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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), Brie Finegold (University of California, Santa Barbara)


August 2007

"It all adds up for Alba." The Daily Telegraph, 29 August 2007.
"Imaginary numbers," by Ben Goldacre. The Guardian, 1 September 2007.
"Perfect strut." Time, 17 September 2007, page 22.

You may have seen the short item in Time that claimed that mathematicians at the University of Cambridge had created a formula identifying the sexiest walk and that Jessica Alba was the winner. The story first ran in The Daily Telegraph, but it turns out that no mathematicians had created such a formula. Goldacre, in his column Bad Science, revealed that a public relations firm was conducting a poll on the subject. The firm wanted a curvy-legged celebrity to be the winner and wanted an equation to support the poll results. The firm did get information from a mathematician on a recent connection betwen attractiveness and the ratio of waist size to hip measurement, but Alba wasn't the leader in that (Beyoncé was) or in the survey (which was won by Angelina Jolie). See Goldacre's column with background information from Richard R. Weber of the University of Cambridge, who said "The Clarion [public relations firm] press release was not approved by me and is factually incorrect and misleading in suggesting there has been any serious attempt to do serious mathematics here."

--- Mike Breen

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"Digital detectives discern Photoshop fakery," by Chris Gaylord. Christian Science Monitor, 29 August 2007.

With the advent of digital photography comes digital tampering. Gaylord begins this article writing about a photo of French President Nicolas Sarkozy in his swim trunks which Paris Match published with Sarkozy's waistline trimmed. The magazine claimed that it was compensating for an exaggeration of the president's "love handles" that appeared in the original photo. The tampering was noticed because other magazines published undoctored photos. More subtle tampering can be found, even without the presence of the original undoctored image, with algorithms that find flaws in the numbers that make up a digital photograph. One of the digital detectives is Hany Farid (Dartmouth College) who is often called to testify at trials about the authenticity of photos. (Hear Farid talk about his work and the mathematics behind it.) Also quoted in the article is Nasir Memon (Polytechnic University) who talks about digital tampering in videos.

--- Mike Breen

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"Why I've learned to love the novel," by Rebecca Goldstein. New Scientist, 25 August 2007, pages 46-47.

Goldstein writes that, when she was young, she permitted herself to read a novel only when she had read a book that was "something I could learn from". Novels were a guilty pleasure to be indulged only as a special treat. Later on, when she studied science, she marveled at how "science helps us distinguish between the way things seem and the way they are". How does she now see her two vocations, that of a philosophy professor and that of a novelist? "I have come to believe, over the years, that literary fiction is remarkably suited to grappling---as philosophy and science grapple---with the difficulties of reconciling objective truth with inner points of view." The recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, Goldstein is the author of The Mind-Body Problem and a biography of Kurt Gödel.

--- Allyn Jackson

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"A beautiful voyage": Review of A Certain Ambiguity: A mathematical novel, by Gaurav Suri and Hartosh Singh Bal. Reviewed by Mark Buchanan. New Scientist, 25 August 2007, page 52.

This issue of New Scientist carries a "Fiction Special" section that includes the article by Rebecca Goldstein summarized above, as well as short reviews of six novels. One of the novels reviewed is A Certain Ambiguity, which the reviewer says "succeeds both as a compelling novel and as an intellectual tour through some startling mathematical ideas."

--- Allyn Jackson

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"Journal presents a mathematical conundrum," by Jenny Hogan. Nature, 23 August 2007, pages 846-847.

There has been a lot of turmoil at the journal K-Theory (Hogan points out that not all details were known when she wrote this piece). Since April 2006, Anthony Bak (University of Bielefeld, Germany), managing editor of the journal, has withheld papers submitted to the journal. He was upset with the journal's subscription cost and with production problems. In January, Springer, which publishes K-Theory, fired Bak. Bak asked the editorial board to resign en masse, which it did. Bak, however, did not inform Springer of the resignations, and the board was unaware that papers had been withheld. Former editor Eric Friedlander (Northwestern University) said, "Our responsibility is to review mathematics that is submitted to us and disseminate it." In August, Bak, who had launched K-Theory in the 1980's, announced that he was starting a new journal, called the Journal of K-Theory, to be published by Cambridge University Press at a lower subscription rate. Meanwhile one of the editors who resigned, Andrew Ranicki (University of Edinburgh), and Wolfgang Lück (University of Münster, Germany) are acting as interim managing editors of K-Theory and have asked authors who submitted papers to K-Theory to contact them if they'd like their accepted papers to be published in the journal. Ranicki and Lück have said that they will deal only with papers that have been accepted and will not try to continue K-Theory.

--- Mike Breen

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"Beyond definition: When I say gerbe I don't mean grebe", by Marc Abrahams. The Guardian, 21 August 2007.

This article tries to poke fun at a piece that appeared in the "What is...?" column, a monthly feature in the AMS Notices. The piece in question is "What is a gerbe?", by Nigel Hitchin, Savilian professor of geometry at the University of Oxford. Hitchin's piece is aimed at the Notices audience, which consists primarily of academic mathematicians; he was not writing for the general public. Abrahams, editor of the bimonthly magazine Annals of Improbable Research and organiser of the Ig Nobel Prize, wrote his article for the Guardian column called "Improbable Research". The main point of Abrahams' column seems to be that "gerbe" is an obscure concept, the understanding of which requires knowledge of other concepts. "Mentally gobbling backwards through a few other, increasingly simpler, mathematical concepts, Hitchen [sic] soon comes to the end of page one of his essay," Abrahams writes. "Then it's on to page two."

--- Allyn Jackson

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"For Wall Street's Math Brains, Miscalculations," by Frank Ahrens. Washington Post, 21 August 2007, page A1.
"August Ambush: How Market Turmoil Waylaid the 'Quants'," by Scott Patterson and Anita Raghavan. The Wall Street Journal, 7 September 2007, page A1.

These page-one stories are about losses incurred by sophisticated hedge funds, called quantitative equities or quant funds, in the recent stock market sell-off. The funds use mathematical algorithms to find non-obvious opportunities in the market and take advantage of them. Many of the funds have been quite successful, but they suffered in August. Ahrens writes, "But the 387-point drop in the Dow Jones industrial average Aug. 9 and the continuing turmoil in the markets, in part attributed to massive sell-offs by the quant funds, have tarnished some of the quants' glimmering intellectual credentials and shown that, when push comes to shove, they can rush toward the exits as fast as a novice investor." One problem is that the funds do not account for rare anomalies, such as the recent credit crunch. Clifford S. Asness, of the quant-fund firm AQR Capital Management, says "...nothing always works. However, this isn't about models, this is about a strategy getting too crowded, as other successful strategies both quantitative and non-quantitative have gotten many times in the past, and then suffering when too many try to get out the same door." The article in The Wall Street Journal includes a profile of Peter Muller, a 1985 graduate of Princeton who is now a trader at Morgan Stanley, in addition to being a pianist and a writer of crossword puzzles.

--- Mike Breen

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"Stars of the Sahara", by Curtis Abraham. New Scientist, 18 August 2007, pages 39-41.

According to conventional wisdom, there has historically been little development of science and mathematics in sub-Saharan Africa. But this picture is changing as a new project gets under way to analyze a trove of some 18,000 manuscripts in the Ahmed Baba Center in Timbuktu, Mali. The manuscripts show that over 300 years ago scholars in this part of the world were studying science and mathematics. Much of the motivation came from Islam: The Timbuktu scholars developed ways of calculating the Islamic calendar, and they created algorithms and instruments for determining the exact positions of Timbuktu and Mecca so that Muslims would face the correct direction for their prayers. The project has gotten through just 14 manuscripts so far. Some are in Arabic, but others are in less widely spoken indigenous languages. As more of the manuscripts' contents come to light, there may be more surprising discoveries. According to the New Scientist article, the director of the project, University of Cape Town astrophysicist Thebe Medupe, hopes the project "will not only give the scholars of Timbuktu their rightful place in science history, but also inspire the next generation of African scientists."

--- Allyn Jackson

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"Size Matters: The Hidden Mathematics of Life," by Robert Krulwich. Weekend Edition Saturday, National Public Radio, 18 August 2007.

Elephants have long lives

Scientists Geoffrey West, Jim Brown, and Brian Enquist at the Santa Fe Institute, New Mexico, have been studying why large animals live longer than tiny ones. They've discovered that "if you compare elephants to lions to housecats to mice to shrews, you discover that heartbeats vary in a precise mathematical way. The mathematical principal is called `Quarter Power Scaling.' Hearts beat slower and use energy more efficiently in larger animals." The hearts of the oldest of each species beat about a billion and a half times over their lifetimes. (Human beings are an exception: we use hygiene to prevent diseases and have invented medicines.) The podcast of the interview with West can be downloaded on NPR, and Krulwich also refers to "Of Mice and Elephants: A Matter of Scale," by George Johnson, for an expanded explanation.

--- Annette Emerson

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"Ideas & Trends: The Myth, The Math, The Sex," by Gina Kolata. New York Times, 12 August 2007, Week in Review, page 1.
"The Basics : The Median, the Math and the Sex," by Gina Kolata. New York Times, 19 August 2007, Week in Review, page 2.

Heart

Do surveys in which men report, on average, having more female sexual partners than the average number of reported male sexual partners for females make any sense? A recent US survey showed men with a median of seven female sexual partners, while females had a median of four male sexual partners. It would seem that the numbers should be roughly equal. David Gale, emeritus mathematics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, agrees and offers a short proof involving the means of the two numbers in Kolata's 12 August article. Yet why are the numbers often so different? Sex survey researchers provide some explanation in the article, but their reasons don't seem to account for such a large difference. Ron Graham, professor of mathematics and computer science at the University of California, San Diego, offers this explanation of the difference of three in the two medians: "Maybe two are in the man's mind and one really exists." Kolata received a large volume of emails about the original article, many citing the difference between the median and the mean. In her August 19 article, she includes data from the US survey and an explanation from Gale as to why the difference is not attributable only to the difference between means and medians.

--- Mike Breen

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"Social science goes virtual": Review of Complex Adaptive Systems by John H. Miller and Scott E. Page, and Generative Social Science by Joshua M. Epstein. Reviewed by Philip Ball. Nature 9 August 2007.

Ball reviews two recent books on computational modeling as applied to the social sciences: Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life by John H. Miller and Scott E. Page, and Generative Social Science: Studies in Computational Modeling by Joshua M. Epstein. Ball starts by noting that political scientist Ian Shapiro has "lamented what might be called the `physicization' of social science [and] that mathematical models that mimic physics fail to engage with the political landscape of the real world and instead disgorge `stylized facts that turn out on close inspection not to bear much relationship to any political reality'." This encapsulates one side of the debate on the utility of computer models in the social sciences, as some in the social sciences think that models---also used in economics---don't take into account human behavior. Ball states, "the irony is that some of the foundational aspects of statistical physics, which provided economists with the early conceptual framework for the neoclassical theory of market equilibrium, remain unproven in any rigorous mathematical sense." Both of the books under review describe the trend in current social science research that values "agent based modeling," (ABM) which "may not describe reality, but can show how interaction and nonlinearity produce social outcomes that could not be predicted simply by inspecting the behavioral rules." Ball suggests that, while valuable, ABM is not the end-all and should be only one part of a "toolbox" for social scientists.

--- Annette Emerson

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"Math Book Helps Girls Embrace Their Inner Mathematician," by Aaron Rowe. Wired, 2 August 2007.
"Math Makeover: It Adds Up for Girls," by Peg Tyre. Newsweek, 6 August 2007.
"An Interview with Wonder Years actress Danica McKellar," by Adam Swiderski. UnderGround Online, 9 August 2007.
"Just add 'author' into McKellar's equation," by Tracey Wong Briggs. USA Today, 13 August 2007.
"'Wonder Years' star who played Winnie Cooper is a math whiz," by Joseph Dionisio. Newsday, 14 August 2007.
"From Wonder Years to Wunderkind," by Erica Stalnecker. National Review, 14 September 2007.
"Show her 'Math doesn't suck'," by Debbie Glasser. Miami Herald, 23 September 2007.
"Danica McKellar helps girls see 'Wonder' of math," by Sean L. McCarthy. New York Daily News, 29 September 2007.
"'Wonder Years' star leads girls on easy path to math," by Kathy Lauer-Williams. Albany Times-Union, 24 December 2007.

Cover of Danica  McKellar's book
Image courtesy of Shepley Winnings Public Relations, photo by Michael Grecco.

Danica McKellar, who played pre-teen Winnie Cooper in the television show The Wonder Years, is now 32 years old and is getting alot of media attention for her new book about math for pre-teen girls. McKellar is qualified to write the book, having "hit a rough patch" in math around seventh grade only to go on to graduate summa cum laude from UCLA with a degree in mathematics. She has co-authored a mathematical physics theorem (the Chayes-McKellar-Winn theorem), testified before Congress on math education, and served as a substitute teacher. The book, Math Doesn't Suck: How to Survive Middle-School Math and not Break a Nail, looks like a teen magazine, but includes problems and emphasizes fractions and pre-algebra. In the interview for Wired McKellar says she is trying to counter the image society puts out, that [math] "is for nerdy white guys with pocket protectors. This is how 75 percent of all science is depicted on television," while the young women who get so much media attention (she mentions Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Jessica Simpson) are the ones girls see as role models. "But I want to show that being smart is cool. Being good at math is cool. And not only that, it can help them get what they want out of life." In the Wired article McKellar tells how she came up with the concept of the book. The Newsweek article notes that the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics gives the book "top marks."

--- Annette Emerson

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"At Issue with Bill Merens". Wisconsin Public Radio, 9 August 2007.
"Teaching Math and Science May Get Boost From Congress," by Jeffrey Brainard. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 10 August 2007, page A1.
"'Competitiveness' Bill to Aid Math, Science Is Signed by President," by Sean Cavanagh. Education Week, 10 August 2007.
"Congress Passes Massive Measure To Support Research, Education," by Jeffrey Mervis. Science, 10 August 2007, pages 736-737.

A bill that calls for spending US$136 billion on science and mathematics education and research in the next 10 years became law in August. The America COMPETES (Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote [never let a split infinitive get in the way of a good acronym] Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science) Act passed the Senate unanimously and passed the House by a vote of 367 to 57. The law establishes new federal math and science programs as well as expanding existing ones. It calls for doubling the National Science Foundation budget in seven years. The 9 August radio show has host Bill Merens talking with the University of Arizona's William McCallum, chair of the AMS Committee on Education, and Kei Koizumi of the American Association of the Advancement of Science about the bill. Much of the discussion in the show is about math and science education and the bill's effect on education.

--- Mike Breen

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"Can we learn to love uncertainty?", by David Malone. New Scientist, 6 August 2007, pages 46-47.

David Malone's documentary Dangerous Ideas was broadcast in the BBC television series "Science you can't see". Malone, an independent documentary film maker, argues in this article against the notion that certainty is an unalloyed good. As extreme examples he cites the "absurd and deranged certainties" of Hitler and Stalin. Malone made the BBC program "to champion the incomplete, the uncomputable, and the uncertain"---which naturally leads him to contemplate the work of mathematicians. "A line of thinkers from Georg Cantor to Alan Turing saw the extent of uncertainty in science, and incompleteness in logic and mathematics, and understood what we still haven't grasped as a culture," he writes. Malone also notes that Turing's brainchild, the modern-day computer, is often viewed as a paragon of certainty, even though it is exactly this technology that brought home the uncertainty inherent in, for example, attempts to make precise predictions about weather, climate, or the economy. "The profound discoveries of modern mathematics and science show that life and thinking flourish only in the liminal and fertile land that lies between too much certainty and too much doubt," Malone writes. "The art of scientific inquiry is to tack back and forth between the two." The article ends with a quotation of Bertrand Russell.

--- Allyn Jackson

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"Indie rocker mixes math with music," by Shay Quillen. San Jose Mercury News, 6 August 2007.

Schneider at MathFest

Photo courtesy of Daniel Efram.

Rock musician Robert Schneider (pictured at left) spoke and played at MathFest 2007 in San Jose. His interest in mathematics started while reading a book on electronics. Recently he used his math knowledge to devise a new scale that was part of two of the tracks on the latest CD of his band, The Apples in Stereo. At MathFest he presented his scale, in which intervals between notes decrease as you progress up the scale, and its logarithmic foundation. Quillen concludes this article with Schneider's reaction to attending MathFest, "It's like somebody giving you free tickets to go to Disney World for the whole weekend." (See an earlier Math Digest on Schneider and the band.)

--- Mike Breen

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"It's some girls' idea of fun - math camp," by Jill Tucker. San Francisco Chronicle, 6 August 2007.
"First US Team to Compete in the China Girls Mathematical Olympiad," by Adriana Salerno. Voice of America, 10 August 2007.
"Girls win medals for math team," by Jessie Mangaliman. San Jose Mercury News, 16 August 2007.

US team members
Standing, left to right: Coach Alison Miller, Colleen Lee, Wendy Mu, Jenny Iglesias, Patricia Li; Seated, left to right: Marianna Mao, Sway Chen, Wendy Hou. Not pictured: Sherry Gong, who was at the IMO. Photo courtesy of MSRI.

Tucker writes about math camp preparations made by eight American girls who competed in the China Girls Mathematical Olympiad in Wuhan, China, in August. About 180 female high school students, mostly from Asia, competed in the competition. The US sent two teams to the event, one from the East and one from the West---the first time this country has competed. The four girls on the West team are Colleen Lee, Patricia Li, Marianna Mao, and Wendy Mu. The East team members are Sway Chen, Wendy Hou, Sherry Gong---a gold medalist at the 2007 International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) in Hanoi---and Jennifer Iglesias. Adriana Salerno, the 2007 AMS-AAAS Media Fellow, spoke with team members and coaches. One of the coaches, Melanie Wood, who in 1998 became the first woman on the US IMO team, talks about the added stress of being the only female at the US camp when she competed. That experience inspired her and coach Zuming Feng to ask the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute to support US participation at this year's China Girls Mathematical Olympiad. Mangaliman's article has results from the Olympiad: Gong tied for first place in the competition and won a gold medal, Hou won a silver medal, and Li, Mao, and Mu each won bronze medals.

--- Mike Breen

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"Cloudy Crystal Balls," by Julie J. Rehmeyer. Science News, week of 4 August 2007.
"Gambling on Tomorrow." The Economist, 16 August 2007.

Earth from space

James McWilliams, applied mathematician and earth scientist at UCLA, believes that "climate models may never produce predictions that agree with one another, even with dramatic improvements in their ability to imitate the physics and chemistry of the atmosphere and oceans." He bases this belief on the fact that models have not been able to reproduce past climate patterns accurately. Some models that reproduce temperature accurately may not reproduce precipitation accurately. The reason for this, he says, is that "slight variations in the way that physical effects are approximated and calculated, rather than variations in the initial conditions, can lead to very different future scenarios." In a paper published in the May 22 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, McWilliams states that, while he can't prove climate models are "structurally unstable" even though evidence points to that conclusion, he acknowledges that climate models do produce valuable information and "do not undermine the most crucial conclusion of climate modeling---the notion that increased levels of greenhouse gases emitted by people are causing the earth to warm and will continue to do so." Some modelers disagree with McWilliams. Reto Knutti (University of Bern, Switzerland), puts forth that "scientists have developed new models in the last five to ten years that are not as sophisticated as some older models that have developed over decades, which makes the spread seem wider than it might otherwise." The article includes more details, references, and a blog version.

The Economist article notes that the 15 August 2007 issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society "A" is devoted to the science of climate modeling and includes a discussion of the understanding and misunderstanding of the ideas of 18th century scientist Thomas Bayes, whose influence on probability theory and statistics continues today in fields that include climate modeling. This article, like Rehmeyer's above, points out that climate models can vary, as explained by David Stainforth of Oxford University: "Bayes's view allows for the accumulation of experience, and its incorporation into a statistical model in the form of prior assumptions that can vary with circumstances... By failing to acknowledge that, model builders risk making serious mistakes." The article notes that climate models have hundreds of parameters, represented by numbers. "The particular range of values chosen for a parameter is an example of a Bayesian prior assumption, since it is derived from actual experience of how the climate behaves---and may thus be modified in the light of experience. But the way you pick the individual values to plug into the model can cause trouble." Climate scientists continue to grapple with this when developing their models for long-range climate prediction.

--- Annette Emerson

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"Ambiguity and Paradox in Mathematics," by William Byers. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 3 August 2007, page B12.

Although most people view mathematics in terms of logic and rigor—multiplication tables and theorems—Byers argues that mathematical success follows from flexibility and a willingness to embrace ambiguity. He presents multiple examples of the importance of ambiguity in the world, both in the non-mathematical contexts of jokes and Shakespearean metaphors and in the deeper conceptual implications of equations such as 1 + 1 = 2, a clash of singularity and duality. Byers explains that logic is important but not supreme to mathematical thinking, and the true value is in the ideas, which mathematicians attempt to validate by fitting into logical patterns. He notes that students are judged on their adherence to precision and reason, but we would benefit from greater emphasis on and recognition of creativity in both the mathematical and broader scientific world.

--- Lisa DeKeukelaere

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