The Madness of Crowd Models

Our fifth and penultimate post on the 2017 VCE exam madness concerns Question 3 of Section B on the Northern Hemisphere Specialist Mathematics Exam 2. The question begins with the logistic equation for the proportion P of a petrie dish covered by bacteria:

    \[\boldsymbol{\frac{{\rm d} P}{{\rm d} t\ }= \frac{P}{2}\left(1 - P\right)\,\qquad 0 < P < 1\,.}\]

This is not a great start, since it’s a little peculiar using the logistic equation to model an area proportion, rather than a population or a population density. It’s also worth noting that the strict inequalities on P are unnecessary and rule out of consideration the equilibrium (constant) solutions P = 0 and P = 1.

Clunky framing aside, part (a) of Question 3 is pretty standard, requiring the solving of the above (separable) differential equation with initial condition P(0) = 1/2. So, a decent integration problem trivialised by the presence of the stupifying CAS machine. After which things go seriously off the rails.

The setting for part (b) of the question has a toxin added to the petri dish at time t = 1, with the bacterial growth then modelled by the equation

    \[\boldsymbol{\frac{{\rm d} P}{{\rm d} t\ }= \frac{P}{2}\left(1 - P\right) - \frac{\sqrt{P}}{20}\,.}\]

Well, probably not. The effect of toxins is most simply modelled as depending linearly on P, and there seems to be no argument for the square root. Still, this kind of fantasy modelling is par for the VCAA‘s crazy course. Then, however, comes Question 3(b):

Find the limiting value of P, which is the maximum possible proportion of the Petri dish that can now be covered by the bacteria.

The question is a mess. And it’s wrong.

The Examiners’ “Report” (which is not a report at all, but merely a list of short answers) fails to indicate what students did or how well they did on this short, 2-mark question. Presumably the intent was for students to find the limit of P by finding the maximal equilibrium solution of the differential equation. So, setting dP/dt = 0 implies that the right hand side of the differential equation is also 0. The resulting equation is not particularly nice, a quartic equation for Q = √P. Just more silly CAS stuff, then, giving the largest solution P = 0.894 to the requested three decimal places.

In principle, applying that approach here is fine. There are, however, two major problems.

The first problem is with the wording of the question: “maximum possible proportion” simply does not mean maximal equilibrium solution, nor much of anything. The maximum possible proportion covered by the bacteria is P = 1. Alternatively, if we follow the examiners and needlessly exclude = 1 from consideration, then there is no maximum possible proportion, and P can just be arbitrarily close to 1. Either way, a large initial P will decay down to the maximal equilibrium solution.

One might argue that the examiners had in mind a continuation of part (a), so that the proportion begins below the equilibrium value and then rises towards it. That wouldn’t rescue the wording, however. The equilibrium solution is still not a maximum, since the equilibrium value is never actually attained. The expression the examiners are missing, and possibly may even have heard of, is least upper bound. That expression is too sophisticated to be used on a school exam, but whose problem is that? It’s the examiners who painted themselves into a corner.

The second issue is that it is not at all obvious – indeed it can easily fail to be true – that the maximal equilibrium solution for P will also be the limiting value of P. The garbled information within question (b) is instructing students to simply assume this. Well, ok, it’s their question. But why go to such lengths to impose a dubious and impossible-to-word assumption, rather than simply asking directly for an equilibrium solution?

To clarify the issues here, and to show why the examiners were pretty much doomed to make a mess of things, consider the following differential equation:

    \[\boldsymbol{\frac{{\rm d} P}{{\rm d} t\ }= 3P - 4P^2 - \sqrt{P}\,.}\]

By setting Q = √P, for example, it is easy to show that the equilibrium solutions are P = 0 and P = 1/4. Moreover, by considering the sign of dP/dt for P above and below the equilibrium P = 1/4, it is easy to obtain a qualitative sense of the general solutions to the differential equation:

In particular, it is easy to see that the constant solution P = 1/4 is a semi-stable equilibrium: if P(0) is slightly below 1/4 then P(t) will decay to the stable equilibrium P = 0.

This type of analysis, which can readily be performed on the toxin equation above, is simple, natural and powerful. And, it seems, non-existent in Specialist Mathematics. The curriculum  contains nothing that suggests or promotes any such analysis, nor even a mention of equilibrium solutions. The same holds for the standard textbook, in which for, for example, the equation for Newton’s law of cooling is solved (clumsily), but there’s not a word of insight into the solutions.

And this explains why the examiners were doomed to fail. Yes, they almost stumbled into writing a good, mathematically rich exam question. The paper thin curriculum, however, wouldn’t permit it.