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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 (2004 AMS Media Fellow), Annette Emerson (AMS)


October 2006

"Seed Firms Bolster Crops Using Traits Of Distant Relatives," by Scott Kilman. The Wall Street Journal, 31 October 2006.

corn

The article's subtitle is "Mathematicians in the Field"---the field of research being gene mapping that permits selective breeding (as opposed to controversial gene-splicing) to get better varieties quickly. Corn plants are sent from around the world (Chile, Hawaii, and elsewhere) to a facility in Iowa, where genetic data is gathered, stored and analyzed to figure out "why a particular plant is better than others at tolerating cold, repelling insects, surviving drought or making more seed." Seed companies like Monsanto, Pioneer, Syngenta, and GMO are starting to hire more Ph.D. mathematicians, investing in additional and more powerful computer power to store the data, and using gene-modified seeds based on this knowledge. Corn is one of the crops being researched and improved, but "by some estimates, 80 percent of the genetic diversity of certain crops has yet to be mined."

--- Annette Emerson

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"Gender Similarities in Mathematics and Science," by Janet Shibley Hyde and Marcia C. Linn. Science, 27 October 2006, page 599.

The article begins: "The role of gender in mathematics and science education is hotly contested." Hyde and Linn note that arguments for single-sex education or addressing gender differences in learning styles "rest upon the assumption that psychological gender differences are large and exist in numerous domains." Instead, they claim that "males and females are similar on most, but not all, psychological variables."

The authors describe some of their work: "[A] review of meta-analyses of research on psychological gender differences identified 46 reports, addressing a variety of psychological characteristics, including mathematical, verbal, and spatial abilities; aggression; leadership effectiveness; self-esteem; and computer use... A total of 124 synthesized effect sizes (d statistic) resulting from meta-analysis were extracted from the reports." They found that 30 percent of the effects for gender differences were trivial (d statistic values between 0 and 0.1) while 48 percent were small (d statistic values between 0.11 and 0.35). They conclude that "an essential implication of these findings is that the overlap of distributions for males and females is substantial for most outcomes."

Hyde and Linn did find a few exceptions to the gender similarities pattern: effect sizes for aggression and activity level showed that males are more aggressive and display higher levels of activity than females. Yet, they note, "even a gender difference of that magnitude means that 40 percent of one group (in this case, girls) score higher than the average for the other group (boys)."

Hyde and Linn also describe the results of their work examining data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), as well as data from cross-national comparisons. They conclude, "to help teachers succeed, we may need to address variability in aggression and activity level for all learners. To neutralize traditional stereotypes about girls' lack of ability and interest in mathematics and science, we need to increase awareness of gender similarities."

--- Claudia Clark

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"Bent Into Shape." Netwatch, Science, 27 October 2006, page 571.

The National Curve Bank provides mathematical features, such as curves and animations, that can't be found on a printed page. There is also a lot of historical background given. The site is maintained by Shirley B. Gray and Stewart Venit, Department of Mathematics, and Russ Abbott, Department of Computer Science, at California State University, Los Angeles. Submissions are encouraged.

--- Mike Breen

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"Coping with uncertainty": Review of From Cosmos to Chaos: The Science of Unpredictability, by Peter Coles. Reviewed by Gianpietro Malescio. Nature, 26 October 2006, page 918.

After explaining the basics of probability theory, Malescio writes, the book "offers a ride across virtually the entire spectrum of the physical sciences," including chaos theory and quantum mechanics, considering each topic from the perspective of its relationship to probability theory. The reviewer appreciates Coles' examination of "the impact of probability on everyday life," the "intriguing and often surprising examples" Coles provides to illustrate how probability theory works, and the "historical notes and lively anecdotes that highlight the famous and less well-known personalities who contributed to the development of the statistical approach to science." Apart from a too-short discussion of randomness---and Monte Carlo methods in particular---Malescio describes the book as a "truly enjoyable overview of the role of probability in science, as well as in everyday life." He imagines the audience to be "non-specialist readers" but contends that "even those who are familiar with its contents will enjoy the stimulating presentation."

--- Claudia Clark

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"A Rebellion Erupts Over Journals of Academia", by Gary Shapiro. New York Sun, 26 October 2006;
"Editorial Board of Elsevier Journal Resigns in Protest Over Pricing," by Richard Monastersky. Chronicle of Higher Education, 10 November 2006;
"All Bent Out of Shape at Topology," by Jocelyn Kaiser. Science, 3 November 2006.

These articles discuss the resignation en masse of the editorial board of the prestigious journal Topology in August 2006. The reason for the board's resignation is the pricing policies of its publisher, Elsevier. The board believed that those policies created such bad will within the mathematical community that the quality of the journal was being effected. Several mathematicians are quoted, including Joan Birman of Columbia University, who summarized the situation of commercial journal publication this way: "We [the mathematicians] do the work, we check each other, we referee the articles, edit and typeset them and send them to the publisher, which slaps them between two covers and charges a huge amount."

--- Allyn Jackson

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"Mind Games": Review of A Beautiful Math: John Nash, Game Theory, and the Modern Quest for a Code of Nature, by Tom Siegfried. Reviewed by Ben Longstaff. New Scientist, 21 October 2006, page 62.

If you hankered for more mathematical depth than was presented in the movie A Beautiful Mind, which told the story of John Nash's struggle with mental illness, "then treat yourself to this book," writes Longstaff in this brief review.

--- Allyn Jackson

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"Numerical Mathematics Consortium publiziert Standard (Numerical Mathematics Consortium publishes standard)," by George Szprio. Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 20 October 2006.

This article discusses the publication of a standard for the use of mathematical functions in computer algorithms. The standard has been published by the Numerical Mathematics Consortium. "Through the standardization of technical specifications it should be guaranteed that various software developers use the same definitions and methods for the mathematical operations they carry out," the article says.

--- Allyn Jackson

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"Wie schnell sich ein Beweis in nichts auflösen kann (How quickly a proof can dissolve)," by George Szprio. Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 18 October 2006.

For a few days, Penny Smith of Lehigh University thought she had resolved the conundrum of the Navier-Stokes equation, which is one of the Millennium Prize Problems of the Clay Mathematics Institute. But there was a subtle error in her work.

--- Allyn Jackson

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"Scientist at Work: Shing-Tung Yau: The Emperor of Math," by Dennis Overbye. New York Times, 17 October 2007.

This article presents a portrait of Shing-Tung Yau, a Fields Medalist and one of the most influential figures in geometry in recent decades. Controversy has swirled around Yau ever since he held a press conference in Beijing in June 2006, to announce the publication in the Asian Journal of Mathematics of a paper containing a full proof of the Poincaré and Geometrization Conjectures. The paper, written by two Chinese mathematicians who are associates of Yau's, is based on work by Grigory Perelman, who in turn relied on work of Richard Hamilton to produce a proof of the celebrated conjectures. Just prior to the International Congress of Mathematicians in August 2006, the New Yorker published an article that presents a picture of Yau as a corrupt figure whose aim is to be crowned the emperor of Chinese mathematics. Yau has threatened legal action against the New Yorker, claiming the magazine defamed him. The New York Times piece offers a more sympathetic view, painting Yau as an ambitious and outspoken person who can offend but who has done a great deal for mathematics and in particular has helped the development of the field in his home country of China. Typical of the comments in the article is this quotation of John Morgan of Columbia University: "[Yau] has done tremendous things for math. He's a great figure. He's Shakespearean, larger than life. His virtues are larger than life, and his vices are larger than life." Overbye also reports on the recent revelation of a problem in the paper by Cao and Zhu: Some passages in their paper are identical to passages in a June 2003 article by John Lott and Bruce Kleiner. An erratum has appeared in the Asian Journal.

--- Allyn Jackson

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"Researchers Devise Algorithms To Prevent Information Overload," Information Week, 16 October 2006.

sensor graph

The Cech complex of a collection of sensor nodes is a simplicial model of the topology of the coverage region. Computational algebraic topology can find holes in a network.
(Image courtesy of Robert Ghrist.)

Babcock writes about a team of people (from the University of Illinois, Bell Labs/Lucent, Arizona State University, Rochester University, Carnegie-Mellon University, Melbourne University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Chicago) who are doing research into a way to incorporate information from many local sensors, such as video cameras, into a meaningful global picture. The team is involved in a project called SToMP---Sensor Topology and Minimal Planning---which recently received a US$7.98 million dollar grant from DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). Robert Ghrist, associate professor of mathematics at the University of Illinois, says, "Getting the information we need is not a problem; sorting it and deciding what is useful without being overwhelmed is the challenge." The team hopes to use topology to manage the information with a minimal number of sensors.

--- Mike Breen

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"Proof": Review of The Artist and the Mathematician: The Story of Nicolas Bourbaki, the Genius Mathematician Who Never Existed, by Amir D. Aczel. Reviewed by Charles Seife. Washington Post, 15 October 2006.

This unfavorable review finds almost nothing good to say about Aczel's book. The gist of the reviewer's opinion is captured in a sentence from the last paragraph of the review: "It's a shame that Aczel crafted such a derivative, superficial and tedious work out of such an interesting subject."

--- Allyn Jackson

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"Awards," Newsmakers. Science, 13 October 2006, page 249. Jacques Stern, a mathematician at L'École Normale Supérieure who specializes in cryptology and computer science, has been awarded the 2006 Gold Medal by the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), France's basic research agency. This item in Science explains Stern's choice of specialty: "At the beginning of my career in mathematical logic, I realized that the results of my work would not be seen for at least a century, if ever. So I looked around for a field where I would see the results quickly."

--- Mike Breen

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"Web Site Sells Math and Science Answers to Inquiring Students," by Jeffrey Y. Young. Chronicle of Higher Education, 13 October 2006, page A41.

Student of Fortune is a site where users can buy answers to math and science problems. Currently the top payment for an answer is US$10. The site has about 10 times as many people offering help as those wanting answers. Site founder Sean McCleese doesn't view the service as cheating, saying that the Internet itself offers options no different than his site's. He adds, "Everyone has some area of expertise that they're extremely good at. ... Everyone deserves the opportunity to use that knowledge to help people and make money off of it."

--- Mike Breen

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"The Propaganda of Numbers," by Clifford Adelman. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 13 October 2006, pages B6-B9.

Adelman, who spent 27 years as a senior research analyst in the U.S. Department of Education, says that many statistics about education are invalid and are continually quoted and relied on in reporting and in politics. He cites two principal examples: college graduation rates and losses in the educational pipeline. In the first case, graduation rates do not include: students who enter college at some time other than the fall, part-time students, and students who earn a degree from a different institution from the one entered. Because of this, roughly one-half of traditional-aged undergraduates are not counted. In the second case, an often-quoted number is that, of 100 ninth graders, 18 earn an associate or bachelor's degree within 10 years. This number, which sounds like it was derived from a longitudinal study, was put together using different reference dates and is the result of "one unofficial organization [repackaging] data from a second unofficial organization." Although a longitudinal study has never been done, Adelman uses some official statistics to claim that the actual figure is closer to 35 graduates of 100 ninth-grade students. He recommends statistics that come from federal agencies because they are impartial, they undergo a review process, and they describe how each variable is constructed.

--- Mike Breen

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"Trying to Herd a Cat Stat," by Carl Bialik. The Numbers Guy, Wall Street Journal Online, 12 October 2006.

one litter of kittens

Bialik untangles the origin of the oft-used (and misused) statistic that a stray cat and her offspring could produce 420,000 cats over seven years. Several animal advocacy groups that urge spaying, neutering, and adoption---the Humane Society, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, to mention only two, plus various media---have used this astounding figure on their websites. The mythical number is usually preceded by the word "theoretically." Bialik, the Wall Street Journal's Numbers Guy, explains that the number assumes long and fruitful lives of all the generations of cats. This is highly unlikely, and the consensus of mathematicians and others is more realistic: "A real-world cat in the wild would likely be responsible for the creation of 98 other cats." The article includes more details about both the flawed and realistic calculations, plus feedback on past columns.

--- Annette Emerson

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"Living With an Inability to Do Math," with Daniel Pinkwater. "All Things Considered," National Public Radio 11 October 2006;
"Math: It's Far from Elementary, My Dear," with Emily Yoffe. "Day to Day," National Public Radio, 15 November 2006.

In the segment with commentator Pinkwater, he declares that he can't do math but has no problem writing and recalls that in school he was not allowed to take science. He was discouraged from going to college because of his poor performance in math. His teachers thought him lazy or stupid, and he felt humiliated and punished. He even hired a beatnik math tutor but forgot it all after he took his SATs. He remembers that a math teacher once scolded him about his preparation for life by saying "Do you want to carry a tiny calculator in your pocket to get by?" and he replied (and concludes the segment) with "That would be cool." Writer Emily Yoffe begins her segment by saying that when her daughter got to fourth grade she could no longer help her with math homework. So Yoffe went to an after-school program intended for students, to brush up on her math. She found by the time she finished that her daughter had already moved on to a higher level and was doing quite well. The interviewer offers that Yoffe has done quite well in her 40-year career without mastering grade-level math. Both Pinkwater and Yoffe claim they have dyscalculia (a relatively recent term describing the learning disability), yet neither seems to think they are hampered by it now.

--- Annette Emerson

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"A Castle Fit for a Mathematician." Random Samples, Science, 6 October 2006, page 29.

Alhambra replica

Artist's rendering of the future home of the American Institute of Mathematics (AIM). Image courtesy of AIM.

The castle is a 15,000 square meter full-scale replica of the Alhambra that is being built in Morgan Hill, CA, near San Jose, and will be the home of the American Institute of Mathematics (AIM). The grounds will include a golf course and a reconstruction of Monet's garden in Giverny. John Fry of Fry's Electronics, AIM founder, is the force behind the new headquarters and is providing funding. More on the building and AIM are in A Different Kind of Institute: The American Institute of Mathematics in the December 2005 issue of the Notices of the AMS.

--- Mike Breen

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"Vision's Grand Theorist," by Ingrid Wickelgren. Science, 6 October 2006, pages 78-79.

Eero Simoncelli, Howard Hughes Medical Institute vision researcher at New York University, is a computational neuroscientist trying to bridge the field's theoretical and experimental sides. He wants to create some fundamental equations of vision: "I'm working to encapsulate the conceptual principles used by the brain in precise mathematical terms." Already Simoncelli has determined how the brain assembles moving pictures and how the brain may have evolved as a result of our visual environment. His dissertation concerned the nonlinearity of vision-processing neurons. The article is in a special section in Science about computational neuroscience, called "Modeling the Mind."

--- Mike Breen

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"Numbers are Male, Said Pythagoras, and the Idea Persists," by Margaret Wertheim. The New York Times, 3 October 2006.

A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences points to "widespread bias against women in science and engineering," Margaret Wertheim writes in a recent New York Times article. However, she notes, "there is reason to believe that when it comes to the mathematically intensive sciences like physics and astronomy, it is not just bureaucracies that stand in the way." Rather, she suggests, "the problem goes back to the ancient Greeks, particularly to Pythagoras."

After describing some of Pythagoras' great ideas, including "all is number," Wertheim describes how, like many Greek cults, the religion of Pythagoreanism was dualistic: reality consisted of the mind/spirit/transcendent realm versus the body/matter/earth realm. For Pythagoreans among others, the former was associated with maleness---and doing mathematics---and the latter with femaleness. In the 12th century, universities, founded to educate the clergy, by definition excluded women. In addition, "the Pythagorean association of mathematics with transcendence was easily imported into a Christian context... Thus, from the start, women were excluded from this academic field and its associated sciences."

Many women entering the sciences in the 1970s continue to be "stunned at how slow change has been," notes Wertheim. One of these is Gail Hanson, distinguished professor of physics at the University of California, Riverside, and winner of the W.K.H. Panofsky Prize in physics. She is one of the subjects of Out of the Shadows, a recent book about the "lives and work of 40 outstanding female physicists of the past century." Referring to her own as well as other female physicists' experience of bias, Hanson adds, "And when you get prizes, you're often treated even worse. Men can tolerate a woman in physics as long as she is in a subordinate position, but many cannot tolerate a woman above them."

--- Claudia Clark

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"The Social Life of Genius," by Siobhan Roberts. Toronto Star, 1 October 2006.

This article is an excerpt from King of Infinite Space, a biography of geometer H.S.M. Coxeter by Siobhan Roberts. The excerpt gives a glimpse of Coxeter’s personality and opinions by describing Coxeter’s interactions with philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, artist M.C. Escher, and Buckminster Fuller, a bold personality who dabbled in architecture, engineering, and mathematics. Coxeter was among Wittgenstein’s star pupils, but he eventually found the philosopher’s long lectures to be a nonsensical waste of time. Coxeter provided mathematical drawings and explanations to Escher, who found the drawings revolutionary but understood little of the mathematical descriptions. Coxeter often attempted to share his mathematically significant insights into the activities of others, like Escher. As for Fuller, Coxeter admired his geodesic domes, but strongly disliked his character.

--- Lisa DeKeukelaere

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"Math’s Great Uniter" in "Brilliant 10," by Lauren Aaronson. Popular Science, October 2006, page 64.

Terence Tao

Terence Tao.

Who is Terry Tao? This article offers a brief introduction to Tao, the recent Fields Medal winner and a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. While many mathematicians choose a particular mathematical discipline for specialization, Tao’s strength lies in his ability to deeply understand and bring together ideas from multiple fields. His most famous result (with Ben Green) uses techniques from several disciplines to prove a centuries-old conjecture involving prime numbers: For any possible sequence length n, there are infinitely many n-long sequences of prime numbers in which successive terms of the sequence differ by some fixed amount. Click here for the Digest item on Tao receiving a MacArthur "genius" grant. Australian media covered the September 2006 visit of Tao to his home country of Australia, where he spoke at the 50th anniversary meeting of the Australian Mathematical Society in Sydney. Among the coverage:
"Prime numbers man takes stock", by Brendan O'Keefe. The Australian, 27 September 2006;
"Terry Tao compared with science greats" (news broadcast transcript), by Scott Bevan. Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 27 September 2006.

--- Lisa DeKeukelaere

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"Inpaint by Numbers," by Brie Finegold. Scientific American, October 2006, pages 24-25.

Digital inpainting fixes imperfections in still images by using mathematics such as partial differential equations to model the techniques human inpainters use to repair paintings. As hard as still images are to fix, it is much harder to correct imperfections in video images. For example, an imperfection in one frame may not stay in the same place in subsequent frames. Finegold, the 2006 AMS-AAAS Media Fellow, writes of software developed by Guillermo Sapiro (University of Minnesota) that will automatically inpaint moving objects. She describes how the software adapts still inpainting techniques to video by viewing time as a third dimension. The software is being refined so it can accommodate complicated situations such as zooming and erratic camera motion.

--- Mike Breen

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