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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)


August 2006

Coverage of 2006 Fields Medals, August 2006 (plus articles about Grigory Perelman)

G. Perelman

Grigory Perelman.

The startling announcement that Gregory Perelman turned down the Fields Medal made the 2006 International Congress of Mathematicians, held in August in Madrid, Spain, into a major news event. The story of Perelman, a reclusive Russian mathematician whose revolutionary work in geometric analysis has confirmed the legendary Poincaré Conjecture, transfixed people the world over and brought mathematics into newspapers, magazines, web sites, and television and radio broadcasts. In many cases the coverage neglected the other three Fields Medalists, Andrei Okounkov, Terence Tao, and Wendelin Werner, although the media in the cities where they work and in their home countries (Russia, Australia, and France, respectively) ran stories about them. The presence at the ICM opening ceremonies of the King of Spain---who attended to present the Fields Medals to Okounkov, Tao, and Werner---ensured plenty of coverage within the Spanish media. For his part, Perelman stayed out of the limelight and was reported by one newspaper to have spent the opening day of the Congress watching television. "I do not think anything that I say can be of the slightest public interest," he told the Telegraph newspaper. "I know that self-promotion happens a lot and if people want to do that, good luck to them, but I do not regard it as a positive thing." Some of the coverage portrayed Perelman as a mad genius, but much of it expressed admiration for his idealism and indifference to worldly gains. The unprecedented amount of coverage of the 2006 Fields Medals contrasts sharply with that for the 2002 medals, which many media outlets passed over with silence. Math Digest has assembled a list of citations for articles in print and web media. Scroll down that page for articles about Perelman, or click here.

--- Allyn Jackson

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"Number Crunch." Nature, 31 August 2006, page 964.

The sidebar notes the number of "hits" (as reported by Google) on each of the 2006 Fields Medalist's names the week prior to the Nature issue. Ironically, the number of Google hits for awardee Grigory Perelman, who declined the "mathematical equivalent of the Nobel prize" and tried to avoid publicity, totalled 516,000, while the number of hits for each of the other Fields Medalists was a fraction of that.

--- Annette Emerson

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"The Colbert Report: Fields Medal," The Colbert Report, Comedy Central, 22 August 2006.

Can a donut be a sphere?

You've heard the news that Grigori Perelman's proof of the Poincaré Conjecture has been verified and that Perelman's refused to accept the Fields Medal. What you may not know is that the conjecture itself has been challenged by none other than comedian Steven Colbert. Colbert begins his four-minute spot (spoof) on his Comedy Central program, The Colbert Report, by bemoaning the fact that he himself did not win the Fields Medal. (Since four people were selected, he reasons, he had a "one in four chance of winning, if I've got the math right.") He proceeds to challenge the conjecture in a variety of ways, including mashing a donut into a sphere: "Now it's a sphere. No tears. Mmm. Just delicious!" He also provides a box of Dunkin' Donuts "munchkins" (sphere-shaped donuts) as further proof that a donut can be a sphere.

Finally, Colbert argues that since Perelman won't claim the medal, Colbert himself should get the medal for his "tireless work in the field of donut mathematics": "Three donuts minus one donut equal two donuts," he says while eating one of three donuts. "Prize please!"

You can find and watch the spot on Comedy Central.

--- Claudia Clark

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"Math institute plans castle in California," by Rachel Konrad. Boston Globe (Associated Press), 18 August 2006.

"Think of it as the ultimate ivory tower for academics: a castle inspired by Spain's Alhambra, lavished with sun-dappled courtyards, artisan-crafted frescoes, grottos, fountains and a patio with 12 marble lions that spit water every hour on the hour," Konrad writes. "But instead of housing nobles atop an Iberian hill, the newest fortress will serve as a quiet retreat for mathematicians next to a golf course in suburban Silicon Valley." So begins this article about the ambitious plans for a new home for the American Institute of Mathematics (AIM). Funded in large part by John Fry, owner of the chain Fry's Electronics stores, the Palo Alto-based AIM hosts mathematical meetings and workshops throughout the year. Its new home will be an Alhambra-like building in Morgan Hill, California, which is about an hour south of San Francisco. "Although Spanish stone masons and stained-glass artisans will give the place an authentic feel, it will have unabashedly modern touches, including 30,000 square feet of underground parking and a gourmet-industrial kitchen with master chefs from a San Francisco seafood restaurant and a Napa Valley resort," the article says.

--- Allyn Jackson

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"Professor puts politics aside in solving 51-year-old math puzzle," by Kitta MacPherson. The Star-Ledger, 13 August 2006.

Vladislav Goldberg is a mathematics professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He came to the U.S. in 1979 from the Soviet Union where he and his wife were discriminated against because they were Jewish. Goldberg has been working with Maks Akivis and Valentin Lychagin on a problem in differential geometry posed in 1955 by William Blaschke, a notorious anti-Semite. They have solved the problem, which Blaschke himself thought was hopeless. MacPherson allows that Goldberg might feel smug about the solution but, says Goldberg, "I could never feel that way. Blaschke was a great mathematician." The article ends with an observation from Goldberg's wife, Ludmila, about her husband's good nature, "He does what he likes. He's free."

--- Mike Breen

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"Connecting the Dots," by Brian Hayes. American Scientist, September-October 2006, pages 400-404.
"Making Connections," by Karen Heyman. Science, 4 August 2006, pages 604-606.

Network

These two articles deal with network analysis. Hayes analyzes graph-theoretic attempts to mine information from telephone records, which involve billions of calls. Are there patterns in the network of callers specific to terrorist cells? There are identifiable patterns among the 9/11 hijackers and among the Madrid bombers, but these patterns were distinguished after the fact. Hayes notes that information taken from any patterns found in the survey of a large group, such as the telephoning U.S. population, has to result in many false positives. Heyman looks at social network analysis in general, writing about small-world graphs (in which short paths exist between any two nodes) and scale-free networks (in which the distribution of the number of nodes arranged by degree is skewed). There is a sidebar on the National Security Agency's analysis of the telephone call database which discusses probabilistic models and mentions mathematicians Markov and Kolmogorov.

--- Mike Breen

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"How a Leopard Changes His Spots: Equations get to grips with patterns in a growing cat's coat.," by Emma Marris. news@nature.com, 4 August 2006.;
"Spot the difference," in Research Highlights. Nature, 10 August 2006, page 604.

Leopard

What causes the beautiful patterns on the coats of animals such as zebras, leopards, and jaguars? One mathematician who considered this question was Alan Turing. In 1952, he proposed the existence of "morphogens"—a set of chemical substances that control hair color—and developed systems of partial differential equations, known as reaction-diffusion equations, which model the interactions of these morphogens. The resulting patterns, called "Turing patterns," replicated simple coat patterns such as zebra stripes and leopard spots.

In this article, writer Emma Marris reports on work recently published in Physical Review E ("Two-stage Turing model for generating pigment patterns on the leopard and the jaguar, " by R. T. Liu, S. S. Liaw, and P. K. Maini, Physical Review, E 74, 011914 (2006)). Liaw and colleagues spent over a year trying to replicate more complicated coat patterns—such as those found on adult jaguars and leopards—using Turing’s equations. They found that a two-stage process was necessary, combining spot patterns generated in the first stage with different model parameters in the second stage to create the more complex patterns.

This work has raised new questions. Marris notes that Anotida Madzvamuse, a mathematics professor at Auburn University in Alabama, wants to know why it is impossible to generate these patterns in one stage. Madzvamuse speculates that perhaps "the parameter values could be related to the size of the animal."

--- Claudia Clark

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"Solving Laplace's Lunar Puzzle," by Kimmo Innanen. Science, 4 August 2006.

the Moon

The Moon revolves around Earth in about a month and around the sun in a year; both the Moon's and Earth's orbits are elliptical, with the Moon's orbit tilted a few degrees to Earth's solar orbit. "The result is a three-dimensional example of what's called the gravitational three-body problem," the author writes. "Adding to the complexity is that both bodies are pear-shaped, with the Moon locked into a synchryonous orbit with one face toward Earth." Two centuries ago Pierre-Simon Lapalace "could not reconcile the observed orbital properties of the Moon with its shape and expected motion." Newton, Leonard Euler, Laplace, and many mathematical minds struggled to find a complete analytical solution to the general three-body problem. Delaunay, Hill, and Brown used the perterbation method in the late 19th and early 20th century, and "modern computer analyses of the general three-body problem have shown its incredible complexity, so that statistical approaches become viable." Most recently, I. Garrick-Bethell, J. Wisdom, and M.T. Zuber's report sheds more light on the problem. They conclude that in the distant past the Moon's orbit around Earth must have been much closer and more eccentric that it is now ("Evidence for a Past high-Eccentricity Lunar Orbit," Science, 4 August 2006, page 621). Innanen speculates that this research will stimulate new interest in and more complex modeling of the Moon and its tidal effects on Earth.

--- Annette Emerson

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"X-rays uncover hidden writings of Archimedes," by Terence Chea (Associated Press). The Seattle Times, 6 August 2006;
"Archimedes' Ancient Works Deciphered." WBBM News Radio 780 in Chicago, 2 August 2006;
"Revealing secrets of Archimedes," by Lisa M. Krieger. Mercury News 3 August 2006;
"Eureka! Ancient works by Archimedes rediscovered," by Genevieve Roberts. The Independent, 3 August 2006.
"Brilliant X-rays Reveal Fruits of a Brilliant Mind," by Robert F. Service. Science, 11 August 2006, page 744.

Media all over the globe covered the 11-day project in which researchers used Stanford University's Linear Accelerator to uncover with powerful X-ray beams the previously hidden writings and diagrams of the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes. Some of the work was revealed in real time during a San Francisco Exploratorium live event and webcast on 4 August 2006 (done in collaboration with Stanford University and the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore). The technique has revealed portions of the 174-page manuscript known as the "Archimedes Palimpsest," the only copies of his treatises on flotation, gravity and mathematics, written by a scribe on parchment but obscured by scraping and other writings over the centuries. (A review of a recent translation of Archimedes' writings appeared in the May 2005 issue of the AMS Notices.)

--- Annette Emerson

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"The Geometer of Particle Physics," by Alexander Hellemans. Scientific American, August 2006.

Alain Connes

Alain Connes. Photo (c) CNRS Phototèque---J. Chatin.

"Connes has become convinced that physics calculations not only reflect reality but hide mathematical jewels behind their apparent complexity," Hellemans writes. "[He] contends that his approach, looking for the mathematics behind the physical phenomena, is fundamentally different from that of string theorists ... that noncommutative geometry makes testable predictions." Alain Connes, of the Collège de France, the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques, and Vanderbilt University, won the Fields Medal (1982) and the Crafoord Prize (2001). He is described in the article as "the chief inventor of noncommuntative geometry, a mathematical space wherein the order of events is more important than the location of objects." Hellemans notes that Connes and many others are eagerly awaiting the start up of the Large Hadron Collider, which may answer some questions about theories of subatomic particles and their interactions.

--- Annette Emerson

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