Math Digest

Summaries of Media Coverage of Math

Edited by Allyn Jackson, AMS
Contributors:
Mike Breen (AMS), Claudia Clark (freelance science writer), Lisa DeKeukelaere (Brown University), Annette Emerson (AMS)


April 2006

* Articles on the centenary of the birth of Kurt Gödel, April 2006
* "Girls Just Want to Have Sums," The Simpsons, 30 April 2006
* "The curious side of big math," The Toronto Star, 30 April 2006
* "Caltech Professor Wins Top Research Award," Los Angeles Times, 24 April 2006;
"Untangling Waves.", Science, 28 April 2006

* "Math is truly magical," KARE-TV (Minneapolis-St. Paul), 19 April 2006
* "Elemental, My Dear Watson," NETWATCH, Science, 14 April 2006
* "Fibonacci Poems Multiply on the Web after Blog's Invitation," The New York Times, 14 April 2006
* "Coexistence through math is a winning equation," Israel21c, 7 May 2006;
"Science Partners," Jersusalem Post online, 13 April 2006

* "Movers," Nature, 13 April 2006
* "A chaotic test for Parkinsons," NewScientist.com, 11 April 2006
* "You Want It Clean? You Clean it!," New York Times, 9 April 2006
* "Math's Role in Internet Security," Weekend Edition, National Public Radio (NPR), 8 April 2006
* "Suche nach der effizienten Einsteigemethode: Kontraproduktive Sitzzuteilung (Searching for the efficient boarding method: counterproductive seat assignment)", Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 3 April 2006
* "Computing with Quantum Knots," Scientific American, April 2006

"Aus Mangel an Beweisen: Der Logiker Kurt Gödel erkannte eine prinzipielle Grenze der Mathematik (From a lack of proof: The logician Kurt Gödel recognized a principal limitation of mathematics"), by George Szpiro. Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 23 April 2006;
"Das bitterer Ende der Logik (The bitter end of logic)", by Christoph Drösser; "Post von Gödel (Letter from Gödel)", by Karl Sigumnd; "Der Herr Warum (Mr. Why)", by Gero von Randow. Science section of Die Zeit, 27 April 2006;
Two articles about Kurt Gödel: "Glauben statt Wissen (To believe rather than to know)" and "Beweis der Unvollkommenheit (Proof of Incompleteness)". Sueddeutsche Zeitung, 24 April 2006.

April 2006 marked the centenary of the birth of the Austrian logician Kurt Gödel. His most famous work showed that any axiomatic system powerful enough to encompass arithmetic necessarily contains statements that cannot be proved within that system. This result dashed the hopes of mathematicians like David Hilbert, who had speculated that all questions in mathematics could be resolved. Gödel's work brought a radically new perspective on the foundations of mathematics and launched the mathematical field of set theory. The 100th anniversary of his birth was celebrated with a conference, held in Vienna in April 2006, which brought together many world experts in areas that touch on G&oum;del's work. In addition, Karl Sigmund, a mathematician at the University of Vienna, organized an exhibition about Gödel's life that will be shown in Vienna in spring 2006 and possibly other cities in Europe in summer 2006. Several articles about Gödel, including those cited above, appeared in the German-language press around the time of the conference. The piece by Christoph Drösser discusses an article by mathematician Brian Davies, which appeared in the AMS Notices. The article, "Whither Mathematics?", discusses uncertainty in mathematics. George Szpiro's article includes a review of Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel by Rebecca Goldstein. See also the special issue on Gödel in the April 2006 issue of Notices of the AMS (which also includes a review of Goldstein's book).

--- Allyn Jackson

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"Girls Just Want to Have Sums." The Simpsons, Season 17, Episode 19. Aired on April 30, 2006.

Simpsons

Image ©2006 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Since 1989, The Simpsons has provided social commentary with a great deal of humor. This recent episode is no different. It starts with the Springfield opening of a new musical "Stab-A-Lot: The Itchy and Scratchy Musical" directed by Springfield daughter, Juliana Krellner. With the applause still sounding, Principal Skinner presents a bouquet of flowers to Krellner. But the applause soon turns to booing, as Skinner responds to Ms. Krellner's modest remarks about having earned a few B's in math class with the statement, "Well, of course you did: you are a girl. . . . What I meant was, from what I've seen, boys are better at math, science, the real subjects. There, that should put the matter behind us."

But it did not: After a bungled attempt to placate the women protesting outside the school, Principal Skinner is replaced by "women's educational expert," Melanie Upfoot. Noting that there has been an "anti-woman bias in math for too long," and that "boys are aggressive, obnoxious, and never let us be heard," Upfoot divides the school in half: one-half for the girls, the other for the boys.

At first Lisa is delighted by the beautiful interior of the girls school, where she is surrounded by the strains of classical music and images of female artists (as well as comic-strip character Cathy©). Her delight is short-lived: when Upfoot tells them they're going to do some math, the lights go down, gentle music begins to play, images of mathematical symbols are projected floating on the walls, and Upfoot asks a series of questions: "How does math make you feel? What does a plus sign smell like? Is the number seven odd, or just different?" When Lisa asks if they'll be doing some actual math problems, Upfoot responds "Problems? That's how men see math: something to be attacked, to be 'figured out.'" She then has the students sing their "self-esteem engine back on the track."

Lisa then sneaks over the wall into the boy's school, which looks like a prison in the middle of a war zone. Through an open window, she spies a math class and is excited to figure out the answer to a math problem being posed inside. Lisa cannot participate, however, until her mother proposes that evening that Lisa disguise herself as a boy.

Going to the boy's school the next day, Lisa is repulsed by their fighting and bullying, but is excited to find herself being challenged in math class, even being corrected, because, she thinks happily, "Oh my god, I was wrong. And by being corrected, I learned. And no one cared about my feelings!" This drives her to learn how to fight and act "like a boy," and continue to attend the boy's school, earning A's in her math class.

Ultimately, Lisa earns the school's "Outstanding Achievement" award in mathematics. At the ceremony, Lisa removes her disguise and announces triumphantly "The best math student in the whole school is a girl!" But Bart challenges her, saying, "the only reason [Lisa] won is [she] learned to think like a boy!" Lisa insists that this is a lie, but wonders out loud, "What have I become? I always thought that boys had it easier, but now I see that they were always more cruel and sadistic than I imagined. And I did get better at math, but it was only by abandoning everything I believed in. I guess the real reason we don't see many women in math and science is . . . Well, whatever the answer is, I'm glad I'm a girl, and I'm glad I'm good at math."

For more about mathematics on "The Simpsons" (and a few laughs), go to www.mathsci.appstate.edu/~sjg/simpsonsmath/. See also "Springfield Theory: Mathematical references abound on The Simpsons," by Erica Klarreich, Science News Online, 10 June 2006.

--- Claudia Clark

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"The curious side of big math," by Siobhan Roberts. The Toronto Star, 30 April 2006.

Martin Gardner

Photograph of Martin Gardner by Gilbert Jain Photography.

Fans of the writer Martin Gardner attended the biennial "Gathering for Gardner" in Atlanta---this year named the "G4G7" (the seventh such gathering for Gardner). Gardner, age 91, was at his home in Norman, Oklahoma, but the event was "all about invoking Gardner's abiding love for the play and fun in math." The four-day G4G7 conference---co-organized by Berkeley mathematician Elwyn Berlekamp and Manhattan magician Mark Setteducati---was attended by well-known and novice mathematicians. A house-party hosted by businessman Tom Rodgers featured "mathemagician" Caspar Schwabe and Rodgers' own collection of over 2,000 puzzles. Attending all was Barrington Leigh, an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, who especially enjoyed a presentation on mirror mazes by Adrian Fisher, "simple but fiendish problems" by Peter Winkler, and the "Doomsday Rule" by John Conway.

--- Annette Emerson

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"Caltech Professor Wins Top Research Award," by Paul Pringle. Los Angeles Times, 24 April 2006;
"Untangling Waves.". Newsmakers, Science, 28 April 2006, page 525.

These articles announces the awarding of the highly prestigious Waterman Award to Caltech mathematician Emmanuel Candes. The prize, given by the US National Science Foundation, recognizes the achievements of scientists who are no older than 35, or not more than seven years beyond the doctorate, and includes a US$500,000 research grant over three years. Mathematicians who have previously won the Waterman Award have gone on to become leaders in the field; among them are Charles Fefferman, Harvey Friedman, William Thurston, and Gang Tian. Fefferman and Thurston are also Fields Medalists. Candes won the prize "for developing more efficient methods for representing wave signals as digital data, and converting analog data into cleaner digital form," the article says. He works on what are known as "wavelets", which bear some similarity to Fourier transforms but are more effective for certain applications. Candes wrote an article for the AMS Notices entitled "What is a Curvelet?", which explains some aspects of his work.

--- Allyn Jackson

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"Math is truly magical," Roxanne Battle. KARE-TV (Minneapolis-St. Paul), 19 April 2006.

Four aces

The story is about Stanford University math professor Persi Diaconis who is visiting the University of Minnesota. He talks to Battle about cards, coins, and mathematics. Diaconis shows Battle a card shuffle that he invented that always turns up four aces. Battle says that the shuffle got him into Harvard even though he did not finish high school. Students who struggle in calculus can take heart: Diaconis' first three grades in calculus were C, C and D. He also talks about coin-tossing. After two years of research he has concluded that a coin has a 51 percent chance of landing with the same face showing as when it was tossed. Diaconis says that coin-tossing is physics, not random. The story concludes with Diaconis noting that "Mathematics doesn't have to be this cold, inhuman thing; it's related to the real world."

--- Mike Breen

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"Elemental, My Dear Watson." NETWATCH, Science, 14 April 2006, page 169.

David Joyce of Clark University has put Euclid's Elements online along with explanatory notes and applets. This short item in Science describes the website, gives the URL, and points out that "Elements stood as the authority on geometry for more than 2000 years."

--- Mike Breen

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"Fibonacci Poems Multiply on the Web after Blog's Invitation," by Mokoto Rich. The New York Times, 14 April 2006.

The idea of a poem about math might not appeal to many people, but poems using math have grown in popularity thanks to a recent blog posting. Blogger Gregory Pincus asked his readers to submit "Fibs," poems in which the number of syllables per line follows a Fibonacci sequence, and his idea spread rapidly when myriad other websites began linking to his page. Most of the people who have taken up the trend are not poets, but simply people who now have an interesting new form of word play for self expression. This isn't the first time that Fibonacci sequences have appeared in art forms: they are in the classical music of Bartok, the patterns for knitting projects, and the pages of the bestseller The DaVinci Code.

--- Lisa DeKeukelaere

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"Coexistence through math is a winning equation," by Sima Borkovski. Israel21c, 7 May 2006;
"Science Partners," by Sima Borkovski. Jersusalem Post online, 13 April 2006.

The "Meet Math" exhibit at the Bloomfield Science Museum in Jerusalem represents a joint effort among the Jerusalem education facility, the Italian Institute of Science (La Città della Scienza), and East Jerusalem's Al Quds University. The exhibit "serves as a testament to cooperation between Israeli, Palestinian and Italian mathematicians, designers, builders, curators and educators." The topic is math, the language used by all, "the language of logic" and "the base for all science," explains the director of science education programs at Al Quds. The exhibit themes are number, shape, pattern, and computing. The goals of the exhibit are to educate, inspire, and entertain and to show that math is a common ground among Israelis and Palestinians. The creators found that the cooperative project was also a challenging, unifying, and gratifying process. The exhibit will be at the Bloomfield Science Museum for six months before moving to its permanent home at Al Quds University.

--- Annette Emerson

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"Movers," by Dirk Steuerwald. Nature, 13 April 2006.

Nikolaus Rajewsky is profiled in the issue's Career View section. Rajewsky received his Ph.D. in theoretical physics but came to be interested in bioinformatics after later taking a summer course, "Biology for Mathematicians," at Princeton University. His subsequent work has incorporated mathematics, informatics and biology. He was assistant professor at the Center for Comparative Functional Genomics, New York University, from 2003-2006, and in May 2006 he begins his new position as head of bioinformatics research at the Max Delbrück Center (Berlin, Germany), where he'll continue research on microRNAs. Rajewsky advises biology students "to get a solid education in bioinformatics."

--- Annette Emerson

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"A chaotic test for Parkinsons." NewScientist.com, 11 April 2006.

"Chaos theory could help monitor the effectiveness of treatment for Parkinson's disease and aid in earlier diagnosis," reports New Scientist, based on an article in Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and Its Applications. Researchers used a laser beam to measure tremor frequency in individuals with Parkinson's disease, and used "a statistical technique based on chaos theory" to see and analyze the symptom.

--- Annette Emerson

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"You Want It Clean? You Clean it!," by Lisa Belkin. New York Times, 9 April 2006, SundayStyles page 1.

Dishes in sink

There is not much mathematics in this article, which is about how couples divide housework but there is a mathematician. Annalisa Crannell, an associate professor at Franklin & Marshall College, and her husband, Neil Gussman, a chemical engineer, are profiled and pictured. Annalisa and Neil split housework based on the time of day: Annalisa does chores that can be done only when it is light---such as raking and mowing---while Neil does chores that can be done in the dark---such as cleaning the kitchen and bathrooms---which gives him the chance to watch TV.

--- Mike Breen

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"Math's Role in Internet Security," with Scott Simon and Keith Devlin. Weekend Edition, National Public Radio (NPR), 8 April 2006.

Mathematician Keith Devlin explains that without math there would be no Internet and no Internet security. He notes that Boole's nineteenth century algebra is the basis of all computers and that encryption makes Internet security possible. (NPR's "Math Guy" Devlin is also chair of this year's Mathematics Awareness Month Advisory Committee; the theme for April 2006 Mathematics Awareness Month is "Mathematics and Internet Security.") He also points out that mathematics is used in decryption---finding ways to break codes that make our bank transactions and communications secure now---which means that individuals can use math for goodand evil! NPR aired other segments related to mathematics in April. Listeners can hear the following segments on the NPR website: "Mole-Rats, Ants, Making Science Headlines" (All Things Considered, April 8, 2006), "Quantum Computing" (Talk of the Nation, April 7, 2006), and "Smart Science Writing from a Physics-Phobe," (Weekend Edition, April 2, 2006, in which guest Jennifer Ouellette admits that as a young student she never saw how math connected to the real world and that she would have felt differently if she'd understood the connections----which she now does).

--- Annette Emerson

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"Suche nach der effizienten Einsteigemethode: Kontraproduktive Sitzzuteilung (Searching for the efficient boarding method: counterproductive seat assignment)", by George Szpiro. Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 3 April 2006.

This article deals with the optimal boarding policy for airline passengers. An Israeli mathematician and coworkers developed a model which shows that the policy "rows 25 to 30 first, then rows 20 to 25 etc." is not efficient. They conclude that it would be faster to let passengers board in random order.

--- Allyn Jackson

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"Computing with Quantum Knots," by Graham P. Collins. Scientific American, April 2006, pages 57-63.

One obstacle to the implementation of a quantum computer is the control of error rates. Topological quantum computing, using braids, may offer a solution because topological properties are unchanged by small perturbations. Collins writes about the foundation of topological quantum computation, quasiparticles called anyons, whose existence has yet to be demonstrated. Unlike electrons and protons, anyons would exist in two dimensions (physicists have studied two-dimensional particle systems). It has been shown that topological quantum computers can simulate any computation of a standard quantum computer, but the simulation is approximate. So braids have to be constructed to ensure the required accuracy, which amounts to using braids with more twists.

--- Mike Breen

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