"Algorithm and blues:" review of Logicomix, by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou. Review by Jim Holt, New York Times, 27 September 2009.
"Well, this is unexpected--a comic book about the quest for logical certainty in mathematics." So begins this review of Logicomix, a comic book--or, as Holt notes, a graphic novel--based on the "crisis of foundations" that occurred in mathematics in the early 20th century. One of the central characters in the book is Bertrand Russell, who pinpointed a paradox that doomed efforts to put mathematics on an airtight logical foundation. As Holt notes, this paradox is captured in the question about the barber who shaves all men who do not shave themselves: Who shaves the barber? Many other stellar mathematical personalities appear in the book, along with the authors themselves; Doxiadis wrote a previous novel based on mathematical ideas, and Papadimitriou is a computer scientist at U.C. Berkeley. The book has fun taking liberties with the characters and the history, but does not tamper with the mathematics. As Holt writes, "for the most part the ideas are conveyed accurately, and with delightful simplicity." He also found the illustrations, by Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donnadecades, to be appealing.
--- Allyn Jackson
"Fold Everything," by Jennifer S. Holland. National Geographic Magazine, 15 September 2009.
"Google works on a different web," by Susan Milius. Science News, 26 September 2009, page 10.
Before there was a World Wide Web, there were food webs--directed graphs in which the nodes are species and edges signify that one species eats the other. Stefano Allesina, an ecologist at the University of Chicago, has adapted Google's PageRank algorithm to analyze which species are crucial to the survival of food webs. Analogous to how the importance of web pages depends on the importance of those pages that link to it, Allesina assigns importance to species based on the importance of species that eat them. He says that the algorithm does a better job of predicting food web collapse than previous methods. The research, "Googling Food Webs: Can an Eigenvector Measure Species' Importance for Coextinctions?", is in the September 3 issue of PLoS Computational Biology.
--- Mike Breen
"Erasing Dark Energy," by Veronique Greenwood. Seed, 24 September 2009.
Mathematicians Blake Temple (UC Davis) and Joel Smoller (University of Michigan) "have now found a way to explain the observation that led researchers to propose dark energy." While doing experiments with shockwaves, they found that "an expanding wave with its epicenter near the Earth could produce the dimming effects teams had observed." After consulting with astrophysicists and other mathematicians they concluded: "An accelerating wave of expansion following the Big Bang could push what later became matter out across the universe, spreading galaxies farther apart the more distant they got from the wave's center. If this did happen, it would account for the fact that supernovae were dim--they were in fact shoved away at the very beginning of the universe. But this would have been an isolated event, not a constant accelerating force. Their explanation of the 1998 observations does away with the need for dark energy." Some cosmologists dismiss the theory, others are open to it. NASA plans to send a telescope into space to gather more data about what dark energy might be, but that's not until 2016. See also: "Mathematicians' Alternate Model of the Universe Explains Away the Need For Dark Energy," by Jeremy Hsu, Popular Science, 25 September 2009.
--- Annette Emerson
"Mathematics expert: IRV not the answer," by Curtis Gilbert. Minnesota Public Radio, 23 September 2009.
The city of Minneapolis will use instant runoff voting in its 2009 municipal elections. Don Saari (University of California, Irvine), who has done a great deal of analysis of different voting systems, spoke to an audience at the Institute for Math and its Applications about instant runoff voting and its flaws. He is no fan of the most commonly used system, plurality voting in which the top vote-getter wins, but he said, "We haven't gotten rid of the cancer. The plurality vote determines who's going to go to the runoff. So, if we have a system that's distorted and gets us the wrong two people for the runoff, we're in trouble." The Minnesota Public Radio website has a nice video illustrating an example of an election using instant runoff voting.
--- Mike Breen
"'Genius' Mathematician Seeks New Problems," an interview with Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan. National Public Radio's All Things Considered, 22 September 2009.
"Go forth and multiply," by Penelope Debelle. Adelaide Now..., 17 September 2009.
Simon Pampena is Australia's stand-up math comedian. The newspaper covers his Super Mega Maths Battle for Planet Earth performance. "There are maths teachers and a smattering of older teens but it is mainly mums or dads with groups of children. The show is loosely based on the premise of an alien invasion from Planet Calculus and it hides maths inside a package of popular culture and audience participation. The songs include a feat of memory in which Pampena recites pi to the 50th decimal--he knows it to 100 places but could not cram it into a song." This "National Numeracy Ambassador" draws appreciative crowds around the country, which aims to improve its math literacy. "The problem is not just one of national standing and self-esteem. Maths is at the heart of inventions that make a nation great. As the national strategy points out, without maths there would be no cars, no planes, no mobile phone networks, and no computers. Our dependency on maths will only increase as we rely on future technologies." Another ambassador--by example--is Australian Terence Tao, who at the time of the article was visiting his Adelaide family during a national Clay-Mahler lecture tour. Tao was the first Australian--and youngest person ever--to win the prestigious Fields Medal. He started to learn arithmetic by the age of two from watching Sesame Street, and studied throughout his school years with a mentor who was a retired mathematician. Pampena's career path was "a combination of good teachers and Star Wars. It took him a while but Pampena finally understood that while the science in Star Wars was fiction, there was real science out there that was just as interesting." The article provides a nice profile of these two mathematicians, both of whom want to let young students know that math is present in some unexpected places, and is needed to pursue studies and careers in all the sciences.
--- Annette Emerson
"Super-30 Founder in Limca World Record Book." PatnaDaily.com, 16 September 2009.
"OK Derren, now tell us how you REALLY did it: Experts pour scorn on illusionist's explanation," by Paul Revoir. Daily Mail, 12 September 2009.
Several professors of philosophy and mathematics were quoted in the article and called Brown's pseudo-mathematical explanation "rubbish." The only rational conclusion is that the illusion was the result of tricky film editing. However, the illusionist's enthusiasm for math is appealing: "This was to lead me down a fascinating path into mathematics, superstition and a powerful, beautiful secret that can only be achieved when we all put our heads together," said Brown.
In a related story, the same six numbers came up in consecutive drawings of the Bulgarian lottery and 18 people picked the winning numbers the second time (no one chose the numbers the first time they came up). The coincidence led to an investigation in Bulgaria. The Wall Street Journal's Number Guy, Carl Bialik, writes about the coincidence.
--- Brie Finegold
“The Mysterious Equilibrium of Zombies…and Other Things Mathematicians See at the Movies,” by Samuel Arbesman, The Boston Globe, 6 September 2009.
While movies about mathematics or mathematicians are few and far between, many films incorporate mathematical ideas. In this article, Harvard Medical School postdoctoral fellow Samuel Arbesman discusses several films—Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The Dark Knight, Six Degrees of Separation, Reservoir Dogs, and zombie flicks—from a mathematician’s perspective.
For example, in the opening scene of the latest Harry Potter film, as London’s Millennium Bridge is being destroyed, the simultaneous buckling and lateral movement of the bridge would probably bother “those who think about math.” But math certainly was used to try to determine the cause of the real-life wobble experienced by the people who crossed the bridge after its initial opening in 2000. Or consider that latest Batman film, in which the Joker offers passengers on two ferries a choice that a mathematician would recognize as a form—albeit twisted—of the prisoner’s dilemma. Then there is the statement made by Stockard Channing’s character in Six Degrees of Separation about the number of people that separate every possible pair of people on the planet. Research by a few mathematicians has shown the number to be closer to an average of 6.6, at least in online networks. Go to last month’s Math Digests, for more on mathematical models applied to zombie epidemics. See you at the movies!
--- Claudia Clark
“Calls for pardon for code-breaker Turing,” by Susan Watts. BBC News, 4 September 2009.
"5 College Majors On the Rise: Computational Science," and "How They Did It," by Karin Fischer and David Glenn. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 4 September 2009, pages A8 and A10.
The Chronicle identifies computational science—a field that involves modeling aspects of our world from weather to potato chips—as one of five undergraduate majors expected to grow in popularity. Like the other four selected, computational science is a blend of multiple disciplines, in this case mathematics and computer sciences, with other scientific fields. Bringing multiple departments together is key to a successful program, and state schools in Ohio have augmented their programs further by allowing cross-enrollment between universities. One of the oldest programs in the country, founded in 1998 at the State University of New York College at Brockport, successfully used its program to boost enrollment in hard science departments. Establishing a program can be difficult, taking for example the concerns of Oregon State professors about the importance of such work both for students and for their own academic careers, but the article discusses the positive prospects for computational scientists in the job market.
--- Lisa DeKeukelaere
The book, Mathematicians: An Outer View of the Inner World is the subject of a review in American Scientist and a multimedia presentation in Seed Magazine.
Hayes notes that the book's introduction is by Robert Clifford Gunning (who is also one of the subjects), and the afterword is by Brandon Fradd (who started the project). Hayes says the book of black & white photographs and autobiographical essays is simple and elegant, but wonders "from this outer view of mathematicians, can you really learn anything about their inner world?" especially if few of the subjects talk about "what it feels like to do mathematics at the highest level." He thinks this is a family album for the mathematical community, "but not quite the entire family" as it is "the world of mathematics as seen from Princeton, New Jersey. Fully half the subjects have some connection to Princeton University or to the neighboring Institute for Advanced Study."
Seed Magazine features a slideshow of 14 photographs of mathematicians from the book. The mathematicians in this slideshow include both "celebrated icons" and others at the start of their careers. These include Margaret Dusa McDuff, Alain Connes, John Horton Conway, Adebisi Agboola, Sir Michael Francis Atiyah, Friedrich E. Hirzbruch, and Peter David Lax. Each photograph is accompanied by a short quote, assumedly from Cook's book, in which the subject shares one or two thoughts about mathematics, what mathematicians do, or their early interest in mathematics. For example, the quote accompanying the photograph of Marie-France Vigneras reads "As mathematicians, we play and dream but we don't cheat. You can't cheat in mathematics. Truth is so important. To solve a problem with a proof is exciting and rewarding because it is true forever."
In addition to the photographs and captions, a 3-minute audio recording provides some additional insights of 5 of the mathematicians pictured here. For example, David Mumford says "In my own experience, mathematics in general and pure mathematics in particular have always seemed like secret gardens, places where I could try to grow exotic and beautiful theories. You need a key to get in, a key that you earn by letting mathematical structures turn in your head, 'til they are as real as the room you are sitting in." To see the slideshow and hear the recording, go to Seed Magazine.
--- Annette Emerson and Claudia Clark
“Origin of Computing,” by Martin Campbell-Kelly. Scientific American, September 2009.
Campbell-Kelly then discusses “the most important analog computing instrument” before World War II: the Differential Analyzer. The first digital computer would soon follow: the ENIAC, finished in 1945. But it would be the design of the EDVAC that would mark a shift from the computer as “a mathematical instrument to a universal information-processing machine.” Campbell finishes the article with an analysis of how computers have evolved since the EDVAC, and describes some of the “multiple possibilities for radical evolution” that exist today.
--- Claudia Clark
"Applied Math," a collection of new applications of mathematics, by Katharine Gammon. Popular Science, September 2009.
Popular Science devotes a section to new ways math can be applied. "Red-eye Flight Relief" notes that researchers at University of Michigan and Harvard Medical school "wrote software that models complex internal timing systems like our circadian clock" that might one day help air travelers avoid jet lag and astronauts deal with different day-night cycles on the moon or on Mars. "The Sound of Sludge" reports that Alex Tolsoy (ATolstoy Scientific) used a mathematical tool called matched-field processing to analyze reflected sound and pinpoint [a clogged pipe] clog." The third piece, "Unscrambling Alphabet Soup," says Rajesh Rao (University of Washington) calculates the "conditional entropy--a measure of randomness" of Indus Valley pictograms and thinks the script is most likely a language and plans further analysis of the text's structure."
--- Annette Emerson
Comments: Email Webmaster