Words and Numbers:
Defining and Solving Problems

Course Guide

       Communication and calculation are the bedrock of civilization.  We use symbols (words and numbers) to map out our intentions and assess our success at achieving our goals. We use words to represent, name, identify, and indicate the relative magnitude (the more or less) of something. We use numbers to understand the many ness of something (how many) so that we can divide up the eggs, water rights, days, and bushels of wheat.   Up to four or five thousand BC, words and numbers were literally one in the same.  Twenty sheep might be called a bload; the number was not abstracted from the sheep.  But with the advent of commerce and production quotas and agreements, humans had to devise ways of adding, subtracting, dividing, and multiplying--and also learn to keep records.  Counting on the fingers, one,  two, three, four...produced a one-to-one mapping which "abstracted" the number word from the finger word.  One, two, three, and four could stand alone.

     Next time you are in the bathroom or at the medical clinic, take a look at the scale used to measure how much you weigh.   Notice that it has a name--a scale, that it indicates the more or less of something (pounds), that these pounds are counted as equal units (numbers) and that at some point the scale starts at zero, or nothing.  All scientific scales have these characteristics.  The last characteristic, zero (nothing of the thing being counted), was added around 800 AD and became commonplace around 1600 AD.  Without zero we cannot create ratios.  Without zero, I could not say I have half as many marbles as you do. 

     Along this line you need to remember that many of the ideas taught to you are not scientific, or even have much to do with predicting your success at achieving your goals.  Most of what we know of emotions, intelligence, talents, and feelings is no more sophisticated than more or less, and using numbers to create countable units of emotions and intelligence is silly.   Further, we use language and numbers to describe groups--to understand how to define the commons or the common good.  We expect individuals to know what is in their best interests.  When we plan for a group, we have to set down the language and numbers (the contracts) which maintain our interest in the common good.

     Symbols (words and numbers plus their grammars and systems) have four obvious purposes.  Symbols  allow us to express ourselves, to explain our worlds,  to amuse ourselves, and  to control ourselves and others.  Meta symbols, or symbols about symbols, allow us to improve the clarity, explanatory power, and efficiency of our basic symbols.  Thus we have words like positive integer and noun to identify the millions of instances of three sheep and their like.

Your tasks this week are:

Using some arithmetic, report how many people the world's current levels of energy production could support at your rate of energy consumption (an average US citizen).  Keep it simple.  Figure that the world currently produces nearly 500 quads (quadrillion) BTU's (British Thermal Units) of energy and that America consumes about 100 quads.   Assume your current level of consumption (an average US Citizen) is the standard (therefore the US consumes about 1/5th...5 times the current US population equals?). Review the current statistics for  BTU consumption and population (both world and US). Use a population clock on the web; use a search engine like Google, Yahoo, or MSN.  If we equally distribute available energy to the world at US average consumption levels, how many people would the available energy support? Show your calculation. To get full credit, reflect on the result.

Using the World Fact Book, browse the maps and statistics for  Afghanistan, Mexico, The United States, China, Italy, Iceland, Argentina and two countries of your choice and report their total fertility rates and infant mortality rates listed in the World Fact Book.  Explain what you find most interesting about the statistics. 

Then remember next to reflect on climate change.

Some additional facts, instructions, and examples

An explanation is a claim that describes how something works.  If you want to explain how a frog (the kind that hops) works, you will want to understand how the empirical or observable parts of the frog came about. 

When comparing two or more explanations (the law of natural selection is an explanation) with equal predictive capacity and explanatory power, focus on the one that makes the fewest assumptions (givens,  tested claims, avoid claims which are not falsifiable).  For example, some explanations for crop circles require assumptions of space travelers, or druidic magic, while others only assume tractors and pranksters. 

You will need to find and use current statistics to do and get credit for the Week 5 task.   Be within +/- 5 million for world population.  Use the US Census Bureau for current US Population.  Simplify, but not too much.  This is an Internet class so I expect you to do the research and find the data on the net.  What I want you to do is to make some true and valid inferences about the human condition using the facts about growth in population and energy production and consumption.  This does not entail discussion of greater efficiencies which is part of an administrative, congressional, and environmental debate now.   

Looks like World population hit 7 billion by the end of October 2011.  It was 6 billion when I wrote the Week 5 assignment 12 years ago.  "It took 250,000 years to reach 1 billion, around 1800; over a century to reach 2 billion (in 1927); and 32 years more to reach 3 billion.  But the rise from 5 billion (in 1987) to 6 billion took only 12 years."  "A Tale of Three Islands," The Economist, October 22nd-28th 2011, pages 28-30.  The same article reports that North American fertility rates are 2.03, Latin America 2.30, Europe 1.53, Africa 4.64, Asia 2.03,and Oceana (Australia/Indonesia) 2.49.  A fertility rate slightly over 2 (2.1) will maintain the current population.  The low fertility rate countries (Europe and Japan) will have a significant demographic problem by 2050 when there will be almost as many dependants (young and old) as working age adults and put much strain on pensions and health care which rely on tax revenues from a working population.