Blog on Math Blogs
Image of the MonthImage of the Month
Image of the Month

Read about "The Great Math Mystery: Is math invented by humans, or is it the language of the universe?" that aired on NOVA.

Related Links Related Links

AMS Members OnlyAMS Members Only

Headlines & Deadlines AMS Members Only

Contact Us

Contact Us

Mike Breen and Annette Emerson
Public Awareness Officers

paoffice at
Tel: 401-455-4000
Fax: 401-331-3842
Tony Phillips Tony Phillips' Take on Math in the Media
A monthly survey of math news
Mail to a friend · Print this article· Previous Columns

This month's topics:

"The Great Math Mystery" on NOVA

(subtitle: "Was math invented by humans, or is it the language of the universe?"), was broadcast by PBS on April 15, 2015. Available online. This program is an installment in the NOVA Physics series: despite the title, it is actually a program about physics, and how those people have been able to make amazing predictions using a mysterious technique called "mathematics." We hear how "Galileo's centuries-old mathematical observation about falling objects remains just as valid today." How Newton's inverse-square gravitation law holds just as well for colliding galaxies as it does for bowling balls on Earth and for planets in the Solar System. How Neptune was discovered: "Mathematics had accurately predicted a previously unknown planet." How television, your garage-door opener, etc. "all use invisible waves of energy to communicate, and no one even knew they existed until the work of James Maxwell." And how the Higgs boson was discovered: "A subatomic particle mathematically predicted to exist nearly 50 years earlier ... one of the greatest predictions ever made." Meanwhile we do see some mathematicians, but all they talk about is whether they experience mathematics as discovered or invented, without anyone giving a single example of a mathematical discovery or invention.

So, no mathematics at all. Perhaps because of that, it's a very entertaining hour. The show is impeccably produced, with some brilliant sequences. In one, the jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding demonstrates octave, fifth and fourth as corresponding to whole-number ratios of lengths and then, as she improvises, fractions stream out of the instrument, dancing. In another, Max Tegmark, the physicist who maintains that "math works so well to describe reality because ultimately math is all that it is" morphs into himself as a character in a Mario Brothers game where all is, indeed, in the computer code. And some irresistible lemurs show us how numerosity is everywhere. On the other hand, repeatedly showing bogus footage of a Rover supposedly landing on Mars was not a good idea.

"The Great Math Mystery" is scrupulously and elegantly gender- and color-balanced; let's hope this is the mathematical world of the future.

Math in the New York Times

For April 1-26, 2015 a search for references to mathematics in the Times turns up 37 items. Here are some of the more substantial.

  • (April 13) "Manuscript by Nazi Code Breaker Alan Turing Sells for $1 Million." The article, a dispatch from Reuters, describes the man ambiguously referred to in the headline. "Turing, a British mathematical genius, led a team of cryptographers who cracked the wartime Enigma code, which the Germans had considered unbreakable. Their work is credited with hastening the end of the war and saving lives." There is no information about the contents of the manuscript (a notebook) except that it dates back to 1942 and that "In it Turing worked on mathematical formulas and the basics of computer science, giving insights into the workings of his brilliant mind." The auction house declined to name the buyer.
  • (April 14) "A Math Problem From Singapore Goes Viral: When Is Cheryl's Birthday?" Kenneth Chang tells us that the meme of the week is "a math problem that is making bushels of brains hurt." He states the problem and rewords it for clarity. The next day he publishes the solution.
  • (April 16) "Performing Math and Mime, for Fun and Profit", in the Business section, by Robert Strauss. It's the story of a mime named Tim Chartier, "whose day job is associate professor in the department of mathematics and computer science at Davidson College in North Carolina." He and his wife Tanya studied with Marcel Marceau and "use their skills in mime to teach mathematics in a decidedly unconventional way." The article is short on the actual mathematics involved, but Strauss quotes Arthur Benjamin, Smallwood Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College: "I have seen the Chartiers perform and their material can be appreciated on multiple levels. They do provide an antidote to the claim that math is mostly taught without much creativity."
  • (April 20) 'Finding Zero': A Long Journey for Naught, a review by Amir Alexander (UCLA) of Amir Aczel's Finding Zero: A Mathematician's Odyssey to Uncover the Origins of Numbers. Bottom line: "Did Dr. Aczel rediscover the true origins of zero? That is questionable. But his tale is gripping, filled with the passion and wonder of numbers."
  • (April 26) Are You Smarter Than an 8th Grader? is Nicholas Kristof's Sunday column. Kristof starts with the problem:
    • What is the sum of the three consecutive whole numbers with 2n as the middle number?
      A. 6n+3
      B. 6n
      C. 6n-1
      D. 6n-3
    and tells us that "more than three-quarters of South Korean kids answered correctly (it is B). Only 37 percent of American kids were correct...". And goes on to conclude" "We know Johnny can't read; it appears that Johnny is even worse at counting." Three more problems follow. Kristof tells how "When the great mathematician Carl Gauss was a young boy, his teacher is said to have asked his class to calculate the sum of all the numbers from 1 to 100. Gauss supposedly supplied the answer almost instantly: 5,050." The point being: "Let's resent the Gausses of the world for being annoyingly smart. But let's not use that as an excuse to hide from the rigor of numbers. Countries like Singapore manage to impart extraordinary math skills in ordinary children because they work at it."


Robert Langlands in the Toronto Star

"The Canadian Who Reinvented Mathematics" is Sandro Contanta's piece in the Star for March 27, 2015. (The day before, Contenta posted a video: Robert Langlands and his mathematical revolution giving some of the mathematical background). Beyond the "local boy makes good" is a fairly lengthy, thoughtful and careful story of Langlands and some of his accomplishments. "In 1967, as a young [mathematics] professor at Princeton University, he revolutionized the ancient discipline. He discovered patterns in highly esoteric objects called automorphic forms and motives, and he restructured mathematics with two dazzling theories." (As Contenta tells us later, that year "Langlands published his two theories, called functoriality and reciprocity, under the title 'Problems in the Theory of Automorphic Forms.'") "They indicated what mathematician Edward Frenkel calls 'the source code of all mathematics,' and are credited with linking math's main branches--number theory (once called arithmetic), harmonic analysis, which includes calculus, and geometry. Frenkel is convinced the conjectures lay the groundwork for a 'Grand Unified Theory of Mathematics,' although some aspects remain beyond Langlands' embrace." Some direct quotes from Frenkel: "He pointed us into a direction where we can go and find the truth, find out what's really going on. It's about seeing the world in the right light." "He's like a modern-day Einstein. But everybody knows about Einstein and nobody knows about Langlands. Why is that?"

Tony Phillips
Stony Brook University
tony at

Math Digest Math Digest
On Media Coverage of Math

Math Digest includes posts throughout each month, with summaries of math stories and unique insights (and occasionally videos, interviews and podcasts) on math-related topics recently covered by the media.

Recently posted:

Engaging mathematics…outside of the box, by Samantha Faria

Tim Chartier

(Photo: Tim Chartier at the National Math Festival.)

Tim Chartier imagined his future as a theater arts teacher and athletic coach. With a bit of prompting from his mother he decided to diversify his opportunities by studying mathematics. Fast forward to present day, Chartier, an associate professor in the department of mathematics and computer science at Davidson College, uses mime and theater to get students and adults interested in math. Together with his wife, Tanya, they perform their Mime-matics shows all over the country. "The way that math was traditionally taught was rote memorization, which is dull. Some people have a negative experience with that and quickly discount their ability to learn math. It is important to teach people in a way that excites them," explained Tanya Chartier. There has been a huge push for STEM (science, technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education but the Chartiers want to see social sciences and arts included in this model. "... We like the idea of STEAM — STEM with the arts in it," Tanya added. "Mime-matics is a shining example. We do not think of ourselves as mathematical artists. We are mimes, and Tim is a mathematician. We are just using math to create art."

See, "Putting on a Show, Mixing Mathematics and Mime, for Fun and Profit," by Robert Strauss, The New York Times, April 16, 2015 (page B7, Small Business section).

--- Samantha Faria

Also now on Math Digest: Media coverage of Emmy Noether, the National Math Festival, Persi Diaconis, NSA's recruitment challenge ...

More . .

Read more of Math Digest

Reviews Reviews
Books, plays and films about mathematics

Citations for reviews of books, plays, movies and television shows that are related to mathematics (but are not aimed solely at the professional mathematician). The alphabetical list includes links to the sources of reviews posted online, and covers reviews published in magazines, science journals and newspapers since 1996.

More . .

Read more Reviews