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


Maryam Mirzakhani

The editors of Nature have featured Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to receive the Fields Medal, as one of the ten newsmakers of the year. Mirzakhani's success was also one of Discover magazine's top stories.

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

Recent Posts:

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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 Evelyn Lamb and Brie Finegold, 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 post: "In Memoriam."

A Math Proof is a Journey, by Annette Emerson

"A proof is like the mathematician's travelogue. Fermat gazed out of the mathematical window and spotted this mathematical peak in the distance: the statement that his equations do not have whole-number solutions. The challenge for subsequent generations of mathematicians was to find a pathway leading from the familiar territory that the mathematician has already navigated to this foreign new land. [It's] a bit like Frodo's adventures in Lord of the Rings," explained Marcus du Sautoy in a talk at Oxford University that writer Charlie Jane Anders attended and covered for io9. She notes that a proof is like a journey, "from the familiar to the new," and points to the archived video of the talk plus the Q&A session after it.

See "How Is A Mathematical Proof Like Frodo's Journey In Lord Of The Rings?," by Charlie Jane Anders, io9, 21 January 2015.

--- Annette Emerson

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On an auction of a Turing notebook, by Mike Breen

A notebook of Alan Turing's that hadn't been seen in public until recently will go up for auction in April. Turing made the notes, which foreshadow some of his later foundational work on computing and logic, while working to break the Enigma Code. Andrew Hodges, author of Alan Turing: The Enigma, says that "This notebook shines light on how, even when he was enmeshed in great world events, he remained committed to freethinking work on pure mathematics." Turing left the notebook to his close friend Robin Gandy, who added his own personal notes to the notebook and kept it until his death in 1995. Perhaps because of interest in Turing generated by The Imitation Game, the notebook is expected to sell for over US$1 million.

See "Turing's '$1m' notebook goes to auction," by Barney Thompson. Financial Times, 19 January 2015.

--- Mike Breen (posted 1/23/15)

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On attempts to verify a proof of the ABC Conjecture, by Allyn Jackson

Shinichi Mochizuki is a mathematician at the Research Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Kyoto (Japan). In 2012, he made headlines around the world when he posted a 500-page paper claiming a proof of the so-called ABC Conjecture, one of the central questions in modern number theory. Mochizuki is a well known and highly respected mathematician, so his claim to a proof has been taken very seriously by the mathematical community. However, because his paper has proven very difficult for others to understand, his proof has not been accepted as correct. The New Scientist article discusses a report that Mochizuki has posted on his web site, in which he describes the current status of attempts to verify his proof. "[Mochizuki] says that three researchers who studied it with his help have yet to find an error, but it will take a few more years for it to be fully confirmed," the New Scientist reports. According to Minhyong Kim, a mathematician at the University of Oxford who is quoted by the New Scientist, the proof needs to be presented in a form understandable to those who have not studied with Mochizuki. Kim said: "I sympathize with his sense of frustration but I also sympathize with other people who don't understand why he's not doing things in a more standard way."

See "Mathematician's anger over his unread 500-page proof," by Jacob Aron. New Scientist, 07 January 2015.

--- Allyn Jackson (Posted 1/15/15)

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Mirzakhani Makes Nature's Top Science Stories of 2014, by Annette Emerson

Maryam Mirzakhani Various journals are listing the top science stories of 2014 (see above) and we are watching for the mathematical sciences stories. The editors of Nature have featured Maryam Mirzakhani as one of the ten newsmakers of the year, as the first woman to receive the Fields Medal. She is on "The Year in Science: Wins and Losses" timeline (page 303) and in a piece by Erica Klarreich, who notes that the attention Mirzakhani received "threw a spotlight on the vast under-representation of women in mathematics." Klarreich cites, "according to a 2012 survey of U.S. universities by the American Mathematical Society, women make up only 30% of PhD students—a number that has not budged for years—and only 12% of tenured faculty members at PhD-granting institutions. Those who do become tenured mathematics professors receive disproportionately small number of scholarly awards." Klarreich also summarizes Mirzakhani's decade-long work on surfaces, "tying together disparate mathematical fields such as geometry, topology and dynamical systems" and earning her a 2014 Fields Medal .

See "Surface Explorer," by Erica Klarreich (part of "One Year, Ten Stories. Newsmakers of the Year"). Nature, 18/25 December 2014, page 316.

--- Annette Emerson


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On fun (calendar) dates, by Claudia Clark

In this article, Victoria Jaggard speaks with Neil J. A. Sloane, founder of the Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences, about some of the dates containing interesting sequences that “numberphiles” can look forward to, now that 12/13/14 has passed. The first date they discuss involves a sequence of prime numbers: 11/13/17. The second date contains a sequence of Mersenne primes, prime numbers that equal a power of 2 minus 1: 3/7/31. If you look at the Fibonacci numbers, you get a third date 8/13/21. Two more dates—7/13/20 and 8/25/43—come from Recamán’s sequence, which is defined as follows: a1 = 1. For n > 1, an = an-1 - n if the result is a positive number that is not already in the sequence. Otherwise, an = an-1 + n. (Can you guess where 8, 25, and 43 fall in the sequence?) Another date—1/11/21—is composed of the first three terms of the look-and-say sequence: 1, 11, 21, 1211, 111221… (Each term is a description of what is seen in the previous term: 1 is “one one,” 11 is “two ones,” 21 is “one two and one one,” and so on.) So, mark your calendars!

See "After 12/13/14, What Are the Next Fun Dates for Math Lovers?" by Victoria Jaggard, Smithsonian Magazine, 11 December 2014. (The article's web page also has a musical interpretation of Recamán’s sequence.)

--- Claudia Clark

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On surveys of mathematically gifted teens, 30 years later, by Lisa DeKeukelaere

Starting with a list of 1650 individuals identified as “mathematically gifted” as 13-year-olds in the 1970s, researchers from Vanderbilt University crunched survey data to track and interpret how the prodigies had fared, 40 years later, in education, career, income, and happiness. The paper notes that the study is the first to follow mathematically talented individuals during a time in which women have high-level career options. The study showed that the mathematically inclined cohorts far exceeded the average U.S. participation rate in higher education, and the rate for different types of terminal degrees was roughly similar between men and women. The data indicates, however, that the female participants earned on average $60,000 less than their male counterparts and tended to be married to men who earned significantly more than they did, whereas the men tended to be married to women who earned significantly less. The study also included several measures to track the value placed on career advancement, family, and having an impact on society, and noted a significant dichotomy between the sexes.

See “Unequal fates for maths superstars.” Research Highlights, Nature, 4 December 2014, page 11, which is based on the article, “Life Paths and Accomplishments of Mathematically Precocious Males and Females Four Decades Later,” by David Lubinski, Camilla P. Benbow, Harrison J. Kell. Psychological Science, 10 November 2014.

--- Lisa DeKeukelaere

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On modeling the immune system's response to the flu, by Claudia Clark

Many virus-causing diseases like measles and chicken pox change very little over time, therefore conferring lifelong immunity upon the infected or vaccinated person. Flu (or influenza) viruses, however, change enough over time that immunity to last year’s flu virus does not guarantee immunity to this year’s flu virus. In this article, Adam Kucharski, a research fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, describes his work building a mathematical model of influenza based on observed data from the 2009 flu pandemic. (Studies of that pandemic “have shown that immunity against regular seasonal flu viruses tends to peak in young children, drop in middle-aged people and then rise again in the elderly.”) Along the way, Kucharski’s “work provides new support for a quirky hypothesis--first proposed more than half a century ago and known as original antigenic sin--about why the body’s response to this illness is biased toward viruses seen in children.”

See "Immunity's Illusion," by Adam J. Kurcharski. Scientific American, December 2014, pages 80-85.

--- Claudia Clark

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On a report about sexism in math-intensive fields, by Lisa DeKeukelaere

According to an op-ed published in The New York Times in late October, women in math-intensive academic fields have career experiences similar to their male counterparts, based on hiring and promotion data collected by the National Science Foundation. Critics warn, however, that the op-ed presents only a correlation, which is insufficient to determine the cause. One critic notes that similar promotion rates for men and women do not necessarily mean that bias is nonexistent, and could mean only that women are able to overcome that bias. Critics also take issue with the op-ed’s claim that the underrepresentation of women in math fields results from early educational and lifestyle choices, arguing that these “choices” are constrained by environmental factors. While one of the op-ed authors notes that he hopes the piece will encourage further female participation by countering negative stories, critics worry that the positive message ultimately will prove detrimental when women encounter an unexpectedly biased reality.

See "No sexism in science? Not so fast, critics say," by Rachel Bernstein. Science, 14 November 2014, page 798. (available online to subscribers)

--- Lisa DeKeukelaere

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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.