Here's a cool story that appeared yesterday in, of all places, Science magazine.
Could Osama bin Laden have been found faster if the CIA had followed the advice of ecosystem geographers from the University of California, Los Angeles? Probably not, but the predictions of UCLA geographer Thomas Gillespie, who, along with colleague John Agnew and a class of undergraduates, authored a 2009 paper predicting the terrorist’s whereabouts, were none too shabby. According to a probabilistic model they created, there was an 80.9% chance that bin Laden was hiding out in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he was killed last night. And they correctly predicted that he would be in a large town, not a cave.
The bin Laden tracking idea began as a project in an undergraduate class on remote sensing that Gillespie, whose expertise is using remote sensing data from satellites to study ecosystems, taught in 2009. Based on information from satellites and other remote sensing systems, and reports on his movements since his last known location, the students created a probabilistic model of where he was likely to be. Their prediction of a town was based on a geographical theory called “island biogeography”: basically, that a species on a large island is much less likely to go extinct following a catastrophic event than a species on a small one.
“The theory was basically that if you’re going to try and survive, you’re going to a region with a low extinction rate: a large town,” Gillespie says. “We hypothesized he wouldn’t be in a small town where people could report on him.”
“It’s not my thing to do this type of [terrorism] stuff,” he says. “But the same theories we use to study endangered birds can be used to do this.”...
The undergraduates did such a nice job on the project, Gillespie says, that he wrote the results up as a paper and submitted it to a small journal, MIT International Review. The next day, he was shocked to find his
inbox full of requests for interviews from everyone from USA Today to Sean Hannity. (He declined the latter.)
Amazing. As the authors pointed out, you can't see if someone's walking up on you in a cave.
Then again, a cave was the Bush administration's/Don Rumsfeld's construct. Just add it to the things they got wrong and Barack Obama got right.