Lee, you truly have lost your mind here! What on earth has the planet Saturn and MND got in common? You are bonkers!

To keep you glued to the screen, I have a surprise at the end. Read on.

Saturn is a complex body, just like MND. Our understanding of the planet is still only in its infancy, again rather like MND/ALS.

But to me, I wanted to use the analogy to show how important mathematics is to disease understanding and science. In a world where I often hear that mathematics is boring, it is important to relate how mathematics can be used for amazing things. Here goes…

Saturn’s rings are one of the greatest examples of how mathematics can be used to understand the physical world.

Saturn has been known to exist for thousands of years, although it wasn’t until the 17th century that the rings were observed by Galileo. Back then, however, they were merely noted as a stellar body surrounding the planet. There was no real understanding of their structure.

Fast forward to the 19th century. A brilliant mathematician and scientist, James Clark Maxwell, in 1859 penned the now classic paper “On the Stability of the Motion of Saturn’s Rings”. In his writings, using mechanical theory and mathematics over 60 pages of detailed calculations he showed that the rings could not be solid or discs, but were made of an indefinite number of unconnected particles.

He did this all without the visualisations we have today! That is brilliance that I find staggering and inspiring. And this wasn’t his even most notable achievement!! But that’s for another day.

Saturn by NASA, ESA and E. Karkoschka (University of Arizona) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

So back to human disease and mathematics. In the modern world, the advances made in disease prevention, treatment and cure have been at a pace. Our understanding of complex diseases, like cancer has accelerated rapidly and for the large part we are defeating them. We now face the challenges of MND/ALS and other neurological diseases. They are far more complex for many reasons. For example, as mentioned in my diagnosis post, we simply can’t take biopsies of such diseases at this point in time.

Genetics, we know plays a role and potentially a major part in the disease model. However, it is believed that MND/ALS manifests itself as the result of genetics, age, environment and darn right chance. However, that is just a conjecture statement that attempts to bring some sort of understanding to a very difficult disease.

Well, this was the case until late 2014, when the following paper was published:


The researchers used mathematics to strongly support the theory that MND/ALS is a multi step process. That is, a number of events must occur before the disease shows itself. In fact, probably 6 steps! Take a read, the mathematics is divine.

This discovery could change how we fight the disease. Perhaps we can target one or more steps to halt or slow the disease.

And there you have it Saturn’s rings and MND.

Tell me mathematics is boring now!

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