Five years ago, Mac Hyman began to worry about AIDS. “I was convinced that the problem was very much larger than the people around me were reacting to,” recalls Hyman, a mathematical modeler at Los Alamos (N.Mex.) National Laboratory. “There just wasn’t any other problem that was crying out like this.”

Driven by this conviction, Hyman convinced fellow mathematicians, social scientists, computer specialists, and medical experts to help him build a theoretical model of the disease. Their efforts have enlarged the work of a cadre or biostatisticians tracking the course or the disease and evaluating ways to slow the epidemic. Although they take different approaches—statisticians work within the confines of existing data, while mathematicians juggle the more theoretical elements of the epidemic—the numbers may save lives by pinpointing flaws in our understanding of the disease. Models also identify what is not yet known about AIDS.

“Trying to model how the...

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