And you thought you wouldn't need math

John H. Conway, a Princeton professor and internationally renowned mathematician who created one of the earliest computer games, has died at the age of 82 as a result of complications from COVID-19.

A dedicated researcher with more than 60 years experience, Conway discovered the concept of surreal numbers and invented one of the first computer games, "The Game of Life."

A Google search for "Conway's Game of Life" prompts the search engine to automatically start playing the game. The search is now commonly used as an introductory exercise in computing classes, Roberts said.

How ironic that a mathematics expert has died from a virus whose growth depends on people to not understand the math concept of "exponential growth."

The loose definition of "exponential" is "really fast," but mathematically the term refers to a quantity repeatedly multiplied by the same number.

Eugenia Cheng offers the following example in her New York Times article titled, The Power of Exponential Growth: Multiplying by 3, it only takes 21 steps to reach 10 billion (more than the current world population).

If you're monitoring additional cases of COVID-19 each day, you're not getting a useful summary of the situation because you are using addition.

Exponential growth is multiplication. Big difference.

It's better to look at how the number of cases or deaths are multiplying. This math construct is known as the "reproduction number" also known as RO or R naught.

With COVID-19, we're eventually looking for the multiplier to be less than one, which will demonstrate exponential decay rather than growth. This is also known as "flattening the curve."

The most effective ways to reduce the rate of multiplication are hand washing, face coverings, social distancing, self-quarantining and the passage of time.

How and when will this end?

Even math can't predict what's going to happen with the pandemic.

This is because we don't have accurate data about the true number of infections. Just today Wuhan, the Central Province of China where the coronavirus originated in late 2019, changed their infection numbers. Also, not everyone who is infected is reporting. Some people are carriers who are asymptomatic and many infected people are not getting tested.

But the big reason we can't predict how and when the pandemic will end is because no on knows how people will behave moving forward.

In summary, how fast we get out of this depends on variables like behavior and our behavior should take "exponentials" into account. As John Conway might say if he were still alive, "Do the math."


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