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

April 1999

  • Space could be finite
  • "Playful thinking can often lead to serious mathematics"
  • "Alan Turing's Forgotten Ideas in Computer Science"
  • "Why does the telephone cord always get twisted?"
  • A Knotty Mathematical Problem?
  • "Math Emerges Blinking Into the Glare of Popular Culture"
  • The Lagrangian Codes
  • The math of slime molds and ant bridges
  • April is Math Awareness Month. Thanks to the Scientific American for an unusually rich selection of mathematical topics this month!

    * Space could be finite, merely giving the illusion of infinity, according to Jean-Pierre Luminet, Glenn Starckman and Jeff Weeks. Their article ``Is Space Finite?'' in the April Scientific American explains compact three-dimensional topologies and the possible local geometries consistent with observed cosmic symmetry, with reference to physical theory and experiment. ``Of all the issues in cosmic topology, perhaps the most difficult to grasp is how a hyperbolic space can be finite.'' For a picture of what 3-dimensional hyperbolic space (finite or infinite) would look like from the inside see Charlie Gunn's Hyperbolic Space Tiled with Dodecahedra on the Geometry Center Website.

    * "Playful thinking can often lead to serious mathematics" is one conclusion drawn from John Conway's career in a profile by Mark Alpert in April's Scientific American. The profile mentions Conway's serious work on finite groups and transfinite numbers, as well as his more playful inventions, including of course the Game of Life, and gives the glimmer of an idea of how these are all connected in Conway's very unusual mind.

    * "Alan Turing's Forgotten Ideas in Computer Science," in the April Scientific American is a reminder of the danger of not publishing one's work. A team (B. Jack Copeland and Diane Proudfoot) of philosophy professors have dedicated themselves to the difficult job of retro-dissemination of Turing's fundamental insights into the theory of computation, and in particular the idea of "oracles:" currently hypothetical non-computational devices that could hold the key to computing the mathematically uncomputable. The Alan Turing Home Page (maintained by Andrew Hodges) has links to a great wealth of information about the mathematician and his work.

    * "Why does the telephone cord always get twisted?" Read Ian Stewart's "Tangling with Topology" in his Mathematical Recreations column in April's Scientific American and find out. Hint: if you pick up and hang up with the same hand, it probably won't happen. You will also learn the difference between writhing, linking and twisting, and how they are related.

    * A Knotty Mathematical Problem? A piece in Nature (March 4) on necktie knotting was picked up by the New York Times (Henry Fountain, March 9): "It Takes a Scientist to Tie a Necktie, 85 Different Ways". Thomas M. A. Fink and Yong Mao of Cambridge University told Fountain that the key to their analysis was making the connection to the idea of a random walk. (On a triangular lattice). For an analysis of this media phenomenon, see Peter Suber's knot page.

    * "Math Emerges Blinking Into the Glare of Popular Culture" (Paul Lewis, New York Times, March 13) attributes the recent "boom in sales of popular books about mathematics" to the attention attracted by Andrew Wiles' proof of Fermat's last theorem and thereby, indirectly, to Andre Weil. As evidence of the boom, Lewis tells us that "no less than three American writers are working on popular books about the concept of zero." Much ado?

    * The Lagrangian Codes. Not the latest Ludlum but a William Safire column (New York Times, March 22) about "Joseph Louis Lagrange, the greatest French mathematician," whose "multipliers, weighted with algebraic constraint equations, form composite functions" which in their augmented form have supposedly been leaked to the Chinese to give them a leg up in the arms race.

    * The math of slime molds and ant bridges comes to life in a Science Times piece "Mindless Creatures Acting 'Mindfully'" (George Johnson, March 23). The article describes how cellular automata (Conway's Game of Life may be the best known example) can be bred like livestock to select for specific behaviors. The featured scientists (James Crutchfield and James Hanson) are themselves the fathers of a new field of mathematics: computational mechanics, which "synthesizes dynamical systems theory and the theory of computation to analyze how patterns, structure, and information processing emerge in spatial systems." (from the Princeton University Press blurb for their book on the subject.) For more information on cellular automata visit Moshe Sipper's Brief Introduction to Cellular Automata and check out Juha Haataja's animations.


    -Tony Phillips
    SUNY at Stony Brook

    *Math in the Media Archive