Summaries of Media Coverage of Math
Edited by Mike Breen and Annette Emerson, AMS Public Awareness Officers
Blog: "Scientists--They're Just Like Us! They Don't Like Equations Either," by Evelyn Lamb. Scientific American, Observations Blog, 28 June 2012.
One might expect a mathematician to extoll the virtues of equations and be outraged by the recent research article that shows that biology papers containing more math equations or details are cited less frequently than those that contain fewer details. But young mathematician Evelyn Lamb writes "I don’t think I’m the only mathematician whose eyes sometimes glaze over when presented with a solid page of equations, nary an English sentence in sight." She discusses how the study quantified the amount of mathematical details in a given paper, and she wonders about the possibility that high quality papers are being ignored due to their technical nature. This is a refreshing affirmation that mathematicians (like celebrities featured grocery shopping in their PJ's) are "just like us"!
--- Brie Finegold
"World's hardest sudoku: can you crack it?," by Nick Collins. Telegraph, 28 June 2012.
The Telegraph publishes a daily Sudoku number placement puzzle, but a puzzle by Finnish mathematician Arto Inkala published in the paper last month deserves special attention. The objective of a Sudoku puzzle is to fill a 9x9 grid with digits such that each row, column, and 3x3-square box contains every number from one to nine. Sudoku puzzles are graded on a difficulty scale from an easy one star to very hard five stars, however this puzzle would score an eleven according to the puzzle maker, making it the world’s hardest Sudoku. The most difficult parts of the grid require the solver to think 10 moves ahead. The puzzle and thankfully the solution are available online.
--- Baldur Hedinsson
"Speech algorithm detects early Parkinson's symptoms," by Liat Clark. Wired, 26 June 2012.
Parkinson's disease is the second most common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer's, afflicting one out of every 5,000 Americans with cognitive and motor impairments, including a constant tremor and extreme difficulty making voluntary movements. Like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's has no cure, meaning the best hope for the afflicted is slowing the progression of the disease with surgery and drugs. This in turn means making early diagnoses is key to mediating the disease's ravaging effects.
Now, a group of researchers from Oxford and Colorado has developed a tool they hope will allow the fast diagnosis of Parkinson's disease--over the phone. Their algorithm identifies the unique vocal characteristics of Parkinson's disease sufferers. Vocal impairments are some of the earliest symptoms of Parkinson's, with patients speaking more hoarsely, and at a decreased volume, very early in the progression of the disease. The researchers, including engineers Patrick McSharry and Max Little, now at MIT, applied a battery of signal-processing algorithms--traditional, nonlinear, and stochastic---to the sustained vowel sounds of Parkinson's patients and healthy adults. Filtering out redundant measures left them with a set of six highly uncorrelated features of the vowel waveforms, allowing for the optimal discrimination of patients from controls using either a support vector machine or linear and nonlinear regression. These six features---the jitter (variation in frequency), the shimmer (variation in amplitude), the harmonic-to-noise and noise-to-harmonic ratios, the fractal scaling of fluctuations in the signal, and a new feature measuring the entropy of the variations around a given pitch---can be computed robustly even in the face of individual variation and transmission noise, making the algorithm ideal for telemonitoring.
Since the algorithm utilizes machine learning, it can also be improved with more data. The researchers have set up the Parkinson's Voice Initiative---which Little has promoted on YouTubeand at the recent TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh---to do just that. A three-minute call to the number provided on the website will help the group reach their goal of 10,000 recordings, and further their vision of using the "existing telephone network [to] scale up the screening of Parkinson's disease to the entire population, and do it at very minimal cost."
See also: Accurate telemonitoring of Parkinson’s disease progression by non-invasive speech tests," published in IEEE Transactions.
--- Ben Polletta
"Too much math is tough for scientists: study." Daily Telegraph (from Agence France Presse), 26 June 2012.
This article discusses a study that examined how mathematical content in scientific papers affects the citation rates of the papers. The title of the study is "Heavy use of equations impedes communication among biologists." It was conducted by researchers at the University of Bristol, who analyzed about 650 studies on ecology and evolution published in three leading journals in 1998. They found that the papers with the largest number of mathematical equations were less likely to be cited than other papers containing less mathematics. One of the researchers is quoted as saying: "The ideal solution is not to hide the maths away, but to add more explanatory text to take the reader carefully through the assumptions and implications of the theory."
--- Allyn Jackson
"What the golden ratio sounds like", by Jacob Aron. New Scientist TV, 18 June 2012.
This brief posting was made to celebrate "Phi Day", which falls on June 18th. Phi is the "golden ratio", and its decimal expansion begins 1.618. The article describes a musical composition based on phi and created for Phi Day by musician Michael Blake. There is also a video clip of the composition being played on various instruments.
--- Allyn Jackson
"U of I sees record math number," by Josh O'Leary. Indianapolis Star, 18 June 2012.
The department of mathematics at the University of Iowa is celebrating a diverse graduating class of math PhDs this year. Seven minority U.S. citizens make up about half of the math doctorates awarded by the university. The group includes black and Latino students, as well as a Native American and a native Hawaiian. In a discipline dominated by white males and international students this is quite an achievement. According to University of Iowa professor Phil Kutzko about 1,200 doctorates are awarded in math each year nationwide, with less than half going to US-born students and less than 50 of those to minorities.
(Photo: First row left to right: Syvillia Alverett, Shannon Talbott, Carmen Wright; Second row: Danilo Diedrichs (Applied Mathematical and Computational Sciences Program), Kamuela Yong (Applied Mathematical and Computational Sciences Program), Carlos De la Mora. Courtesy University of Iowa Mathematics Department.)
--- Baldur Hedinsson
"The highly productive habits of Alan Turing," by Matthew Lasar. Ars Technica, 17 June 2012.
Alan Turing's 100th birthday was on June 23rd, and the media has been abuzz with accounts of his triumphant life and tragic death. This article on Turing in Ars Technica provides a nice set of insights into Turing's character and life story, while also discussing some of his most important contributions to mathematics, computer science and history. Turing is best remembered for laying the foundations of modern computer science, in a paper addressing Hilbert's decidability problem. The question posed by Hilbert was whether there exists a method to decide whether any mathematical proposition is true. In laying out a rigorous framework in which to answer this question, Turing defined the concepts of a computable number---one whose digits could be calculated following a finite number of (possibly recursive) steps, or in modern terms an algorithm---and a computing machine---a sort of super-typewriter with an infinite tape, which can read, erase, and write symbols, move right or left along the tape, and store a finite number of symbols. The actions of each computing machine are described by a symbolic table, which can be transformed to a sequence of symbols, or a sequence of integers. Turing showed that these sequences of integers are themselves uncomputable. He also wrote down the table defining "the universal machine"---a computing machine capable of performing the computations of any other machine, given its sequence of symbols---and showed how functions, propositions, and other mathematical objects can be computed by his machines, in the same way as computable numbers. The paper thus not only answered Hilbert's question in the negative, but paved the way for the implementation of universal computing machines, and the computing routines that might run on them.
Turing later had a hand in implementing just such a machine while working on cracking the Enigma code used by the Germans during World War II. The article touches on the circumstances surrounding these events, as well as his frankness---he once replied to "You'll be a good boy, won't you?" with "Yes, but sometimes I shall forget"---his love of rhyme and song, his near-Olympic long-distance running ability, and his playful relationship with his housekeeper. His response to the death of childhood friend Christopher Morcom is recounted, illuminating his conception of the spiritual realm. It also touches on his unfortunate (suspected, but never confirmed) suicide, following a conviction in 1952 for "gross indecency" and a treatment of "chemical castration." Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a statement of apology to Turing in 2009, and on his centennial, an official pardon is winding its way through Parliament. The one accomplishment left out is Turing's justifiably famous essay "Computing machines and intelligence", credited by many with the birth of the field of artificial intelligence, in which the mathematician addresses the question "can machines think?" Those interested in his answer can fill the gap with the transcript of June 29th's Science Friday, and those in the U.K. should be sure to check out the sidebar of Lasar's article for other events celebrating "Alan Turing's Year."
A gallery, "Codebreaker--Alan Turing's life and legacy," will be on display at the UK's Science Museum through July 31, 2013. See also: "A Mind from Math," by Tom Siegfried. Science News, 30 June 2012, pages 26-28.
--- Ben Polletta
"Algorithm beats jigsaw-solving record," by Jacob Aron. New Scientist, 16 June 2012.
This brief article reports on work of Cornell University computer scientist Andrew Gallagher, who has come up with a new algorithm for solving jigsaw puzzles. When implemented on a computer, the algorithm can assemble a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle in 24 hours. One of the innovations in the algorithm is that it analyzes color patterns on the pieces. If, for example, a piece is lighter on the left and darker on the right, then the algorithm knows the piece probably fits between a light piece on the left and a dark piece on the right.
--- Allyn Jackson
"Making space: where art meets physics," by Margaret Wertheim. Guardian, 13 June 2012.
This short article by Margaret Wertheim, a science writer and the curator and director of The Institute For Figuring in Los Angeles, is part of a series in which The Guardian asked teachers from the new alternative art college Wide Open School at Hayward Gallery to describe their classes and the concepts behind them. Wertheim, who was a physics major at college, has always been fascinated by the idea of space. In her book "The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet", she traced humanity's conceptions of space through history. "What I came to realise," she said, "was that our conceptualising about space is irrevocably bound up with our conceptualising about ourselves." The morning and evening sessions of her three-day class at Wide Open School (held June 12th - 14th) had different focuses. In the morning sessions, a focus on theory took students into mathematics and physics - geometry and topology as well as string theory and relativity, a theory whose "beauty and power ... astounded" Wertheim in college. In the afternoons, students made structures from paper, including three-dimensional business card fractals, small components of a fractal discovered by Jeannine Mosely, called the Snowflake Sponge. Mosely and Wertheim are planning to build a giant model of the fractal in Los Angeles. "I see this as a dialogue between mathematics, engineering and community art practice," said Wertheim, "hundreds of USC students are folding component cubes." In the final session, students were turned loose to interpret the concepts and practices they'd learned over the past few days. Wertheim hoped it would be "an experiment in mathematical aesthetics". To see how the experiment turned out, check out some of the photos available on the website of The Institute for Figuring.
(Photo: Students building business card origami fractals at the Hayward Gallery, London. Photo courtesy the Institute For Figuring archive.) Business card origami was invented by the American engineer Dr. Jeannine Mosely.)
--- Ben Polletta
"Friedrich Hirzebruch, Mathematician, Is Dead at 84," by Bruce Schechter. The New York Times, 10 June 2012.
This obituary tells briefly the story of Friedrich Hirzebruch, an outstanding mathematician of the 20th century who helped rebuild mathematics in Germany after World War II had nearly decimated German science and mathematics. The article quotes Hirzebruch's friend and collaborator Sir Michael Atiyah as saying: "As a young man, by his own personality, example and organizational skills, [Hirzebruch] recreated German mathematics." Born in 1927, Hirzebruch was a major participant in the flowering of algebraic geometry and topology that took place in the mid-20th century. After a stay at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, he returned to Germany and founded the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in Bonn, which remains today one of the world's major centers for mathematics research. See an interview with Hirzebruch that was made as part of the "Science Lives" project of the Simons Foundation.
Among the obituaries that appeared in the German press is: "Deutschlands Gigant der Mathematik [Germany's Mathematical Giant]", by Günter Ziegler, Die Zeit 5 June 2012; and "Flächenfuchs unter Garben", by Dietmar Dath, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 30 June 2012.
(Photo: Friedrich Hirzebruch. Max Planck Institute for Mathematics.)
--- Allyn Jackson
"Beer Bubbles: Guinness Stout Mystery Solved By Mathematicians," by Charles Choi. Huffington Post, 4 June 2012.
The Irish stout Guinness is a beer like no other. If you look closely at a pint of Guinness being poured you’ll notice that counter-intuitively the air-bubbles sink as opposed to rise. A group of Irish mathematicians have now shown that the solution to this puzzle lies in the shape of the pint glasses from which Guinness is often sipped, not because of the beer itself. "In one's everyday life, one rarely comes across such a counterintuitive phenomenon, challenging equally the imagination of a university professor as well as that of Bill, John and Harry from the local pub," said Eugene Benilov, an applied mathematician at the University of Limerick in Ireland. Computer models and lab experiments revealed that in Guinness pint glasses, which are typically narrower at the bottom and wider at the top, beer flows downward near the walls of the glass, dragging the tiny bubbles along with it, and then upward in the interior. In perfectly straight cylindrical glass, all the bubbles rise together upwards from below.
--- Baldur Hedinsson
"The Case of the Traveling Salesman," by William J. Cook. Scientific American, June 2012, page 26.
William J. Cook, author of the recently published book In Pursuit of the Traveling Salesman: Mathematics at the Limits of Computation, and a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, begins this article by asking whether it is hopeless to try to find the shortest route to visit any number of cities, i.e., to try to solve the Traveling Salesman Problem (TSP). We already know that such a solution would be "a stunning breakthrough in mathematics," Cook says, allowing us "to solve efficiently any computational problem for which answers can be easily verified." But how about finding the solution to some finite number of cities, such as 100,000? In this case, linear programming can be used to assign fractional values to roads, ultimately allowing us to find the shortest possible route. If that seems like an unreasonably large number to work with, Cook points out that "current computations are zeroing in on the solution to a pretty set of 100,000 points created by Robert Bosch of Oberlin College, where the tour traces out a drawing of the Mona Lisa." Cook concludes that determining the limits "to the power of general computational techniques in science and elsewhere" and how widely these limits "constrain our quest for knowledge…is what research into the TSP is all about." See links to reviews of Cook's book on the Reviews page.
--- Claudia Clark
"Do the Math," by Mark Strauss. Smithsonian, June 2012, page 108.
Smithsonian notes the upcoming opening of the Museum of Math (the only one of its kind in the U.S.), and gives a hint of the creative and "mind-opening" experiences in store. One is "the sculpture is made from straight strings. But step inside it, and you're surrounded by curves. A paradox?" The museum's founder and promoter is a former math professor and hedge fund manager, Glen Whitney. He has raised $30 million to build this museum to show kids that math is exciting. The article notes that "Whitney blames an educational mind-set that extols liberal arts as inspirational and demotes math to merely useful--ignoring 'the beauty of patterns and numbers and shapes'."
--- Annette Emerson
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