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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), Samantha Faria (AMS), and Allyn Jackson (Deputy Editor, Notices of the AMS)

John Conway and his biographer Siobhan Roberts

John H. Conway and his biographer Siobhan Roberts at the Bridges Math & Arts Conference in Baltimore, MD, July 2015.

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

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See also: The AMS Blog on Math Blogs: Mathematicians tour the mathematical blogosphere. PhD mathematicians Evelyn Lamb and Anna Haensch 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: "Long Live The Blank Slate" and "Math Fought The Law, And The Law Won," by Anna Haensch and "Promoting Diversity and Respect in the Classroom" and "Dimensions of Flavor" by Evelyn Lamb.

On building probabilistic reasoning into programming language, by Lisa DeKeukelaere

Sum of 3 dice


Roll die

"Sum of three dice." The 216 possible outcomes of rolling three dice stack up to form an approximation to the normal bell curve. The snippet of computer code, written in a programming language called Church, gives the probability of each three-die sum from 3 to 18. Church is one of a new generation of languages designed to model probabilistic reasoning. Illustration by Brian Hayes.

Hayes's article provides a primer on computer programs that use pseudorandom numbers to estimate probability, and progress in enhancing these programs to increase their applicability. To illustrate how the program works, Hayes uses the example of computing the odds that the sum of the faces on three die is a certain number. Galileo calculated the answer by enumeration--writing out all the possibilities--but sampling, either by hand or computer modeling, offers the benefit of being closer to how nature works and being easier to do with a large number of dice. Probability programs can be inefficient in solving complex problems that require discarding the majority of the generated samples, such as if we require two of the die faces to be equal, but the article explains the Monte Carlo method, and a programming language called Church that uses it, to address this problem. Church doesn't work cleanly in all cases, however, and research is ongoing to improve it.

See "Programs and Probability," by Brian Hayes, American Scientist, September-October 2015.

--- Lisa DeKeukelaere

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On Neil Sloane, by Lisa DeKeukelaere

The OEIS Movie

Quanta Magazine interviews Neil Sloane, the Welsh mathematician who created the Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences (OEIS). Sloane began collecting sequences on index cards as a graduate student in the 1960s to help him with his research on neural networks, and since then he has transformed his collection into an online repository with more than 170,000 sequences that celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. He continues to curate the list, deciding carefully whether submitted sequences are too arbitrary or too specialized. Sloane discusses some of his favorite sequences, including a formula for calculating the error term for a certain method of estimating pi that was discovered because of OEIS. He notes that he is working with a German repository to enhance OEIS so that users can search formulas, and he highlights OEIS’s ability to foster collaboration.

See "The Connoisseur of Number Sequences," by Erica Klarreich. Quanta Magazine, 6 August 2015.

--- Lisa DeKeukelaere

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On a multiplication game, by Claudia Clark

Bojagi game

In this article, Knudson introduces the reader to Bojagi, an online game that involves simple mathematics and visual reasoning. The player is presented with a 10 by 10 grid containing several 1 by 1 squares with numbers in them. The goal of the game is to fill the grid by drawing a rectangle around each square so that the following three conditions are met: (1) each rectangle contains exactly one number; (2) each rectangle's area is the number it contains; and (3) there are no overlapping rectangles. Knudson likes the game for several reasons: "It is easy to learn and understand... And it's a really good game for [third or fourth grade] children…To be good at it, you must know your multiplication tables, but you also must be able to realize any given number as a product of two others. What's more, you may need to know many different ways of factoring an integer." He also likes the visual nature of the puzzle: It may remind people who claim to hate math of the fun of working with arithmetic and numbers. He also discusses some of the more sophisticated mathematics behind the game, specifically partitions of integers, but points out that this understanding is not necessary to play it.

To play the game, go to You can solve an existing puzzle by selecting List, or create a new puzzle by selecting Create. Enjoy!

See "This 'Simple' Multiplication Game Will Help You Rediscover the Joy of Math," Kevin Knudson, Forbes, 2 August 2015.

--- Claudia Clark

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On John H. Conway, by Claudia Clark


John H Conway and Siobhan Roberts

In this lengthy article, the writer describes the life and work (or play?) of mathematician John Conway, beginning with his trip in 1956 to Cambridge University as an incoming undergraduate student, and ending with his current work. Roberts, who has written a recent book on Conway, discusses his major discovery of the Leech lattice's symmetry in the late 60s, his discovery of surreal numbers, his development of the "The Game of Life," and his recent creation of "The Free Will Theorem." She also talks at length about Conway's creation of his "doomsday rule,"--an algorithm Conway created for determining the day of the week for any date--and the way he has used this game to test himself as he has gotten older. The article emphasizes Conway's lifelong love of playing and inventing games, some of which have led to his remarkable discoveries. Roberts writes: "For Conway it is mathematics that allows him to clear away the clouds of reality. As he put it, 'Math was always there for me.' It is the realm where he finds solace and infinite unadulterated pleasure. He's retired, but he keeps on playing, and as he himself noticed, he's now being more productive than ever." (Photo of John Conway and Siobhan Roberts, taken by Annette Emerson at the Bridges Math & Arts Conference in Baltimore, MD, July 2015.)

See "The world's most charismatic mathematician," by Siobhan Roberts. The Guardian (UK), 23 July 2015.

--- Claudia Clark

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