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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] 'But now they do so much more -- they're hired in the public and the private sector. Nonprofits.'"

Mathematics and English literature


  • The Society for Chaos Theory publishes Nonlinear Dynamics, Psychology and Life Sciences. Their April 2014 issue contains "A Mathematical Model of 'Pride and Prejudice'," by Sergio Rinaldi, Fabio Della Rossa and Pietro Landi, of the Politecnico di Milano. (Abstract and Graphics available online). From the Abstract: "The analysis shows that the story is characterized by a sudden explosion of sentimental involvements, revealed by the existence of a saddle-node bifurcation in the model. The paper is interesting not only because it deals for the first time with catastrophic bifurcations in romantic relation-ships, but also because it enriches the list of examples in which love stories are described through ordinary differential equations."



    This figure from the paper ($x_1$ represents Elizabeth's feelings, $x_2$ Darcy's) "shows (with null-clines and trajectories of the model) the possibility of having two alternative stable states, i.e., two alternative sentimental regimes. Which regime is attained depends on the initial condition of the romantic relationship." Image and explanation courtesy of Pietro Landi.

    The paper was picked up by the "Seriously, science?" blog on the Discover website.

  • "Tudor technology: Shakespeare and science," by Jennifer Rampling, appeared in the "Books and Arts" section of Nature, April 3, 2014. "To mark the 450th anniversary of the bard's birth, Jennifer Rampling probes how mathematics and technology shaped his era." As Rampling tells us, "Tudor science took its inspiration from abroad." [The Tudor dynasty governed England and Wales from 1485 to 1603.] Nevertheless England had its own "scholars of international calibre, including the mathematician-astronomers John Dee, Thomas Digges and Thomas Harriot." "When John Dee famously surveyed the 'Artes Mathematicall' in his preface to Henry Billingsley's 1570 English translation of Euclid, he stressed the value of mathematics in studying both natural phenomena and practical problems -- from arranging artillery to compounding medicines." Rampling interprets Dee's emphasis as an attempt to establish support for mathematics in a very applications-oriented society, "driven as much by artisanal and mercantile interests as by university learning or royal patronage."

    Finally we come to Shakespeare, and the world of his plays, "populated with ideas and technologies that his audience would have recognized from contemporary life: clocks, globes, compasses, the distorting 'perspective glass'." But apparently with not much mathematics. [Thomas Harriot who, we learn elsewhere, "did outstanding work on the solution of equations, recognising negative roots and complex roots in a way that makes his solutions look like a present day solution," does have a tenuous link to Shakespeare. His patron Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, was a direct descendant of the Henry Percy ("Harry Hotspur") immortalized by the bard in Henry IV, Part 1.]

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):

  • MA, defined as a feeling of tension and fear that accompanies math-related activities, is associated with poorer mathematics achievement, avoidance of situations involving mathematics, and more limited engagement in STEM-related careers. MA is doubly debilitating because it impacts both the cognitive capacity to engage in mathematics problem solving and the affective climate surrounding mathematics. Specifically, MA disrupts working memory functioning during math-related activities. Moreover, individuals with high MA not only experience cognitive and emotional difficulties when engaging in mathematics, but high levels of anticipatory anxiety can lead to avoidance of mathematics altogether. [references deleted].

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:


Phenotypic correlations

Twin intraclass correlations








Mathematical anxiety







General anxiety







Math problem solving







Reading comprehension







(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:

  • Phenotypic correlations: "MA was moderately correlated with general anxiety. MA was negatively correlated with both math problem solving and reading comprehension whereas general anxiety was correlated with neither of them. Lastly, math problem solving and reading comprehension were strongly correlated."
  • Twin intraclass correlations: "... the twin intraclass correlations ... suggested genetic and nonshared environmental influences on all four variables. In addition, potential nonadditive genetic influences were suggested for MA, general anxiety, and reading comprehension, whereas shared environmental influences were suggested for math problem solving."

Among the authors' recommendations:

  • "These findings indicate the importance of identifying child-specific (rather than family-level) experiences that may underlie the development of both general anxiety and MA, such as unique parental educational expectation toward each sibling, unique parent-child and peer relationships, and different quality of math education experienced in math classes. These nonshared environmental factors, when identified, would serve as promising targets for educational and clinical programs aiming to alleviate MA and promote math performance."
  • "... given that general anxiety and math cognition independently contributed to the etiology of MA, it is important to not only address the anxiety component of MA, but also treat deficits in math cognition at the same time."

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