A Possible Mathematical Theory Behind The Coming Cicada Infestation

The eastern United States is about to be overrun by billions of cicadas who will crawl out of the ground and create a deafening commotion. The interesting thing about their emergence is that they only come out every 17 years. Some scientists think that this is a coincidence, but the late Stephen Jay Gould, one of the major figures of evolutionary biology, postulated that the fact that this number is prime might not be an accident. He reasoned that if these periodical cicadas were to come out every, say, 12 years they would coincide with the emergence of predators whose life cycles are 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, and 12 years. Because their life cycle is 17 years, only predators with life cycles of 1 and 17 years coincide with the cicadas and it is easier for them to survive. In other words, periodical cicadas evolved to minimize their exposure to predators. You can learn more about this possible connection between number theory and biology in this Nature article and in a more detailed math paper [PDF] from the Courant Institute at New York University. Even if questions remain about the validity of this particular theory, it is an important reminder that purely mathematical ideas can provide fertile ground for scientific theories in any discipline.

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