Profiles of the 2001 Blue Planet Prize Recipients
Lord (Robert) May of Oxford
Lord May obtained his doctorate in theoretical physics from the University of Sydney at the age of 23 in 1959, researching that field there for the next 13 years until in due course he switched disciplines to population biology at Princeton University in the United States, where he remained a further 15 years. In 1988, he moved to Oxford University in the United Kingdom and solidified his position as a world leader in mathematical biology. Since 1995, he has been Chief Scientific Adviser to the British Government and Head of the Office of Science and Technology, playing an influential role in national scientific affairs.
Applying the mathematical concepts nurtured in theoretical physics to the field of biology, in 1973 he authored "Stability and Complexity in Model Ecosystems," a book that used mathematical modelling to investigate the stability and complexity of a community of interacting plants and animals following the foodweb as clue. Contrary to the general understanding that species are motivated toward greater stability in complex ecosystems, he showed in population dynamics models that individual species are liable to greater fluctuations in abundance in such ecosystems when the number of species is increased and species interactions are randomly added. Since the publication of this research, Lord May has accumulated a solid record of noteworthy accomplishments in the field of mathematical biology.
Lord May was also the first to discover that, first-order nonlinear difference equations can exhibit an astonishing array of dynamical behaviour, ranging from stable points to apparently random or "chaotic" fluctuations. Although chaos theory itself was discovered independently by several mathematicians at about the same period of time, it was Lord May's research, beginning with his article published in "Nature" in 1976, that can be credited with creating the new field of "chaotic dynamics" in biology.
One of Lord May's major contributions was to be the first to build a model that includes environmental stochasticity and spatial heterogeneity in studies of population dynamics, and thereby contributing to our ability to formulate environmental policies. He also drew attention to these characteristic changes in populations for the purposes of managing ecosystems. For example, in collaboration with others he has explored the ways fish harvesting affects multispecies ecosystems of the fishing grounds. "Exploitation of Marine Communities" reports the results of this work. He has also contributed importantly to understand the cyclic oscillations exhibited in insect parasitoid populations in the wild, demonstrating through mathematical models the relationship between the ecology of predatory parasites, such as parasitic wasps, and population numbers, which matched the actual observations in the wild.
In the last 10 years, Lord May, who has continued fundamental research into mathematical biology and sought policies that can be applied to the resolution of environmental problems, has played a leading role in two areas of research in particular. The first combines mathematical and applied techniques to analyse the conditions under which viruses and bacteria affect host populations and their distribution. The results obtained in these studies have been beneficial to a broad spectrum of science in the public health sector, ranging from genetic research into groups of disease carriers to immunology for rubella in the UK and to strategies for dealing with parasites. In addition, he is investigating the conditions under which AIDS spreads, utilising a combination of simplified analytical models and computer simulations to provide the data required to predict the spread of this disease.
The second area of concentration is research into the detailed reasons why the biodiversity of tropical regions is so extensive. He is studying the time and geographic factors in changes in biodiversity. The mathematical biology methodology he has developed are being used to measure this diversity, and make it possible to infer changes in that diversity, thereby increasing understanding of the composition and collapsing of biodiversity.
Lord May has used his mathematical modelling to explain the current state of biodiversity and warn that the risk of species extinction is currently at an historical high. He continues to strongly advocate the necessity of responding immediately to this crisis. He is presenting proposals and advice to governments and NGOs and making a real contribution toward the formulation of environmental conservation policies. He is also proffering effective proposals for policies to deal with contagious diseases, such as AIDS, based on his mathematical projections of the epidemiology.
His accomplishments have already been widely recognised in the United Kingdom and abroad. In 1995, he was named the Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government and was knighted the following year. In 2000, he was appointed President of the Royal Society of London, a position with a rich tradition and one of the most esteemed in the world of science. In July of this year, he was bestowed with the title of Lord for his numerous contributions in the field of science. He is making good use of this elite standing to promote solutions to a wide range of issues, including ecological preservation, other urgent environmental problems such as global warming, and various problems related to medicine and biology.