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Tony PhillipsTony Phillips' Take on Math in the Media
A monthly survey of math news

This month's topics:

Mathematician = the best job

It's official, as reported by Cindy Perman on CNBC at 10:11 ET, April 19, 2014 (and picked up by the USA Today Jobs Report website). "CareerCast is out with their annual ranking of the 10 best and 10 worst jobs for 2014, and let's just say that math and science guys everywhere are about to high-five." Some background: "CareerCast looks at 200 of the most populated jobs and then ranks them on a variety of criteria that fall into four key categories: environment, income, outlook and stress. (Stress alone has 11 different factors, from high risk to tough deadlines.)" The upshot: "Mathematician was named the best job for 2014, followed by tenured university professor and statistician."

"The details on Job #1: Mathematician:

Change from ranking on 2013 list: Up 17
Midlevel income: $101,360
Key factors for ranking: work environment high income and outlook, low stress"

"These are the people who figure out if a decision makes sense for a company or organization, be it digging for oil or building a car. They work in a variety of sectors, including energy, transportation and IT. 'Mathematicians have historically been thought of as academics,' Lee said [Tony Lee, publisher of CareerCast.com] 'But now they do so much more -- they're hired in the public and the private sector. Nonprofits.'"

Mathematics and English literature

 

Math anxiety: in the genes?

"Who is afraid of math? Two sources of genetic variance for mathematical anxiety" was published online ("Early View") on March 10, 2014 by the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. The paper's eleven authors, led by Zhe Wang and Stephen Petrill (Ohio State University), worked with a sample of 514 12-year-old twin siblings, investigating "the genetic and environmental factors contributing to the observed differences in the anxiety people feel when confronted with mathematical tasks." They also explored "the genetic and environmental mechanisms that link mathematical anxiety with math cognition and general anxiety." In their introduction they describe math anxiety (MA):

The study subjects consisted of 108 monozygotic (48 male, 60 female) and 149 same-sex dizygotic (62 male, 87 female) sets of twins. The twins were given four tests: Mathematical anxiety, General anxiety, Math problem solving and Reading comprehension. A summary of the results:

Variables

Phenotypic correlations

Twin intraclass correlations

 

MA

GA

MPS

RC

MZ

DZ

Mathematical anxiety

1

 

 

 

.46

.11

General anxiety

.37

1

 

 

.43

.21

Math problem solving

-.32

-.10

1

 

.75

.55

Reading comprehension

-.17

.00

.58

1

.77

.32

(MA = Mathematical anxiety, etc. MZ = monozygotic, DZ = dizygotic. Colored boxes: correlations significant at the $p<.05$ level.) Table adapted from Wang, Z., et al., Who is afraid of math? Two sources of genetic variance for mathematical anxiety, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, doi: 10.1111/jcpp.12224.

The authors interpret:

Among the authors' recommendations:

The March 17 2014 OSU press release announcing this work was picked up on the PsychCentral website ("Environment + Genetics = Math Anxiety"), and as local news on Cleveland's Newsnet5 ("Ohio State researchers find genetic link to math anxiety").

"Going Gaga for Math," with Cédric Villani

The online magazine Ozy, "the go-to daily news and culture site for the Change Generation," was launched last September. Every weekend, as part of "All Things Considered," NPR interviews Ozy co-founder Carlos Watson on a couple of topics under the general heading "What's New and What's Next." April 12, 2014: "This week, Watson tells guest host Tess Vigeland about Cédric Villani, a successful mathematician with a stylish flair that's given him the moniker 'The Lady Gaga of Mathematics.' Though he's made big discoveries and earned a prestigious Fields Medal, he's on a mission to make math more accessible." (Listen here).

After initial persiflage (Vigeland's math phobia, Villani's extravagant haberdashery), we get to something more substantial. Vigeland: "Why did he decide that he wanted to become, essentially, a Math Ambassador?" Watson: "Part of it had to do with his family upbringing. He grew up in a small town in France, son of philosophers and composers and artists, so his own turn to math wasn't immediately predictable. And he found that as he tried to describe his work to family and friends, they often had an immediate wall up not dissimilar, Tess, from your feeling when the topic first came up; so he thought there was more he could do."

There's lots more in Niamh Ni Mhaoileoin's Ozy piece, Going Gaga for Math, posted on April 10, including this quote from Villani's 10/15/2013 TED talk: "There is a way to present things so that people will come up and tell you, 'Oh, I feel so stupid and ignorant in front of you,' and there's another way to tell things and people will say, 'Oh, I feel so intelligent when I'm listening to you.' And then you know you're doing the right stuff ... because you're reflecting the light coming from the beauty of mathematics."

Tony Phillips
Stony Brook University
tony at math.sunysb.edu