Timothy Johnson: Mathematicians are a cure to the credit crisis, not the cause

ON 2 November, 2008, the former French prime minister, Michel Rocard, wrote in Le Monde that "mathematicians are guilty (unwittingly) of crimes against humanity", in reference to the financial crises that engulfed the world that year.

The following March, our own Financial Services Authority, in its review of the financial crisis, listed one of the causes as "a misplaced reliance in sophisticated mathematics".

In the aftermath of the credit crisis, there have been calls for "more common sense and less mathematics"; this is a call to return to the Dark Ages.

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Mathematics is important to physicists and engineers because it enables scientists to probe nature when they cannot undertake physical experimentation.

One of the biggest hurdles facing the development of wave-generated energy is in understanding how a single generator, tested in a wave tank, will actually behave in an array of generators in the middle of the ocean, a complex and random environment. Engineers turn to mathematics to try to understand the real-world problem, because the real world cannot be reproduced in a laboratory.

Financial markets are complex and random systems, they cannot be experimented on, and so the only way we can start to understand them is through mathematics; words alone are not enough.

Our current understanding of these types of systems is pretty primitive, and new mathematics needs to be developed, not just for bankers to make money, but in order that engineers can harness wave energy.

Edinburgh is hosting the largest meeting of mathematicians from around the world, Maths2010, next week. On , Thursday, Professor Paul Embrechts, from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and an internationally recognised expert on financial risk management, will give a keynote lecture, "Did mathematics really blow up Wall Street". His talk is aimed at the general public and will present the case that the crisis was more a result of not enough maths.

This may be news to the myriad of commentators on the financial crisis, but it is not news to the banks. They know what went wrong and are desperate to hire more and better mathematicians.

The root cause of the bonus culture is the dire, worldwide shortage of mathematicians who really understand randomness, an understanding that is not based on repeatedly tossing the same coin.

These mathematicians are the Ronaldos and Rooneys of banking; they possess rare skills that banks are desperate for.

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Alongside the research meeting, on Wednesday, 16-18-year-olds are being invited to the Royal Society of Edinburgh to "Meet the Mathematician" and find out what mathematicians actually do.

It is worth encouraging any teenager who is contemplating studying science or engineering at university to Meet the Mathematician. The more mathematicians that graduate, the more mathematicians will be available to the banks, the lower the bonuses and the better the competencies in the banks.

If you are still unsure about what actually happened in the credit crisis, as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival, on 14 April, Gillian Tett, the markets editor at the Financial Times will chair a discussion, "Maths, Magic and Money", on how banks use, and abuse, maths.

If you believe that science has benefited society, that there is some utility in MRI scanners or the iPhone, then rather than rely on populist pundits, come along to any of these events and hear what mathematicians have to say. You might be surprised.

• Dr Timothy Johnson works in the Department of Actuarial Mathematics and Statistics at Heriot-Watt University.