Mathematics' Next Physics, Only Better."

Journalists are welcome to attend the one-hour talk, the first in the National Science Foundation's 21st Century Biology Lecture Series. It will begin at noon in Room 110 at NSF.

According to Cohen, as microscopes did in the 17th century, mathematics (by its treatment of biological data) is revealing a world formerly invisible. Conversely, "biology can stimulate the creation of new realms of mathematics," much as the pursuit of physical problems centuries ago led to advances such as geometry and calculus.

In the territory where math and biology converge, several factors make Cohen a model citizen:

  • For decades he has researched and developed complex mathematical models to illustrate the dynamics of food webs, human populations, infectious diseases and other ecological phenomena.

  • Among his many honors is a share of the 1999 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, for which he used his $100,000 award to establish scholarships for junior high and high school students.

  • He has published more than 300 academic papers and authored several books, including "How Many People Can the Earth Support?" in 1995 and "Absolute Zero Gravity," a book of scientific and mathematical jokes (co-written with Betsy Devine) in 1992.

Samuel Scheiner, an officer with NSF's Population Biology Program, calls Cohen "one of the leading researchers in theoretical population and community ecology for decades...with ground-breaking work on a variety of problems...wide-ranging in his interests and extremely productive."

Cohen earned his bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in applied mathematics at Harvard University, where he also earned a master's degree and doctorate in public health. He was first supported by NSF as a participant in an undergraduate program more than 30 years ago. Continuously since 1975, NSF has supported his efforts to develop mathematical models that further ecological understanding.



Joel E. Cohen, director, Laboratory of Populations, Rockefeller University


"Mathematics is Biology's Next Microscope, Only Better; Biology is Mathematics' Next Physics, Only Better"—the first in NSF's 21st Century Biology Lecture Series


Thursday, June 12, 2003


National Science Foundation
4201 Wilson Blvd., Room 110
Arlington, VA 22230
(Ballston Metro; enter at corner of 9th and Stuart streets)


To examine the increasing roles mathematics and biology are playing in each other's progress.

For more information contact:

Media contact:

 Sean Kearns

 (703) 292-8070

Program contact:

 Samuel Scheiner

 (703) 292-8481


Joel E. Cohen, professor of populations, Columbia University; professor of populations and head of Laboratory of Populations, Rockefeller University, (212) 327-8883,

For details about his work, see these web sites:

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