Publications Meetings The Profession Membership Programs Math Samplings Policy & Advocacy In the News About the AMS
Blog on Math Blogs

Math Digest

On Media Coverage of Math

Edited by Mike Breen and Annette Emerson, AMS Public Awareness Officers
Contributors:
Mike Breen (AMS), Claudia Clark (writer and editor), Lisa DeKeukelaere (2004 AMS Media Fellow), Annette Emerson (AMS), Anna Haensch (Duquesne University), Allyn Jackson (Deputy Editor, Notices of the AMS), and Ben Pittman-Polletta (Boston University)


Artur Avila Manjul BhargavaMartin Hairer Maryam Mirzakhani

The 2014 Fields Medalists (left to right): Artur Avila, Manjul Bhargava, Martin Hairer, and Maryam Mirzakhani.

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

Recent Posts:

Math Digest Archives || 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: Two mathematicians tour the mathematical blogosphere. Editors Brie Finegold and Evelyn Lamb, both PhD mathematicians, 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 : "Regression, Twitter, and #Ferguson," "Medaling Mathematicians."

'Among The 'Brilliant Ten,' A Math-Loving Biologist, by Anna Haensch

Katia Koelle

This month, Popular Science’s "Brilliant Ten" list is a jaw-dropping roster of young scientists who are making a huge impact on the world. One that particularly caught our eye was an evolutionary biologist whose first love was, you guessed it, math!

Katia Koelle specializes in Ecology and Population Biology ("Katia Koelle Models How Viruses Turn Deadly"). She uses math modeling and statistics to understand how certain measures can stem the spread of dangerous infectious diseases. Lately she’s been crunching the numbers with vaccination and vector control, basically asking, what happens to the spread of Dengue when the Orkin man comes in and nukes all the mosquitos? Not what you’d think, the work out of her labs shows. Controlling the mosquito population of course means that people get infected less frequently, but consequently they don’t build up the same storehouse of antibodies to fight the disease.

Koelle also studies the evolution of influenza. In a talk at the Kavli Frontiers of Science last year, she describes a mathematical model to understand the seasonal and yearly chronology of flu outbreaks, and the evolution of the virus itself. Koelle hopes that these, and other fresh ideas from her lab, can be used to inform public health policy.

Some of PopSci’s other Brilliant Ten honorees include a mechanical engineer who studies bat colonies to make better drones, and a biochemist harnessing the power of snot.

See "The Brilliant Ten of 2014," by Veronique Greenwood and Cassandra Willyard, Popular Science, October 2014 issue, posted 9/17/14. (Photo courtesy of Katia Koelle.)

--- Anna Haensch (Posted 9/24/14)

Return to Top

Math Geniuses, by Ben Pittman-Polletta

Zhang Lurie

Yitang "Tom" Zhang (left) and Jacob Lurie (right). Photos courtesy of the MacArthur Foundation.

Each year, the MacArthur Foundation (of John D. and Catherine T. fame, as those who grew up watching public television will know) invites hundreds of nominators, known for their accomplishments in a wide array of fields of human endeavor, to nominate the most creative people they know. Out of this group, a smaller committee selects 20 to 30 MacArthur Fellows, who receive no-strings-attached financial support for the next five years. Although the past accomplishments of candidate Fellows are reviewed during the selection process, the award is given primarily on the basis of future potential for creative work. The Fellowship is intended to free recipients from financial constraints, allowing them to exercise their creativity to its fullest (see MacArthur Fellows: Our Strategy", on the MacArthur Foundation website). Past recipients include not only artists and academics, but labor organizers (including this year's winner Ai-Jen Poo), papermakers, blacksmiths, barbershop owners turned literacy advocates. The Foundation (somewhat ineffectually) discourages the use of the word "genius" to describe the grants and their recipients ("Five Myths About the MacArthur 'Genius Grants'," by Cecilia Conrad for The Washington Post, September 20, 2013).

Of the 918 awards given since the awards' inauguration in 1981, 28 have been given to practitioners of the mathematical arts (see "MacArthur Fellows Program" on Wikipedia). This year, two of the recipients are mathematicians, and two more use mathematics in their work. Yitang "Tom" Zhang, whose gigantic first step towards a proof of the twin primes conjecture rocked the math world last May, is one of the 2014 class. So is Jacob Lurie, a mathematician at Harvard University who uses the theory of infinity-categories to generalize homotopy theory, and other topological aspects of algebraic topology. Lurie's work on quantum field theories links the categorical concept of duality to the topology of manifolds, as well as providing a classification scheme for quantum field theories. "I think of mathematics as a large number of interconnected stories, and I feel like my job as a mathematician is to take one or a few of those stories that I understand well and try and tell them in a way that other mathematicians can appreciate, enjoy, and maybe use in their own work," says Lurie. He is also a teacher, and in his interview for the MacArthur Foundation, he shares his opinion on the quaqmire that is mathematics education. "Mathematics is a giant playground filled with all kinds of toys that the human mind can play with, but many of these toys have very long operating manuals, but some of them don't, and I think that there are a number of mathematical insights that are very interesting that you really could teach to someone in a freshman course," he says. "I would like it to be viewed as just part of the intellectual culture in the same way that taking a class in Plato or taking a class in Shakespeare would be..."

Fellow Craig Gentry, a computer scientist, has proven that it is possible to manipulate encrypted data without ever lifting the encryption, and physicist Danielle Bassett uses graph-theoretic measures to study the dynamic reconfiguration of brain networks over time, with learning, memorization, and disease. Bassett has discovered that those who learn the best have the most flexible brain networks, suggesting the MacArthur Foundation's emphasis on creativity and the popular press' fascination with genius may not be orthogonal after all.

See "Meet the 2014 Winners of the MacArthur 'Genius Grants'," National Public Radio, September 17, 2014, and Meet the Class of 2014 MacArthur Fellows. Also, read about some of their previous awards.

--- Ben Pittman-Polletta (Posted 9/24/14)

Return to Top

Using Math and Google to Study Disease and More, by Ben Pittman-Polletta

Resisting the Spread of Disease

There must be something in the red rock of the New Mexico desert that's good for interdisciplinary science. The state is home to both the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Santa Fe Institute, a research center dedicated to the study of complex phenomena using tools from physics, mathematics, biology, social science, and the humanities. There's so much science in New Mexico that the Santa Fe New Mexican features a column written by researchers from the Santa Fe Institute. This month, Ben Althouse, an Omidyar Fellow who uses the science and mathematics of complex systems to study viral epidemiology, takes the helm. Althouse points out that, as opposed to non-infectious diseases, such as cancer and heart disease, the study of virally-transmitted infectious diseases is complicated by the fact that an individual's susceptibility to them depends not only on his or her own health behaviors--how much sleep they get and how often they wash their hands--but also on the health behaviors of those they interact with. With his collaborator Sam Scarpino, Althouse has begun to reveal how the existence of asymptomatic carriers of whooping cough have been crucial to the recent resurgence of the disease. His work also focuses on the spread of mosquito-transmitted viruses, such as dengue fever and Chikungunya, common in the Caribbean and Florida. These diseases introduce the extra complication of interactions between species.

Beyond virally transmitted diseases, Althouse has employed new technologies to study public health more generally, using Google search terms to study patterns in health-related behaviors. With his collaborator John Ayers and others, Althouse found that searches related to quitting smoking, and healthy behaviors more generally, are more common early in the week, on Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays ("Circaseptan (weekly) rhythms in smoking cessation considerations," by John Ayers et al; "What's the healthiest day?: circaseptan (weekly) rhythms in healthy considerations," by John Ayers et al). Google searches also reveal the health burden of the 2008 recession--after which queries related to the symptoms of headaches, stomach ulcers, heart disease, and joint and tooth pain increased unexpectedly and dramatically (Population health concerns during the United States' great recession," by Ben Althouse et al).

Althouse's most-cited paper, though, reveals how the impact factor--a measure of the scientific influence of a journal based on the number of citations its articles receive--varies over time and across disciplines ("Differences in impact factors across fields and over time," by Ben Althouse et al). It turns out that, as science has grown, so have impact factors; and that differences in impact factors across fields depend more on which citations are counted than on which fields are growing fastest.

See "A safer world through disease mathematics," by Ben Althouse, Santa Fe New Mexican, September 8, 2014. Hear a podcast interview with Mac Hyman about stopping the spread of disease.

--- Ben Pittman-Polletta (Posted 9/15/14)

Return to Top

Math Explains How Your Old Water Bottle Made It All the Way to a Beach in India, by Anna Haensch
 

Garbage

Nothing ruins a day at the beach like washed-up garbage.  Unsurprisingly, not just our beaches, but also the oceans themselves are piling up with garbage.  But where does it all come from? As reported by nbcnews, a group of scientists from the University of New South Wales (Austrailia) may have found a mathematical approach to understanding how our garbage travels through our oceans. (Image courtesy of Flickr, epSos.de.) 

Ocean gyres The earth’s oceans are partitioned into 5 distinct gyres--or vortices--and these describe the major ocean currents.  Scientists previously thought that the gyres should be self contained.  In particular, they believed that once a piece of garbage got swept up in the North Pacific gyre, it would get drawn to the center and join its fellow debris in a so-called garbage patch somewhere in the North Pacific.  But recent efforts to track and identify garbage has shown that this junk is traveling farther than we had thought. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)



To better understand this flow of trash, Gary Froyland, a professor of mathematics at the University of New South Wales, and his colleagues have approached this problem in a totally new way: by modeling it is a dynamical system. They modeled the surface of the oceans using a Markov chain  model, which is able to account for the three-dimensional upwelling and downwelling of the ocean.  Using this model, they identified the major attracting regions.  And although these regions were mostly consistent with the known ocean gyres, they did find some unexpected inter-connectedness between some really distant parts of the oceans.  This has also led to their follow-up study: how hard is it for floating garbage to cross the boundaries of a gyre? 

What this means is that we may all be more connected than we thought.  Even though oceans may separate us, we are all connected by our joint responsibility for our shared oceans and our planet. 

See "Math Might Help Nail Oceans' Plastic 'Garbage Patch' Polluters," by Miguel Llanos. nbcnews.com, 2 September 2014.

--- Anna Haensch (Posted 9/16/14)

Return to Top

On a 19th-century paper-and-pencil approximation to Pi, by Claudia Clark

Long before there were computers, the term "computer" referred to people who were adept at performing arithmetic operations. In this article, Hayes introduces us to "one of the finest computers of the Victorian era," William Shanks, and Shanks's work calculating the value of Pi to 707 decimal digits. You might not be surprised to find that some errors crept into Shanks' calculation--beginning at around digit 530--and it is Hayes's attempt to determine the possible reasons for these errors that makes up the bulk of the article. Hayes begins with the fact that most calculators of Shanks' era used arctan formulas (and their equivalent infinite series) for determining the value of Pi. Shanks worked with a formula discovered by mathematician John Machin in 1706 that required the evaluation of two arctan series: π/4 = 4arctan(1/5) – arctan(1/239). Hayes then explores some of the computational methods that Shanks may have used. Finally, Hayes describes the method he uses to identify, and provide a reasonable hypothesis for, three of Shanks' errors.

See "Pencil, Paper, and Pi," by Brian Hayes. American Scientist, September-October 2014, pages 342-345. Also see Hayes's Bit Player blog for additional discussion and resources.

--- Claudia Clark

Return to Top

Math Bytes Shows Fun And Tasty New Ways To Teach Math, by Anna Haensch

Tim ChartierWhen Professor Tim Chartier (left) from Davidson College wanted to get an honest opinion on his new math book, his not-so-enthusiastic-about-math sister was the obvious choice.  When she not only finished it, but admitted that she actually kinda liked it, he knew he was onto something. 

In this latest book, Math Bytes, Chartier explores topics in mathematics from middle school math up to college-level linear algebra using clever hands-on activities, and relatable--sometimes even delicious--tools to get his message across.  One activity, which he performed live on WCCB News in Charlotte, uses approximation methods to turn a photograph into a tasty M&M mosaic.  

Below is another M&M mosaic that he and his family put together for Make Magazine earlier this year.



M&M rendition of Obama

Many of the activities, Chartier explains, were developed in a seminar that he taught for public school teachers in Charlotte.  So while they are primarily geared towards middle and high school students, they are really adaptive, and can be fun for people at any level.  “It has a very broad appeal,” he says, “that doesn't mean that everyone can understand all of it, but I know if this part gets a little more complicated, then you'll catch me on the other side.”  

“I want people to have a  positive story about math,” he says, “a lot of times people stop at algebra. But it’s like you’re at the buffet of math and only made it to the salad bar.  You’ve missed all the other good stuff.” 

Next up, Chartier is working on a companion website and software to help students take their activities to the next level.  For more fun math bits and bytes, follow Chartier on Twitter. @timchartier(Images courtesy of Tim Chartier.)


See "Davidson College Professor Teaches Non-Traditionally With 'Math-Bytes'," by Jennifer Miller, WCCB-TV, 28 August 2014.

--- Anna Haensch (posted 9/8/14)

Return to Top

A Famous Graph Makes an Appearance on a Very Small Stage, by Ben Pittman-Polletta

Imagine that you are an architect in a small, two-dimensional town--either planar or spherical--having only six buildings: three homes, and three utilities--a water plant, a gas plant, and an electric plant. You are trying to connect each home to each of the three utilities, but with a very strict aesthetic: you don't want to connect the homes serially - each home must have its own connection to each utility - and you don't want any of the connections to cross. The task you've set for yourself is the utilities problem, also known as the water, gas, and electricity problem. Go ahead and take a crack at it, I'll wait.

Welcome back. I hope you didn't spend a long time trying to draw those cables and pipes, because connecting the three houses to the three utilities without having a gas line cross a water pipe turns out to be impossible. Viewing the three houses and the three utilities as vertices of a graph, the connections between them form a complete bipartite graph, also known as the utility graph or K3,3. K3,3 is non-planar - that is, there is no embedding of this graph in a two-dimensional space of genus zero ("Why the Complete Bipartite Graph K3,3 is Not Planar", by Rod Hilton from his blog Absolutely No Machete Juggling, 29 October 2011), although it can be embedded in a torus. Not only is K3,3 nonplanar, it is in some sense one of only two nonplanar graphs. According to Kuratowski's theorem, a graph is nonplanar if and only if it contains a subgraph homeomorphic to either K3,3 or K5, the complete graph on 5 vertices.

Now imagine that you are a pregnant woman in the Congo during the '60s, looking for a medicinal tea to help you induce labor. Chances are, you'll reach for a medicinal tea that goes by the name kalata kalata, made from the plant Oldenlandia affinis. The active ingredient of kalata kalata is a peptide, named kalata B1. Kalata B1 is a ring of around 30 to 40 amino acids, interrupted at six places by the amino acid cysteine. The six cysteine residues are connected in pairs by three disulfide bonds. The six links between these cysteine residues--three disulfide bonds, and three chains of amino acids--make kalata B1 a protein incarnation of K3,3, with cysteine residues as vertices. In fact, kalata B1 is only one of a huge family of plant proteins known as cyclotides, all of which share the topology of K3,3. In these proteins, the linked cysteines are a constant, but the sections of amino acids between them are highly variable, containing different functional motifs. The cyclotides all share a remarkable rigidity and stability, thanks not only to their disulfide bonds but also to their peculiar topology, and a high level of resistance to digestion. They have potent insecticidal properties, and are being explored as a backbone for peptide drugs designed for oral administration (see "Cyclotide," Wikipedia.)

Polymer graphsFinally, imagine you are polymer chemist Yasuyuki Tezuka. Polymers are macromolecules composed of many repeating subunits. Their behavior in aggregate--they may form materials that are tough, viscous, elastic, or combinations of all three--are dictated by their molecular properties. While many interesting things can be done with linear polymers--molecules made up of chains of subunits--you are interested in the unexplored frontier of cyclic polymers. You want to know how a plastic made of Hopf links or figure eights might behave. So, you develop a process allowing for the creation of molecules with simple but nontrivial topologies--such as a "theta" shape or an unfolded tetrahedron. Now you want to set your sights higher, to create a mathematically interesting as well as potentially useful cyclic polymer. What graph would you look to sculpt out of molecular bonds? As you've certainly guessed, Tezuka and his team set out to synthesize a tiny version of K3,3. They succeeded in part because K3,3 has an exceptionally compact 3D shape, when compared to other topological arrangements, allowing it to be isolated from these other molecules, and perhaps helping it to "achiev[e] exceptionally thermostable bioactivities" ("Constructing a Macromolecular K3,3 Graph through Electrostatic Self-Assembly and Covalent Fixation with a Dendritic Polymer Precursor" by Suzuki, et al.). Tezuka credits his graduate student Takuya Suzuki, the paper's first author, with recognizing the utility of K3,3's compactness. "It's a very nice example of Japanese craftsmanship!" he says. But they aren't finished yet. "There are many other structures that are not easy to make at the nanoscale," he says. The "Konigsberg bridge-graph" appearing in their paper suggests what Tezuka's group might look to build next.

Image: The K3,3 graph, on the far right, has the smallest volume of all configurations shown, making it the fastest molecule in size-exclusion chromatography. Image courtesy of Dr. Yasuyuki Tezuka.

See "Materials scientists, mathematicians benefit from newly crafted polymers." R&D Magazine, 26 August 2014 (from Tokyo Tech News, 19 August 2014).

--- Ben Pittman-Polletta (posted 9/4/14)

Return to Top

On the mathematical landscape, by Lisa DeKeukeleare

Examining Rene Thom's quote that "any mathematical pedagogy… rests on a philosophy of mathematics," columnist Ifran Muzaffar posits that while the quote may hold true for university professors, most K-12 teachers organize their instruction based on a blend of philosophies, rather than standing by a single philosophy to shape their approach to teaching. The article describes three philosophies and how each would be applied in the classroom: 1) mathematics as an objective reality to be discovered , as theorized by G.H. Hardy; 2) mathematics as a set of abstract rules and procedures to be memorized; and 3) mathematics as an iterative process of conjectures to be tested, as popularized by Karl Popper. Muzaffar recounts observing a fourth-grade teacher who adeptly used multiple techniques--without knowing about the underlying philosophical constructs--to meet the multiple demands of school mathematics.

“On the mathematical landscape,” by Irfan Muzaffar. The News on Sunday, 24 August 2014.

--- Lisa DeKeukeleare

Return to Top

Study shows practicing multiplication tables definitely worth it, by Anna Haensch

Multiplying tools

At some point when we were kids, maybe 8 or 9, we stopped counting on our fingers and answers started to just…sort of appear in our brains.  As a recent article in the Detroit Free Press explains, this transition, while easier for some that for others, turns out to be a pretty good predictor of the course of a kid's mathematical life.  Youngsters who make this transition easily will likely excel, and those who don't, often face severe difficulty later in life.  A recent study funded by the NIH examines what exactly goes on in the grey matter during this transition. (Image courtesy of Jimmie, via Flickr Creative Commons.) 

The study was carried out by Professor Vinod Menon and his team at Stanford.  Menon put 28 lucky kids into a brain-scanning MRI machine and asked them to solve simple addition problems.  First they gave the kids equalities, like 2+5=8, and had them press a button to indicate "'right" or "wrong" (hint: that one's wrong). Next, the kids did the same exercise, but the researched watched them face-to-face, to see if they moved their lips or used their fingers. 

Then they did the whole thing again, nearly a year apart. Turns out, kids who relied more on their memory--signified by an active hippocampus--were much faster than the kids who showed heavy activity in their prefrontal and parietal regions, areas associated with counting. 



Hippocampus The hippocampus (left, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) is sort of like a traffic staging area. When new memories pull in, a traffic controller directs them into a more long-term parking spot for later retrieval.  But for memories that come in and out often, they get used to the routine.  They always go to the same parking spot and eventually don't even need the help of traffic control to get there.  So for frequently accessed memories, like 2+5=7, we don't even need to rely on our hippocampus.   

What does this mean for children learning simple arithmetic?  Practicing multiplication tables, with the end goal of rote memorization, actually helps to shape a kid's brain.  And this is particularly helpful in the long run, because kids who work too hard to understand the simple arithmetic, will often feel confused and fall behind as soon as more complicated topics are thrown into the mix. 

So bust out those flashcards and fire up that hippocampus.  Your future self will thank you.  


See: "Brain scans show how kids' math skills grow," by Lauran Neergaard, Detroit Free Press, 19 August 2014.

--- Anna Haensch (posted 8/26/14)

Return to Top

Coverage of the 2014 Fields Medals, by Allyn Jackson. Allyn writes about some Fields firsts (below the photos and links).

Artur Avila Manjul Bhargava

"Top Math Prize Has Its First Female Winner", by Kenneth Chang. New York Times, 12 August 2014.
"Maryam Mirzakhani Named the First Female Fields Medalist"
, by Mary Grace Garis. Elle, 12 August 2014.
"Top Mathematics Prize Awarded to a Woman for First Time", by Alex Bellos. Time, 12 August 2014.
"Iranian woman wins maths' top prize, the Fields medal"
, by Dana Mackenzie. New Scientist, 12 August 2014.
"Fields Medal won by woman for first time", by Núria Radó-Trilla. Times Higher Education, 13 August 2014.
"First female winner for Fields maths medal"
, by Jonathan Webb. BBC News, 12 August 2014.
"These 4 People Just Won The Most Prestigious Award In Mathematics"
, by Andy Kiersz. Business Insider, 12 August 2014.
"Fields Medals 2014: prizes for maths work that few of us can grasp", by Alex Bellos. Guardian, 13 August 2014.
"Stanford professor becomes the first woman to win the Fields Medal - the highest honor in mathematics"
, by Lauren Lumsden. Daily Mail, 13 August 2014.
"After 78 Years, A First: Math Prize Celebrates Work Of A Woman", by Geoff Brumfiel. National Public Radio, 13 August 2014.
Photos: Artur Avila (left) and Manjul Bhargava (right).



Martin Hairer Maryam Mirzakhani

"Fields-Medaille an Iranerin Maryam Mirzakhani: Das gab es noch niemals zuvor. Eine Frau hat die höchste Auszeichnung für Mathematik erhalten, die Fields-Medaille (Fields Medal to Maryam Mirzakhani: This has never happened before. A woman has received the top honor in mathematics, the Fields Medal)", by Manfred Lindinger. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 13 August 2014.
"Stanford math professor becomes first woman to receive prestigious Fields Medal", by Catherine Garcia. The Week, 13 August 2014.
"Sanskrit, music and mathematics: Manjul Bhargava wins Fields Medal, considered Nobel Prize for maths", by Bibhu Ranjan Mishra. Business Standard, 14 August 2014.
"Curiosity key to learning mathematics", by Chung Hyun-chae. Korea Times, 20 August 2014.
"Kenilworth professor awarded 'Nobel Prize of the maths world'". Kenilworth Weekly News, 20 August 2014.
"Maryam Mirzakhani: the right woman at the right time", by Caroline Series. Times Higher Education, 21 August 2014.
Left: Martin Hairer, right: Maryam Mirzakhani.


Above are links to a sampling of the worldwide coverage of the 2014 Fields Medals, which were presented on August 13 at the International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) in Seoul. Though often called the "Nobel Prize" of mathematics (there is no Nobel in mathematics), the Fields Medal differs from the Nobel Prize: The medal is given every four years and, instead of honoring a career-long body of work, it is presented to young (under 40 years of age) mathematicians as an encouragement to further achievements. [See a summary of an article about the Fields Medal's label as the "Nobel" of mathematics.]

Since its establishment in 1936, the Fields Medal had never gone to a woman, until this year. Naturally, most of the coverage centered on the first-ever woman Fields Medalist, Maryam Mirzakhani. The article by Caroline Series, a distinguished British mathematician, provides insights on why it took so long for the Fields Medal to be awarded to a woman. "[T]he generation of women born after the Second World War and currently reaching retirement is really the first in which aspiring mathematicians have been able to pursue their chosen career without institutional obstacles in their path," she writes. "Combine this history with the level of concentration that is needed in those precious twenties and thirties---the years in which most of us want to be building a family, the years of juggling the demands of two careers in a discipline that may require relocating anywhere in the world, perhaps with a husband, who may, or may not, consider his wife's career as important as his own. It then becomes a little clearer why it is that women have lacked the support networks, the role models and the contacts that most people need to get to the very top."

Other firsts in this crop of Fields Medals: Mirzakhani is the first Iranian Fields Medalist, Artur Avila the first Brazilian, Manjul Bhargava the first of Indian origin, and Martin Hairer the first Austrian. The International Mathematical Union, which awards the Fields Medals, works hard to nurture and support mathematical development the world over. The Time magazine story quoted IMU President Ingrid Daubechies: "At the IMU we believe that mathematical talent is spread randomly and uniformly over the Earth---it is just opportunity that is not. We hope very much that by making more opportunities available---for women, or people from developing countries---we will see more of them at the very top, not just in the rank and file."

Because Mirzakhani dominated the coverage, the other IMU honors presented at the ICM received less attention: The Nevanlinna Prize went to Subhash Khot, the Gauss Prize went to Stanley Osher, and the first-ever Leelavati Prize went to Adrian Paenza.

Don't miss the outstanding articles on the work of the Fields Medalists that appear in Quanta magazine.

--- Allyn Jackson

Return to Top

On fonts from puzzles, by Claudia Clark

In this article, Rosen tells the story behind a few of the fonts designed by the father-son team of Martin and Erik Demaine, an artist-in-residence and a professor in computer science, respectively, at MIT. Perhaps more well known for their work with geometric folding, the two have applied mathematics and computational geometry to design a number of fonts. The idea for the "conveyor belt" font--imagine letters formed from thumb tacks and elastic bands--occurred during a break the Demaines and a colleague were taking from working on the following question: Can a single 2-D conveyor belt be stretched around a set of wheels such that the belt is taut and touches every wheel without crossing itself? The "glass-squashing" font resulted from their interest in glass blowing: clear disks and blue glass sticks can be arranged in such a way that, when heated and pressed together horizontally, the blue glass sticks form letters. Both are called puzzle fonts because, in one form, the letters are difficult to discern. Visit their website to play with these and other fonts.

See "Father-son mathematicians fold math into fonts," by Meghan Rosen. Science News, 10 August 2014.

--- Claudia Clark

Return to Top

Background on the Fields Medal, by Lisa DeKeukelaere

In preparation for the mid-August announcement of the 2014 Fields Medal winner, this article (published in early August) examines the history of the Medal and the intersection between mathematics and politics. Debunking the myth that Alfred Nobel neglected to create a mathematics prize to spite a Swedish mathematician rival, the article explains that mathematics simply was not important to Nobel, and Canadian mathematician John Charles Fields created the award in 1950 to unite the divided scientific community following World War II. The Medal did not gain widespread recognition--or the "Nobel of mathematics" tag line--until the 1960s, when media outlets championed the award to help Medal recipient Stephen Smale evade censure for alleged anti-Communist activities. Math and politics continue to be intertwined, as mathematicians consider the implications of military funding and working for the NSA, but the author argues that acknowledging this overlap bolsters the meaning and promise of mathematics.

See "How Math Got Its 'Nobel'," by Michael J. Barany. The New York Times, 8 August 2014 and coverage of the 2014 Fields Medals winners, above, and in Tony's Take.

--- Lisa DeKeukelaere

Return to Top

On a Google Doodle saluting John Venn, by Mike Breen

Sketch along the way to the DoodleIt's perhaps not quite media coverage, but definitely worthy of mention. August 4 was the 180th birthday of mathematician and logician John Venn, of Venn diagram fame. Google saluted him with a very clever animated Doodle, which you can still see in the Doodle archive. The site also has an interview with the Doodle's creators as well as images, such as the one at left, that show their thought process as they developed the Doodle.

--- Mike Breen


Return to Top


Math Digest Archives || 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.