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Math Digest

Summaries of Media Coverage of Math

Edited by Mike Breen and Annette Emerson, AMS Public Awareness Officers
Contributors:
Mike Breen (AMS), Claudia Clark (freelance science writer), Lisa DeKeukelaere (2004 AMS Media Fellow), Annette Emerson (AMS), Brie Finegold (University of Arizona), Baldur Hedinsson (Boston University), Allyn Jackson (Deputy Editor, Notices of the AMS), Carly Rose (intern), and Adriana Salerno (Bates College)


October 2010


 

"In den USA war ich ein Ziel von Terroristen." Interview with Jonathan Farley, by Ernst Grabovszki. Wiener Zeitung, 30 October 2010.

Jonathan FarleyJonathan Farley (left) is a mathematician whose work aims to understand and, ultimately one hopes, disrupt terrorist cells. For two years he visited the University of Linz in Austria, and near the end of his time there, before taking up a position in the computer science department at the University of Maine, he was interviewed for the Wiener Zeitung newspaper. In the interview, he discusses his ideas for using lattice theory to model communications in terrorist networks. He also talks about his brush with hate groups in the U.S., which caused him to give up a position at Vanderbilt University; after speaking out in favor of removing the word "Confederate" from one of the university's buildings, he received death threats. (Photo by Peter Kiar.)

--- Allyn Jackson


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"Vital Statistics," by Sallie Ann Keller. Nature, 21 October 2010, page 914.

Keller, a former president of the American Statistical Association, expounds upon the growing amount of collaboration between statisticians and researchers in other scientific fields and provides ideas for encouraging these important relationships. She notes that although the number of statisticians earning a masters degrees per year has doubled in the past ten years, many jobs for statisticians are going unfilled. While some institutional changes, such as JAMA’s rule that industry-affiliated papers undergo independent statistical review, have forced increased collaboration, many researchers in other sciences remain skeptical of the benefits statistical consultation can provide. Keller cites climate change research as an example of a field in which an infusion of statistical collaboration would be highly beneficial. In order to foster such teamwork, Keller suggests that universities reward collaboration among junior professors, that funding providers reconfigure their models to allow for larger research groups that include statisticians, and that statisticians themselves seek projects in other fields.

--- Lisa DeKeukelaere

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"Goodbye to the father of fractals," by Peter Tyson. Inside NOVA, 20 October 2010;
"Benoît Mandelbrot, Novel Mathematician, dies at 85,"
by Jascha Hoffman, The New York Times, 16 October 2010;
"Benoît B. Mandelbrot (1924-2010)," by Heinz-Otto Peitgen. Science, 12 November 2010, page 926;
"Benoît Mandelbrot (1924-2010)," by Ralph Gomory. Nature, 18 November 2010, page 378.

MandelbrotMedia around the world published obituaries of Benoît Mandelbrot, who was known as the "father of fractals." Fractals, whose distinctive quality is self-similarity, appear in nature (coastlines, tree branches and broccoli), and as Tyson writes, "since Mandelbrot introduced fractal geometery to the world in the 1970s, his new math has informed fields as diverse as biology and physics, ecology and engineering, medicine and cosmology." Several of the articles cite Mandelbrot's books "The Fractal Geometry of Nature" and "The (Mis)behavior of Markets," and the NOVA documentary "Hunting the Hidden Dimension" (Photo: Michael Marsland/Yale University)

--- Annette Emerson


 

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"Equation:" a column by Julie Rehmeyer. Wired.com, 17 October 2010 (and prior).

Since May of this year, science writer Julie Rehmeyer has been serving up a new equation each month to Wired readers. Equations are often found in media as mysterious decorations signifying the overwhelming complexity of the issue at hand. But in her snippets, Rehmeyer, who also writes the column "Math Trek" for Science News, zooms in on one application of an equation and explains the significance of each variable in terms of units and simple concepts. Readers of the online May installment can even control (at least virtually) the many variables contributing to global carbon emissions by clicking and dragging various sliders.

Not every month's "Equation" has an interactive component, but hefty graphics infuse the mathematics with style and immediate meaning. The power gleaned from ocean waves, the ability to create realistic 3-D animation, and the errors made in counting the vote are among the topics discussed over the last six months. The most recent issue proves that mathematics prevents nausea--at least when the nausea is due to a swaying skyscraper. A differential equation describes the way that a skyscraper's wobble can be dampened. Unfortunately, the words "differential equation" do not make it onto the page, and the notation used is not the most common. However, the word "derivative" does make it into the small print, and as more math-savvy readers come of age, more magazines might start to bring some of the math out from backstage.

(Two other examples: Factors for Predicting Phantom Traffic Jams and Roller Coaster Designers Put Curves in Right Places)

--- Brie Finegold

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"Numbers Are a Weak Spot In the B.C.S. Standings," by Jeff Passan and Dan Wetzel. The New York Times, 17 October 2010, page 11 (Sports section).

BCS trophyThe best football teams in college football--in the Bowl Championship Series--are determined by coaches' and writers' polls and by six computerized ranking systems. The system is very controversial among fans and writers who often blame math for the illogical results, yet the people who create the computerized systems admit that they don't know much math and that their systems aren't accurate. Only one of the systems makes its methods public. The situation is bad enough that mathematician Hal Stern (University of California, Irvine) has called for the statistical community to boycott participation in the ranking system. Says leading sports statistican Bill James, "Stern's analysis was clearly right. This isn't a sincere effort to use math to find the answer at all. It's clearly an effort to use math as a cover for whatever you want to do....It's just nonsense math." For more on math and the BCS, see the Notices article "The Bowl Championship Series: A Mathematical Review." (Photo: BCS Trophy by Harrison Diamond/Independent Florida Alligator, from user Nikonmadness at the English Wikipedia.)

--- Mike Breen


 

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"Dartmouth project takes science to rural libraries," by Holly Ramer. Boston.com, 17 October 2010.

Dan Rockmore (Dartmouth College) is part of a team that has a grant to educate people in the areas of math and science in an unusual way. Instead of focusing on children or in venues such as science centers, the team will bring math and science education to adults in rural communities through their local libraries. Rockmore and others will travel to other towns to share videos--that the team will produce--and lead discussions. Says Rockmore, "The whole thing is about finding an on-ramp into science for people who weren't even looking to get on the highway."

--- Mike Breen

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"Maths is the language of the universe," by Marcus du Sautoy. New Statesman, 14 October 2010.

In light of looming cuts to federal science research budgets, Oxford University professor Marcus du Sautoy sets out to show that mathematics is not simply an esoteric field of study but an important foundation for advances in other scientific fields. Du Sautoy ties mathematics to achievements at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland and to the study of proteins in biochemistry. He also notes that the recent solution of the Poincare conjecture revealed the possible shapes of the universe. A number of open mathematical challenges, if solved, could enable progress in other fields, as well. Development of an algorithm to “map” the prime numbers, for example, would have a large impact on internet security mechanisms, and a solution to the so-called "travelling salesman problem" of finding the most efficient route for visiting a set of points would have implications on studies of biology and chemistry.

--- Lisa DeKeukelaere

Math language of sciences poster [Editor's note: To order a copy of the AMS poster, "Mathematics, language of the sciences" email paoffice@ams.org with subject line "poster-md11".]


 

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"Curious mathematical law is rife in nature," by Rachel Courtland. New Scientist, 14 October 2010.

earthquakeMany sets of numbers (but not all) exhibit a surprising pattern known as Benford’s law: the first digit of a number in the set is more likely to be 1 (30% chance) than 2, 2 is more likely than 3, and so on, with 9 being the least likely first digit (4.6% chance). This fact has been used to detect tax fraud and voter fraud, for example. Malcolm Sambridge of the Australian National University in Canberra and colleagues have found that several natural phenomena, like depths of earthquakes, vertical displacement of the ground during an earthquake, brightness of gamma rays, rotation rates of pulsars, and even infectious disease numbers also satisfy Benford’s law. Much like the application to voter fraud, Benford’s law can then be applied to detect anomalous data. For example, studying data collected on the vertical displacement during the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake of 2004, differences in the exact adherence to the law between measurements taken in Peru and Canberra gave researchers a clue that a smaller local earthquake had happened in Canberra at the same time. Sambridge says that Benford’s law could be applied to checking data. “It could signal something strange and something to investigate, perhaps something that you might not have spotted in another way.”

--- Adriana Salerno

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"Mathematician set to help Duke scientists mine their data," by Duke University. R & D Magazine, 11 October 2010.

Ingrid Daubechies, who will join Duke University's faculty in January 2011, "is one of the world's authorities on sorting through complex data sets to find hidden meaning." She is known for her developing the mathematical concept of wavelets, "making her a leader in the field of signal processing, a branch of applied mathematics that is concerned with transmitting, analyzing, maniplulating, reconstructing and storing signals." Daubechies notes that she is eager to "find new and better ways to deal with data," especially as applied to animal movement and biological tissue chemistry.

--- Annette Emerson

 

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"The Battle of the Dimensions," by Burkard Polster and Marty Ross. The Age, 11 October 2010.

3dWhich is a better viewing experience: 2D or 3D? Well, 3D viewing is certainly more mathematically engaging, as shown by this short article on tricking the eye. In the theatre, we see a three dimensional image (through our viewing goggles) when presented with two different two dimensional pictures. The difference is subtle--one image comes from the view your left eye would perceive while the other comes from the right. The slight differences in position of a particular feature of the image are easily measured and related by an equation that the authors discuss using a bit of geometry. This relationship even allows for pictures taken from above to be used to determine altitudes below. All the viewer needs to know is the distance between their eyes and the picture plane, between the two objects whose heights are being compared, and between their own eyes.

--- Brie Finegold


 

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"Teaching Math as Narrative Drama," by Katherine Mangan. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 8 October 2010, page A4.

In Katherine Mangan's "Teaching Math as Narrative Drama" the spotlight is shown on Professor Edward B. Burger, a recent recipient of Baylor University's annual Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching. Beating out over 100 other nominees for the award, Burger edged out the competition because of his numerous teaching awards, multimedia textbooks and videos developed for secondary schools, and his televised breakdown of how math impacted the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. The reason for such acclaim is Burger's desire to really make math come to life in a way that helps students learn, understand, and want more from the field. His teaching method includes pushing students to take risks in their mathematical thinking, rewarding those risks by grading them on what he refers to as, "the quality of their failure." For with failure comes understanding and insight. Being a teacher of mathematics was something that Burger embarked on at an early age. While still a high school student, at the age of seventeen, his pre-calculus teacher allowed him to enact his own lesson plan upon forty of his own peers. From there after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin with a doctorate, Burger began teaching night classes at Austin Community College at only twenty-two. By the time he was twenty-four he had received a tenure-track position at Williams College, where on a daily basis he demonstrates to students the intrigue and value of mathematics, making them curious and striving for answers.

One of Burger's students describes his teaching, "He starts out with a big picture, describing these really far-out problems, and says this is what we're going to work up to. Then he builds up suspense and leaves the punch line for the next class. When the class is over, we're disappointed." That momentary disappointment keeps them coming back. Though Burger is given high praise for his teaching skills, he's not keeping them just to himself. While spending time at Baylor University this year he's stimulating discussions about good teaching with the Baylor faculty, helping to organize weekly lunch discussions on the topic. Not only that, he's reaching out to K-12 math teachers, planning to visit local public schools, and speaking at regional meetings. At merely forty-six, Edward Burger has much more teaching to do in his lifetime. He "reaches deep down into the academic system to make math exciting for everyone," and as Mangan writes, that's why Burger wins such prestigious teaching awards such as the Robert Frost Cherry Award. With such zest for teaching, Mangan explains why much more acclaim is ahead of Burger.

--- Carly Rose

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Articles about the 2010 Ig Nobel Awards:
"The Ig Nobel Prizes 2010," by Maria Isabel Garcia. Philippine Star, 7 October 2010;
"Sicilian Team Wins Ig Nobel Prize" [VIDEO], VR Teleradio [Italy], 5 October 2010;
"Weird science, winners of the Ig Nobel," by Cynthia R. Fagan. New York Post, 3 October 2010.

ignobelHave you ever had a supervisor so incompetent and out of place that he or she would make a perfect character on the NBC sitcom The Office? Now a mathematical computer model can shed a light on why. The New York Post and PhilStar.com report on three professors at the University of Catania in Italy winning an Ig Nobel Prize for explaining how an organization ends up with a boss that behaves like Steve Carell in The Office.

The Ig Nobel is awarded at a lively ceremony in Cambridge, MA every year for amusing and unusual, yet completely legitimate research. The Management Prize at this year's event being awarded to three Italians was widely covered by Italian media. TV station VR Sicilia interviewed the medalists, who explained how their computational study shows that when employees are promoted for competent work, in time they are promoted to a position at which they are no longer competent. The model also shows that having incompetent supervisors has negative effects, not only on company moral but also on profits. The researchers looked into other ways of promoting workers and demonstrated how counterintuitively, efficiency was significantly higher in a company if employees were promoted at random instead of based on competence. (Photo: Italian team is presented with the 2010 Ig Nobel Prize in Management by Frank Wilczek (in the baseball cap). Kees Moeliker: Improbable Research.)

--- Baldur Hedinsson

 

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"NJIT math professor lists Yankees as slight favorites to beat Twins in ALDS," by Marc Carig. The Star-Ledger, 5 October 2010.

MLB World Series trophyEach year, Bruce Bukliet of the New Jersey Institute of Technology issues predictions about the Major League Baseball season and playoffs. He's done pretty well. It's one thing to predict playoff winners, as in this article, but Bukliet also predicts the pennant races before the season even starts. For the 2010 season, he correctly predicted all four of the American League playoff teams (only erring a bit in predicting the New York Yankees to finish ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays), including the Texas Rangers, who were a surprise to most people. In the National League, he predicted the East Division correctly (Philadelphia Phillies winning, Atlanta Braves the wild card), but missed the Central (Cincinnati Reds won, prediction: St. Louis Cardinals--maybe he is just weak on colors) and the West (San Francisco Giants won, prediction: Los Angeles Dodgers). Following the regular season, he correctly predicted the winner in each of the four series in the first round of the playoffs. In three of them, the favorite won, but in the other, Texas vs. Tampa Bay, Texas's victory was a mild upset. In the next round, the League Championship Series, Bukliet was one for two. He picked the Rangers to upset the Yankees, but did not predict San Francisco's upset of Philadelphia. For the World Series? Bukliet picked the Rangers (the Giants won the Series four games to one).

--- Mike Breen


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"STEM Education Has Little to Do With Flowers," by Natalie Angier. The New York Times, 4 October 2010.

In this article, science writer Natalie Angier critiques the use of the term "STEM education" (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). For one thing, she says, it is "opaque and confusing." Eric Lander, co-chair of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, as well as founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, notes that "Everybody who knows what it means knows what it means, and everybody else doesn't." For another, Angier's points out, it sounds "didactic and jargony:" Astronaut Sally Ride, for one, avoids using it when promoting science education to the public. Some, like UC Berkeley Lawrence Hall of Science director Elizabeth Stage, thinks that separating the disciplines is a "false distinction:" Stage "would much prefer to focus on what the fields have in common, like problem-solving, arguing from evidence and reconciling conflicting views." Others, Angier notes, "don't frame the word 'science' so narrowly, as the province of the given rather than of the forged. Science has always encompassed the applied and the basic, and the impulses to explore and to invent have always been linked." Finally, as with many acronyms, a little "me-tooism" has been cropping up. Some have suggested adding medicine or arts to the mix: respectively, STEM squared or STEAM, anyone?

--- Claudia Clark

 

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"Equation:" a column by Julie Rehmeyer. Wired.com, 17 October 2010 (and prior).

Since May of this year, science writer Julie Rehmeyer has been serving up a new equation each month to Wired readers. Equations are often found in media as mysterious decorations signifying the overwhelming complexity of the issue at hand. But in her snippets, Rehmeyer, who also writes the column "Math Trek" for Science News, zooms in on one application of an equation and explains the significance of each variable in terms of units and simple concepts. Readers of the online May installment can even control (at least virtually) the many variables contributing to global carbon emissions by clicking and dragging various sliders.

Not every month's "Equation" has an interactive component, but hefty graphics infuse the mathematics with style and immediate meaning. The power gleaned from ocean waves, the ability to create realistic 3-D animation, and the errors made in counting the vote are among the topics discussed over the last six months. The most recent issue proves that mathematics prevents nausea--at least when the nausea is due to a swaying skyscraper. A differential equation describes the way that a skyscraper's wobble can be dampened. Unfortunately, the words "differential equation" do not make it onto the page, and the notation used is not the most common. However, the word "derivative" does make it into the small print, and as more math-savvy readers come of age, more magazines might start to bring some of the math out from backstage.

(Two other examples: Factors for Predicting Phantom Traffic Jams and Roller Coaster Designers Put Curves in Right Places)

--- Brie Finegold

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"A Brief History of Mathematics: Nicolas Bourbaki," by Marcus du Sautoy. BBC, 1 October 2010.

A Brief History of Mathematics is a series of 10 podcasts, each about 15 minutes in length, created by University of Oxford professor of mathematics and Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, Marcus du Sautoy. Du Sautoy profiles several famous mathematicians, including Newton, Leibniz, Euler, Galois, Cantor, and Poincaré. Throughout the series, du Sautoy provides examples that illustrate “how powerful mathematics can be in the scientific quest to understand the world.” In the final episode, du Sautoy discusses the only mathematician that never was: Nicolas Bourbaki, “the pseudonym for a group of young French mathematicians, a character created to reinvigorate French mathematics, blow away old assumptions, and create a bold, new mathematics for the future.” Their goal: “to rewrite mathematics from the bottom upwards and put the whole subject on firm rigorous foundations…and to present the whole of mathematics in its purest, simplest form.” He also describes one of Bourbaki’s founders, Andre Weil, and his work developing algebraic geometry.

--- Claudia Clark

 

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"Scrunched-up dimensions untangled," by Alan Boyle. Cosmic Log on MSNBC.com, 1 October 2010.

Part book review, part interview, this article describes the achievement of Chinese-American Shing Tung Yau in providing a model for the multiple dimensions of the universe. Famous physicist Stephen Hawking described multiple dimensions as being the key to the "grand design" of the universe, and string theorists used Yau's proof of a complex geometry conjecture to explain these dimensions in terms of "Calabi-Yau spaces." Yau's book, The Shape of Inner Space, details the mathematics behind this theory on the structure of the universe, as well as his own personal autobiography. Yau notes in an interview with Cosmic Log that although the exact structure of the universe remains unsolved, limiting the possibilities to a finite number is a noteworthy achievement. He also touts the value of string theory as a field and of computers in enabling new, beautiful mathematical discoveries.

--- Lisa DeKeukelaere

 

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