A couple of weeks ago I saw former president Jimmy Carter on the Daily Show. The story he told Jon Stewart was nothing short of amazing. Through persistent efforts over the past twenty-five years, his foundation has essentially eradicated guinea worm disease. In 1986 there were literally millions of cases each year in Africa and Asia whereas so far in 2013 there have been only 7 reported cases.
Guinea worms are a parasite that humans acquire by drinking unclean water. The worms can grow to several feet in length then painfully emerge from the body basically any way they can.
Carter’s foundation invented a strainer made of a fine material — something like parachute silk. They manufactured enough of these sieves to distribute to every afflicted village. That was the easy part. Then they had to persuade people to drink the water from their ponds only after straining it through the sieve. One major issue they encountered was that sometimes the local people regarded the pond water as holy and didn’t want to cause offense to the powers that be by introducing a foreign device. It was necessary to convince people almost literally one-by-one that the worms were basically aliens that had invaded the holy water and it was ok to strain them out.
You are probably asking, “Where is the mathematics in here?” I see several analogies. One is that the solution was counterintuitive and was arrived at only after many trials and many errors. Also, the solution, or variations of it, had to be applied on a case-by-case basis, not unlike the case-by-case analysis that is present in many mathematical proofs, such as the proof of the 4-color theorem or of Kepler’s conjecture. The solution also required the sustained collaborative effort of many individuals to go to each village and make the necessary arguments that would persuade the villagers to behave in an unfamiliar and even abhorrent way that was not part of their culture. I also see elements of the logistical analysis of operations research in the solution here. The exact steps have to be carried out in the right order.
The Carter Center’s persistence in developing a solution and carrying it out over a 25-year period also reminds me of the dogged determination that many mathematicians exhibit in the relentless pursuit of a solution that many would have earlier given up on. Finally, I see the success of a large-scale collaborative effort, which reminds me of some ongoing large-scale collaborative mathematical efforts requiring the cooperation of thousands of individuals, such as finding new Mersenne primes, or verifying that trillions zeros of the Riemann zeta-function are all on the critical line, or Tim Gowers’ polymath projects.
To see the clip of Jimmy Carter on the Daily Show, click here.
I also recommend this article about guinea worms.