Blog on Math Blogs

Math Digest

On Media Coverage of Math

Edited by Mike Breen and Annette Emerson, AMS Public Awareness Officers
Mike Breen (AMS), Claudia Clark (writer and editor), Lisa DeKeukelaere (2004 AMS Media Fellow), Annette Emerson (AMS), and Allyn Jackson (Deputy Editor, Notices of the AMS)

Snow in Boston

Snow in Boston (while math plows ahead)

"The news should start with mathematics, then poetry, and move down from there," from The Humans, by Matt Haig.

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Math Digest Archives || 2015 || 2014 || 2013 || 2012 || 2011 || 2010 || 2009 || 2008 || 2007 || 2006 || 2005 || 2004 || 2003 || 2002 || 2001 || 2000 || 1999 || 1998 || 1997 || 1996 || 1995

Click here for a list of links to web pages of publications covered in the Digest.

See also: The AMS Blog on Math Blogs: Mathematicians tour the mathematical blogosphere. PhD mathematicians Evelyn Lamb, Anna Haensch, and Brie Finegold blog on blogs that have posts related to mathematics research, applied mathematics, mathematicians, math in the news, mathematics education, math and the arts, and more. Recent posts: "Math for your Ears" by Anna Haensch and "The Social Side of Mathematics" by Evelyn Lamb.

In honor of Emmy Noether, by Annette Emerson

To mark the occasion of mathematican Emmy Noether's 133rd birthday, Google celebrated with a google doodle. Noether, born 23 March, 1882, made outstanding contributions to the field of abstract algebra and theoretical physics. She was asked to address the International Congress of Mathematicians in 1928 and again in 1932. After being dismissed from the University of Göttingen in 1933 by the Nazis because she was Jewish, she made her way to the U.S. where she accepted a professorship at Bryn Mawr College. She was highly respected by prominent mathematicians of the day and was praised by Albert Einstein as a "creative mathematical genius."

The video, "Emmy Noether and The Fabric of Reality," is a talk by Ransom Stephens about Noether's Theorem, which "ties the laws of nature--from Newton's laws to thermodynamics to charge conservation--directly to the geometry of space and time, the very fabric of reality."

See "Google doodle honors mathematician Emmy Noether," (+video) by Rowena Lindsay, Christian Science Monitor, 23 March 2015, which includes the above video and description of how doodler Sophie Diao went about incluiding mathemtics into the google doodle honioring Noether.

--- Annette Emerson (Posted 3/24/15)

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On math and the NCAA men's basketball tournament

BracketWho's going to win the tournament? Math can't say with 100% confidence, but some math professors have applied their skills to filling out brackets and figuring out how many brackets are possible. Tim Chartier (Davidson College), who has been studying the tournament and having success with brackets for years, writes about his approach to picking teams in the bracket in The New York Times, which gives extra points for correctly picking upsets. Eduardo Cabral Balreira and Brian Maceli at Trinity College weigh in with their predictions using their program Oracle, and Jeff Bergen at Depaul University talks about the number of possible brackets and his experiences doing interviews with the press. (Image: trendytron.)

--- Mike Breen (Posted 3/19/15)

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Media coverage of Pi Day, by Annette Emerson

Pi Day

The AMS knows when Pi Day is approaching (and when the potential lottery winnings are high), as reporters call to get insights on the numbers. This year AMS Public Awareness Officer Mike Breen and other mathematicians (Steven Strogatz, Keith Devlin, Manil Suri, among others) were interviewed on what makes pi such a fascinating number, and why so this year in particular. "Pi is a great number, for many reasons. It is a mathematical constant that occurs in many different scientific applications, and it is a homophone for something that is delicious," said Stu Schmill, dean of admissions at the school," quoted in "Boston math lovers mark rare Pi Day". Devlin, interviewed on NPR, notes "The full date, 3/14/15, is pi to the first four places. At 9:26 a.m. and 53 seconds, you can even celebrate pi to nine places: 3.141592653." (This is so in the U.S., anyway, where dates are written by month, day and—in this case, abbreviated—year.) Devlin notes that pi is irrational and has been calculated to more than a trillion digits.

But as Strogatz writes in The New Yorker, "Pi does deserve a celebration, but for reasons that are rarely mentioned.... The beauty of pi, in part, is that it puts infinity within reach. Even young children get this. The digits of pi never end and never show a pattern. They go on forever, seemingly at random—except that they can't possibly be random, because they embody the order inherent in a perfect circle. This tension between order and randomness is one of the most tantalizing aspects of pi." He explains why pi matters: "Through the Fourier series, pi appears in the math that describes the gentle breathing of a baby and the circadian rhythms of sleep and wakefulness that govern our bodies. When structural engineers need to design buildings to withstand earthquakes, pi always shows up in their calculations.... In short, pi is woven into our descriptions of the innermost workings of the universe." His beautiful description of pi and its connection to cycles brings more appreciation to the number than the celebrations of who can recite the most digits of pi or who has baked the most creative pies (though those are good ways to celebrate Pi Day too!).

See "Why Pi Matters," by Steven Strogatz, The New Yorker, 13 March 2015; "The 'Math Guy' Presents 5 Facts About 3.14," an interview with Keith Devlin, Weekend Edition Saturday, NPR, 14 March 2015; " 'Super Pi Day' — 3.14.15 — will feature weddings, food specials as math nerds celebrate once-a-century date," by Sasha Goldstein, New York Daily News, 13 March 2015; "Don't Expect Math to Make Sense: On Pi Day, Celebrate Math's Enigmas," an Opinion by Manil Suri, New York Times, 13 March 2015; "Boston math lovers mark rare Pi Day," by Steve Annear, Boston Globe, 14 March 2015; "It pays to know Pi — often more than 6 figures," by Silvia Ascarelli, Marketwatch, 14 March 2015; "University of Portland professor says he has unraveled mysteries in pi," by Casey Parks, The Oregonian, 14 March 2015; "Pi Day Hits a Milestone That Comes Only Once a Century: 3/14/15," by Alan Boyle, NBC News, 14 March 2015.

And see a roundup of Pi Day coverage in the blogosphere in "The Pi Day Link Roundup of the Century," by Evelyn Lamb.

--- Annette Emerson (Posted 3/16/15)

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On chance, by Allyn Jackson

This issue of New Scientist takes a look at how probability and randomness arise in a variety of areas. One of the articles, "Chance: Is anything in the universe truly random?" by Michael Brooks, examines the question of whether the cosmos is predictable or ruled entirely by chance. The answer? No one knows. The issue contains articles on randomness in evolution, the problem of generating numbers that are truly random, and Bayesian probability. In addition, there are brief interviews with people from several walks of life, from "The Avalanche Predictor" to "The Gambler," who discuss how chance and randomness enter into the phenomena they work with. One of the people interviewed is David Hand, an emeritus professor of mathematics at Imperial College London, whose book The Improbability Principle appeared in 2014 (the book was reviewed in the AMS Notices by Andrew I. Dale). In his book, Hand argues that highly improbable events are actually commonplace. "At first glance, it sounds like a contradiction: if something is highly improbable, how can it possibly be commonplace?" he told the interviewer, Michael Bond. "But as you dig deeper you see it is not a contradiction, and that you should expect what appear to be extremely improbable events to occur quite often." One reason is the law of large numbers, which says, for example, that even though the probability of being struck by lightning is very small, every year thousands of people die of lightning strikes. "[T]here are 7 billion people in the world, so there are a lot of opportunities for it to happen," Hand said.

See "Chance: How randomness rules our world" (subscription required). Special feature in New Scientist, 14 March 2015.

--- Allyn Jackson (Posted 3/17/15)

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On Einstein the math tutor, by Mike Breen

When 12-year old Betty Leedom struggled with math in 1941, she wound up with Albert Einstein as her tutor! This article gives delightful details about how Einstein became her tutor and his approach to teaching her math over the four years that they met. The two met almost daily and eventually Leedom got the hang of algebra and other math subjects. Near the end of the article, Leedom says, "Some people were afraid to talk to him because they thought he was a crazy old man, but he was just so nice. Even when I told him I hated math. He said, 'you shouldn’t hate math, math is the center of the universe, and anyone who knows math knows everything.’” [Emphasis added.]

See "Albert Einstein was a Princeton genius. And math tutor." by Jeff Edelstein. The Trentonian, 12 March 2015.

--- Mike Breen (Posted 3/18/15)

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Origami video receives 2015 Vizzie People's Choice Best Overall, by Annette Emerson

"Today, mechanical engineers build on origami principles to make prototype machines that collapse, flex, or unfurl. With origami underpinning their core, spacecraft will harbor compact solar panels that expand dramatically after launch, and micro-scale instruments will unfold inside the body to perform delicate, minimally invasive surgery," reports Popular Science. The video "How origami is inspiring scientific creativity," by Larry Howell, Julie Walker, Robert Lang, Spencer Magleby, and Brian Wilcox--showing how origami is used to transport solar panels and other devices into space--has received the People's Choice Award in the 2015 Vizzies, the NSF and Popular Science's annual awards that "celebrate the use of visual media to clearly and accessibly communicate scientific data and research."

See "Engineers Use Origami To Inspire Creativity," by Popular Science staff. Popular Science, March 2015 (originally posted February 10, 2015), and the news release, "NSF and Popular Science announce 2015 Vizzies winners." See more of Robert Lang's origami and some of the computer patterns that generate his works on Mathematical Imagery.

--- Annette Emerson

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The math of deploying snowplows and salt trucks, by Annette Emerson

Boston streets

"Clearing all that snow as quickly and cheaply as possible requires choosing the most efficient routes, one with no back-tracking or scenic routes. And how do you do that?" Math, writes Marcus Woo in Wired. Math that's also used to most efficiently deliver mail and pick up trash for city residents. In the 18th century mathematician Leonhard Euler proved that one could find a route across all the bridges connecting islands in Königsberg just once without doubling back, but his solution required that every intersection consist of an even number of roads. That sure doesn't apply to Boston, where many roads end in a "T" or suddenly turn one-way. So how to most efficiently plow the over 100" of snow in the city? "In 1962, Chinese mathematician Mei-Ko Kwan introduced the problem in the general case with both even and odd intersections. He called it the postman problem, and proposed a solution." But there are further complications: priority is given to major arteries, there are multiple snowplows and salt trucks at work, and, cities want to avoid having to pay overtime wages to the drivers. "But you don't need the perfect solution—just one that gets the job done," concludes Woo. "So engineers can break the problem down, for example, by dividing a network of streets into smaller networks that they can tackle individually (using the postman algorithm, for example)."  The city of Toronto uses ArcGIS software that incorporates all the variables and "automatically spits out an optimized route," which has saved some money. The Boston Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics is using math, algorithms and software to find the best way to clear the streets of this season's record-breaking snow—with inconsistent success.

Snowy sidewalk See "The Mathematics Behind Getting All That Damned Snow Off Your Street," by Marcus Woo. Wired, 23 February 2015. For a statistical analysis of the likelihood of Boston's snow total, read "Boston’s astounding month of snow a 1-in-26,315 year occurrence," by Eric Holthaus. The Washington Post, 25 February 2015.

Now if only there were a mathematical solution to getting sidewalks cleared; the solution will most likely be spring.

--- Annette Emerson (Posted 2/25/15)

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On math genealogy, by Mike Breen

Peter Lynch, retired from University College, Dublin, writes about the Mathematics Genealogy Project, where people can see when and where someone got their PhD along with his or her advisor and PhD students. The latter information is linked, which makes it possible to trace mathematicians' lineages. As an example, Lynch traced Grigori Perelman's mathematical ancestors through Markov, Chebyshev, and Lobachevsky all the way back to the beginning of the 14th century. Lynch notes that one in three mathematicians' academic family trees includes Newton, Euler, or Gauss.

See "Isaac Newton was my father: the maths family tree," by Peter Lynch. The Irish Times, 19 February 2015.

--- Mike Breen

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On Cédric Villani, by Claudia Clark

Cedric VillaniIn this article, writer and speaker Alex Bellos writes at length about mathematician Cédric Villani (left), director of the Institut Henri Poincaré. Villani is a 2010 Fields Medal winner for his work with the Boltzmann equation, a partial differential equation that “describes how a gas disseminates by considering the likelihood of any of its molecules being in any particular spot, with a particular speed, at a particular time.” However, this is not an article for mathematicians only: much of this article is an accessible introduction to some of the concepts and people instrumental in the development of calculus. For example, Bellos describes the method by which Archimedes calculated the area bounded by a line and a parabola, noting that “Archimedes was the earliest thinker to develop the apparatus of an infinite series with a finite limit.” Bellos also shows how the infinitesimal can be used to find the gradient of a tangent, or to calculate instantaneous speeds, in discussing the work of Isaac Newton. Bellos wraps up his article with a discussion of the importance of the Boltzmann equation and why Villani is interested in it: “Often in PDEs,” says Villani, “you have tension between various terms. The Boltzmann equation is the perfect case study because the terms represent completely different phenomena and also live in completely different mathematical worlds.” Photo: Sandy Huffaker.

See "Seduced by calculus," by Alex Bellos. Cosmos, 16 February 2015. See also "Cédric Villani: 'Mathematics is about progress and adventure and emotion'," by Carole Cadwalladr, which ran in The Guardian on 1 March.

--- Claudia Clark

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On the old new math, by Lisa DeKeukelaere

History professor Christopher Phillips argues that trends in mathematics education are closely tied to political context, and that the current controversy over the Common Core curriculum is not a new phenomenon but part of a classic tug-of-war between conservative academia and reformers. Harkening back to the 1960s, he draws parallels between that era’s “new math” and the current Common Core as efforts to focus on concepts and problem-solving in a time of American insecurity about its place in the world. In the 50 years in between, however, the pendulum swung back toward the conservatives amid growing concern--some, he argues, unfair--that students were not sufficiently learning the basic principles. Phillips notes that although many recall new math as a reformer-led failure, in reality new math was effective at the high school level, and he opines that this misperception bodes poorly for society’s ability to understand future curriculum reform.

See "The New Math Strikes Back," by Christopher J. Phillips. Time, 11 February 2015.

--- Lisa DeKeukelaere

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On the status of programs to increase the number of math and science teachers, by Mike Breen

This article is about programs, especially the National Science Foundation's Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program, that recruit math and science teachers. The Noyce program, for example, places people with science and math degrees into high-need schools. The programs are sponsoring many teachers, but aren't acheiving goals such as improving achievement levels in the schools. As a result, some organizations have stopped sponsoring new teachers and are looking at other ways to improve education. John Ewing, president of Math for America (MfA) and former executive director of the AMS, explains why MfA stopped funding its program for new teachers and is instead now sponsoring master teachers. It's not that the new teachers weren't doing well, "But training 30 or 40 a year was a blip on the national landscape. Now we're bringing in 250 master teachers and we plan to grow to 1000. We think it's the missing ingredient in trying to improve the quality of teachers in the country."

See "A classroom experiment," by Jeffery Mervis. Science, 6 February 2015, pages 602-605.

--- Mike Breen

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On math and structure, by Claudia Clark

Adam Weyhaupt This article is an interview with mathematician Dr. Adam Weyhaupt, an associate professor of mathematics at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Weyhaupt began by providing an example that contradicts the common misconception that mathematics is about numbers: rather, it is about “the structure of objects,” writes Hansen. Weyhaupt then spoke about his area of interest--minimal surfaces--and described how “knowing the theory and being able to predict how far [minimal surfaces] can stretch and their strength can tell us how we can use the minimal surfaces [or walls] of cells as building blocks, for example, in reconstructive surgery.” Weyhaupt also described the importance, when teaching mathematics, of helping students develop both good technical and good conceptual skills. “It is important for students to be able to do both,” he said. “The more advanced one becomes in math, the less clear it becomes what to do to solve a problem.” Weyhaupt concludes that “everyone should study math…It’s a very useful discipline. All of the sciences are grounded in mathematics.” And math is widely used outside of the sciences, as well: it “helps artists depict shapes and forms, musicians compose and interpret music, humanities scholars analyze texts and social scientists discover patterns of behavior,” Hansen writes. Photo: Mr. Bill Brinson, SIUE Photographer.

See "Numbers, bubbles and the theory of mathematics," by Stephen Hansen. Edwardsville Intelligencer, 6 February 2015.

--- Claudia Clark

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On the math drive, by Allyn Jackson

The author of this article, Manya Raman Sundström, is in the Department of Science and Mathematics Education at Umea University in Sweden. She does research on the teaching and learning of proofs and investigates the aesthetic dimension of mathematics. She wonders why mathematicians are so completely captivated by their subject. "Could there be some sort of drive, similar to the sex drive?", she asks. "In other words, something that we could call a 'maths drive' that urges us to find new mathematical explanations and truths?" There is, Sundström argues. She believes the drive is a reaction to the beauty of mathematics and the satisfaction people get from understanding it. Her research shows that the proofs that mathematicians find beautiful are those that give the most immediate sense of why a statement is true. For this reason, she notes, when mathematics teaching emphasizes procedures and ignores the basic nature of the subject, students lose out. "Teaching maths solely in terms of procedures such as practising sums is like teaching music through practising scales without ever exposing children to Beethoven," she writes.

"The maths drive is like the sex drive," by Manya Raman Sundström. New Scientist, 3 February 2015.

--- Allyn Jackson

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On the NSA and the math community, by Allyn Jackson

An article in Science (reference below) discusses reactions in the mathematical community to the revelations, made by Edward Snowden, of the extensive intelligence activities of the National Security Agency (NSA). As the article describes, the NSA has close ties to the mathematical community: For example, the agency is probably the world's largest employer of mathematicians, it runs a small research grants program, and it has designated 55 U.S. educational institutions as "Centers of Academic Excellence," where, the article says, "a full-time NSA 'representative' is embedded on campus." After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, some mathematicians who had previously had nothing to do with the NSA decided to lend their expertise to the agency out of a sense of duty to their country to prevent future attacks. "Lately, however, that sense of moral clarity has clouded for some mathematicians," the article says. One particular point of discomfort for some is the ties between the AMS and the NSA: The AMS manages the refereeing of proposals in the NSA's mathematics research grants program. Some, such as University of Chicago mathematician Alexander Beilinson, have called on the AMS to sever ties to the NSA. Another voice calling for such action was that of MIT's David Vogan, who served as AMS president during 2013-2014 and who tried to urge the AMS to take a stand against the NSA. Vogan was shocked to find that his urging fell on deaf ears. Evidently, most mathematicians are simply not that worried about what the NSA is doing. The Science article appeared in German translation in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung: "Vertrauensbruch," 2 February 2015.

Ulrich Tottenberg is a mathematician at the Fraunhofer-Institut für Algorithmen und Wissenschaftliches Rechnen in Cologne. In his article in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, he recalls the sense of personal responsibility some physicists felt when the atom bombs were dropped during World War II and asks whether mathematicians bear some responsibility for the massive spying apparatus that is now trained on humanity.

See "Breach of Trust," by John Bohannon. Science, 30 January 2015; and "Gute Zahlen, Schlechte Zahlen (Good numbers, bad numbers)," by Ulrich Tottenberg. Sueddeutsche Zeitung, 15 January 2015.

The AMS Notices has hosted a discussion of the Snowden revelations:

--- Allyn Jackson

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On hyperbolic crocheting in the classroom, by Lisa DeKeukelaere

Steinhurst and classChalk. Pencil. Crochet needle? McDaniel College math professor Ben Steinhurst helps his students visualize hyperbolic geometry by crocheting doily-like spirals (see examples below). Unlike the classic, five-axiom Euclidean geometry that forms the basis of most primary math education, hyperbolic geometry addresses a world closer to reality, where it’s impossible to draw a perfectly straight line to infinity. Steinhurst’s class teaches not only how to maneuver a crochet hook, but also the evolution of geometric axioms--the different types of “lenses” mathematicians use to view the world. Although a Russian mathematician, Nikolai Lobachevsky, first conceptualized hyperbolic geometry in the 1800s, mathematicians didn’t know how to illustrate it until the late 1990s, when Diana Taimina, a Cornell professor with a crochet hobby, discovered that she could build a replica in yarn using a certain hyperbolic algorithm. Steinhurst’s students appreciate their creations not only as learning tools, but also as a pleasant escape from typical classroom activities. Photos: McDaniel College.

Hyperbolic crochet

See "Arts, crafts and high-end math," by Jonathan Pitts. The Baltimore Sun, 30 January 2015.

--- Lisa DeKeukelaere

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On discovering Ramanujan, by Mike Breen

Ramanujan posterThis is an acount of Srinivasa Ramanujan and the author's travels to Ramanujan's home town in India for the 125th anniversary of his birth. Schneider is the lead singer of The Apples in Stereo, but more aptly is a PhD student at Emory University working with Ken Ono who led the trip. This is a very in-depth and sometimes mystical look at Ramanujan and modern efforts to understand his work, especially the mock-theta functions. The article also includes an interesting account of Richard Askey's efforts to make good on a promise made by the Indian government to Ramanujan's widow to honor her husband with a sculpture and the impact that made on Ono and his father. (Left: Small version of the AMS poster celebrating Ramanujan's 125th birthday.)

See "Encounter with the infinite," by Robert Schneider with Benjamin Phelan. The Believer, January-February 2015.

--- Mike Breen

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Math Digest Archives || 2015 || 2014 || 2013 || 2012 || 2011 || 2010 || 2009 || 2008 || 2007 || 2006 || 2005 || 2004 || 2003 || 2002 || 2001 || 2000 || 1999 || 1998 || 1997 || 1996 || 1995

Click here for a list of links to web pages of publications covered in the Digest.