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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), Adriana Salerno (University of Texas, Austin)


March 2008

Two reviews of Flatland: The Movie. Reviewed by Richard Lovett. New Scientist, 29 March 2008, page 45.

These brief, positive reviews discuss the animated version of Edwin Abbott's classic novella Flatland. One review discusses the movie itself and the other covers the educational DVD, which includes discussion by mathematician Thomas Banchoff.

--- Allyn Jackson

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"In höhere Dimensionen (In higher dimensions)," by Winfried Scharlau. Die Zeit, 28 March 2008.
"Verschollenes Genie (Missing Genius)," by George Szpiro. Neues Zürcher Zeitung, 27 April 2008.
"Sensitivity to the Harmony of Things," by Julie Rehmeyer. Science News, 9 May 2008.

Serre and Grothendieck
Jean-Pierre Serre (left) and Alexander Grothendieck in 1958. Photo courtesy of Friedrich Hirzebruch.

 

On March 28, 2008, the legendary mathematician Alexander Grothendieck turned 80 years old. He had a huge impact on mathematics in the 20th century by building modern foundations for algebraic geometry. Since around 1990, he has cut himself off from society and has lived in an undisclosed village in the French Pyrenées. These two articles describe the extraordinary life of this singular genius. One of the authors, Winfried Scharlau, has written (in German) the first volume in a projected three-volume biography of Grothendieck called Wer ist Alexander Grothendieck: Anarchie, Mathematik, Spiritualität (Who is Alexander Grothendieck?: Anarchy, Mathematics, Spirituality). The book is self-published, and information about it is available on the Grothendieck Circle web site. A two-part article describing the life of Grothendieck appeared in the October 2004 and November 2004 issues of the Notices of the AMS.

--- Allyn Jackson

 

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"Mathematicians rewarded for decoding symmetry," by Philip Ball Nature news, 27 March 2008.
"Achievements in Group Theory Win Abel Prize," by Gretchen Vogel. ScienceNOW Daily News, 27 March 2008.
"American and Frenchman share Norway's 2008 Abel Prize for mathematics," Associated Press. International Herald Tribune, 27 March 2008.
"High Tribute for Two Mathematicians: Abel Prize to Two Group Theorists," by George Szpiro. Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 27 March 2008.

2008 Abel Prize winners John Griggs Thompson and Jacques Tits
John Thompson (left, photo courtesy of University of Florida) and Jacques Tits (right, photo courtesy of Jean-Francois Dars/CNRS Images).

 

On 27 March 2008, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters held a news conference with live video feed to announce that the 2008 Abel Prize is awarded to John Griggs Thompson, Graduate Research Professor, University of Florida, and Jacques Tits, Professor Emeritus, Collège de France "for their profound achievements in algebra and in particular for shaping modern group theory." Thompson "revolutionized the theory of finite groups by proving extraordinarily deep theorems that laid the foundation for the complete classification of finite simple groups, one of the greatest achievements of twentieth century mathematics," and "Tits's geometric approach was essential in the study and realization of the sporadic groups, including the Monster." Newswires and newspapers from around the world that picked up the Academy's news release included the Associated Press, The Hindu (India), The Sun Herald (US), Cape Times (South Africa), FOXBusiness (US), The Guardian (UK), Earthtimes (UK), Xinhua (China), and Inquirer.net (Philippines). The prize amount is 6,000,000 Norwegian kroner (over US$1,000,000). Thompson and Tits will receive their prize in a ceremony in Oslo on 20 May 2008. The Abel Prize website has more information on the winners, their work, and the prize.

--- Annette Emerson

 

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"Paola Antonelli + Benoit Mandelbrot": A conversation. Seed Magazine, 24 March 2008.

Paola Antonelli, senior curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art, talks with Benoit Mandelbrot, "the father of fractal geometry." On the eve of the opening of her exhibit, "Design and the Elastic Mind" (February 2008), they discuss Mandelbrot's background, fractals, and architecture. He recalls that in high school he did not find mathematics to be as exciting as other courses, but later discovered that "in every mathematical question that was asked, I just saw something real that had the same properties." He describes how he noticed "walking toward the Garnier opera house in Paris, from far away, the most striking thing is the roof. You come closer, other things appear, but they are always approximately the same degree of complication." And then he disparages Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building as simply a "big box." The article is very much a two-way conversation, as Mandelbrot asks Antonelli "what viewpoint or theory or approach do you hope to foster with this exhibit?"

--- Annette Emerson

 

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"Prime suspect", by Eric Kvaalen. New Scientist, 22 March 2008, pages 40-41.

This article centers on the Riemann Hypothesis, one of the great outstanding problems in mathematics. One of the reasons the problem is so important is that its solution would provide new understanding about the prime numbers. The article discusses the claim by mathematician Louis de Branges of Purdue University that he has cracked the Riemann Hypothesis. He has posted a proof on his web site, but, the article states, the proof "was greeted with skepticism. Mathematicians complained that his paper was incoherent."

--- Allyn Jackson

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"Women in Math? City Tech Profs Say We Need More." Brooklyn Eagle, 21 March 2008.

Mathematics professors Victoria Gitman and Delaram Kahrobaei were recently awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to sponsor the Second Annual New York Women in Mathematics Conference "to establish informal networks among female mathematicians, provide young women with role models, and lead to fruitful mentoring relationships and research partnerships." Gitman and Kahrobaei, at New York City College of Technology (City Tech), share how they became interested in mathematics and benefited from mentors. The article begins by citing a survey reported by the AMS showing that in 2006 there were 1,245 new U.S. doctoral recipients (the highest number ever), but only 32% were women. Gitman and Kahrobaei hope that their efforts will help increase the number of young women who pursue mathematics.

--- Annette Emerson

 

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"Math Major Explains Method to March Madness": Interview with Neil Goodson. Interviewed by Robert Siegel. All Things Considered. National Public Radio, 20 March 2008.
"CofC Students Predict 'Final Four' Using Math Calculations," by Sheldon Dutes. WCSC-TV, 22 March 2008.

Stephenson and Goodson
Colin Stephenson (left) and Neil Goodson (right). Photo courtesy of the Department of Mathematics, College of Charleston.

 

Two College of Charleston students are using using the NCAA brackets for a math research project in their Operations Research class. The professor asked students to apply math to the real world, and so Neil Goodson and Colin Stephenson have used algorithms using large sets of data about the teams to predict the Final Four and ultimate winner. In the NPR segment host Siegel dubs "March Mathness," Goodson explains how he and Stephenson created a matrix with hundreds of rows and columns of statistics, each factor weighted. He says their model predicts that Kansas will win the tournament, but holds off on predicting what his grade on the project might be.

--- Annette Emerson

 

 

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"Arthur C. Clarke, 90, Science Fiction Writer, Dies," by Gerald Jonas. New York Times, 19 March 2008.

Arthur C. Clarke
Photograph courtesy of the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation.

 

This is one of many obituaries and tributes to Arthur Clarke, who died on 19 March 2008 in Sri Lanka. After receiving his degree in physics and mathematics in 1948, Clarke went on to write almost 100 books---mainly science fiction, most famously, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Clarke's works are described as prophetic. For example, he foresaw telecommunications satellites more than a decade before the first orbital rocket flight, and as a young student he predicted space travel would be possible. Several astronauts credit his work as influencing their careers. In World War II Clarke served in the Royal Air Force, where "in 1943 he was assigned to work with a team of American scientist-engineers who had developed the first radar-controlled system for landing airplanes in bad weather." This led to his writing a paper "establishing the feasibility of artificial satellites as relay stations for Earth-based communications," after which he acknowleged "nothing in his paper---from the notion of artificial satellites to the mathematics of the geostationary orbit---was new. His chief contribution was to clarify and publicize an idea whose time had almost come." It was a GI scholarship after the war that enabled Clarke to attend King's College and graduate in 1948 with honors in physics and mathematics. Although he went on to become famous for writing novels, he always remained interested in math and science. He narrated the documentary "Fractals: The Colors of Infinity", wrote the chapter "Exploring the Fractal Universe" in the accompanying book (search for "exploring the fractal universe" on Google Books), and at the time of his death he was working on a novel entitled "The Last Theorem."

--- Annette Emerson

 

 

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"Let's talk about figures." The Economist, 19 March 2008.

This article begins with some background on Paul Erdös, who is used as an example to show that math is global, and Srinivasa Ramanujan, who had to overcome many obstacles to show his genius---something that is less likely now, because of the Internet. The author then notes the U.S. National Mathematics Advisory Panel report (a Math Digest summary of news coverage on the report is below), which cites a decline in U.S. students' performance in mathematics, and the re-emergence of math in Russia and China. The conclusion is that national teaching systems may be outdated: Global education is possible and even important for students who will join a "global conversation."

--- Mike Breen

 

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"His puzzling avocation is no trivial pursuit," by Billy Baker. Boston Globe, 17 March 2008.

Kedlaya doing
            a puzzle
Kiran Kedlaya doing a puzzle. (Photo: Donna Coveney/MIT.)

 

Kiran Kedlaya is an associate professor of mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is also an avid solver of crossword puzzles who has participated in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, CT, since 1997. This year he finished ninth and missed qualifying for the tournament finals because he missed actor Delroy Lindo's first name in a puzzle. Kedlaya did make the finals of the tournament in 2006, however, when he finished second. He has some tips to increase puzzle-solving speed: Filling in one answer while moving on to the next clue, and writing answers in upper case or lower case, depending on which is faster for a particular letter. As for knowing more about popular culture, which might help him in future tournaments, he says, "I'm OK with getting most of my pop culture from crosswords." Kedlaya, a three-time Putnam Fellow (1993-1995), agrees that it would be nice to win the tournament, but adds, "For a lot of people who do puzzles, that's the thing they're most passionate about... For me, it's second." What is he most passionate about? An eleven-letter subject that ends in "athematics."

--- Mike Breen

 

 

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"Education Panel Lays Out Truce In Math Wars," by John Hechinger. The Wall Street Journal, 5 March 2008, page D1.
"A solution to how to teach math: Subtract," by Greg Toppo. USA Today, 13 March 2008.
"Report Urges Changes in Teaching Math," by Tamar Lewin. The New York Times, 14 March 2008.
"Fixate on Fractions, Says Math Panel," by Nancy Zuckerbrod. Associated Press, 14 March 2008.
"Expert Panel Lays Out the Path to Algebra--and Why It Matters," by Jeffrey Mervis. Science, 21 March 2008, page 1605.

Margaret Spellings reporting on the Panel's findings
U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, highlighting findings of the Panel. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Education.

 

The National Mathematics Advisory Panel has released its final report on math education in the U.S., Foundations for Success. The 19-member panel, which held 12 meetings nationwide and heard testimony from over 100 people, found that "Without substantial and sustained changes to the educational system, the United States will relinquish its leadership in the twenty-first century." The report recommends specific skills that grade school students should master and calls for a greater emphasis on fractions. It also says that it is important for students to master basic skills so that their recall is automatic, and so that students have room in working memory for new math processes. The panel concluded that poor skills with fractions keep many students from success in algebra, a course it recommends for more eighth grade students. It called a rigid adherence to either so-called traditional math instruction or to reform math "misguided," and found no "high-quality" research backing either method. The panel took no position on calculator use in early grades but recommended more research on the subject, since almost all studies on the issue are more than 20 years old. Another finding is that school math texts are too long and should be trimmed. The Science article has an interview with Larry Faulkner, who headed the panel and who says, "The most important thing is that success in math is not just about a school subject. It's about the real opportunities it creates for people and for the well-being and safety of society." The final report is available online.

--- Mike Breen

 

 

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"Cryptologists Cook Up Some Hash for New 'Bake-Off'," by Dana Mackenzie. Science, 14 March 2008, pages 1480-1481.

Mackenzie reports that computer scientists have found that many hash functions used today are out of date. Hash functions are non-reversible algorithms that create numerical "fingerprints" for documents, which are used for authentication. It is important to the integrity of a given function that the likelihood that two different documents have the same hash value is very small, but such is not the case for some of today's hash algorithms. So the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology had announced a competition to create a new standard for hash functions. The winner of the competition, scheduled to end by 2012, is likely to become the industry standard. Mackenzie includes a sidebar on part of a hash function by Kristin Lauter of Microsoft Research, which is based on expander graphs.

--- Mike Breen

 

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"In U.S. Politics, Party Rule Flips Like Clockwork," by Devin Powell. Discovery Channel News, 13 March 2008.

political trends

 

"If history is any judge, party power in American politics seems to switch back and forth at consistent, predictable levels." So begins this piece on the work of three researchers who used spectral analysis (a statistical method also used to study sunspots, predator-prey behaviors, El Nino, and economics, to name a few examples). With Congressional election data, this model shows that party dominance swings between Democrats and Republicans every 12 to 15 years. The research paper, "Cycles in American Electoral Politics, 1854-2006: Statistical Evidence and an Explanatory Model," by Samuel Merrill, III (Wilkes University), Bernard Gorfman (University of California, Irvine), and Thomas L. Burnell (University of Texas at Dallas), is published in the February 2008 issue of American Political Science Review. The mathematical model is based on the data of voters' and politicians' motivations and behaviors (which sometimes pull and push against one other), and the paper clarifies how the cycles for the House, Senate, and president relate. Brunell acknowledges that the model is a simplifcation of the real world, but that sheds new light on V.O. Key's "realignment theory" of the 1950s.

--- Annette Emerson

 

 

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"All eyes on the Amazon": Interview with Carlos Nobre. Interviewed by Jeff Tollefson. Nature, 13 March 2008.

Brazilian rainforest

 

Meteorologist and biosphere scientist Carlos Nobre (National Institute for Space Research, São Paulo, Brazil) models the effects of deforestation and global warming on the Amazon. He explains that "tipping points" involve complex systems: "nonlinearities, abrupt transitions, thresholds, critical points, attractors---to use the language of mathematics." He notes that some people are critical of presenting such complexities in terms of tipping points: "the use of tipping points can be a scare tactic because the public understands tipping points in a different way from scientists, but I still like the concept to explain the likeihood of an abrupt change." Nobre goes on to answer questions about whether his models calculate if the Amazon has a tipping point, what actions need to be taken, and whether he is optimistic about the Amazon's future.

--- Annette Emerson

 

 

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"Africa Steps Up Efforts to Train Top Scientists," by Megan Lindow. Chronicle of Higher Education, 7 March 2008, pages A23-25.

In this issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Megan Lindow writes about the "growing effort [in Africa to] develop a cadre of highly trained, practically minded scientists and mathematicians who can solve problems in health care, agriculture, and in general mitigate the dearth of homegrown scientific research that plagues much of the continent." One example of this effort that she discusses is the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Cape Town, South Africa, the first in a projected network of 15 such institutes across the continent. Each year this institute selects approximately 50 university graduates from around Africa to participate in its 9-month program. The goal of the program is to introduce these students to areas of study---such as climate-modeling, bioinformatics, and quantum mechanics---that are pertinent to the continent's needs, and to prepare these students for advanced study. Lindow notes that this institute functions as a partnership among several institutions. "The hope of those behind many of these programs," she adds, "is that after students receive their Ph.D.'s, they will take their expertise back to their home countries in Africa, where it will have a ripple effect."

--- Claudia Clark

 

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"Want to Save a Coral Reef? Bring Along Your Crochet Needles," by Patricia Cohen. New York Times, 4 March 2008.

crocheted coral reef
"Crochet Coral and Anemone Garden" with sea slug by Marianne Midelburg. Photo by Alyssa Gorelick, used with permission of the Institute for Figuring.

 

Margaret Wertheim has organized the "environmental version of the AIDS quilt" by recruiting people to create a "Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef" to draw attention to the fragility and endangerment of Australia's Great Barrier Reef. To date the exhibition of works spreads over 3,000 square feet. On the occasion of this article, Wertheim was in New York City to lecture, offer crocheting workshops, and recruit crocheters to contribute to the ongoing project. A science writer with a keen interest in mathematics, art, feminism and social activism, Wertheim first saw such works created by Daina Taimina, a mathematics researcher at Cornell University. This inspired Margaret and her twin sister Christine, who teaches at the California Institute for the Arts, to come up with the idea of this creative public awareness project. As the co-directors of the Institute for Figuring, the Wertheim sisters designed and curated the "Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef" exhibit, which is co-sponsored by the Institute for the Humanities at New York University and will be shown at the university's Broadway Windows at East 10th Street and at the World Financial Center from April 5 through May 18, 2008. Samples of stunning hyperbolic crochets are on the Institute for Figuring website.

--- Annette Emerson

 

 

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"Are Our Brains Wired for Math?", by Jim Holt. New Yorker, 3 March 2008.

French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene has spent most of his life studying "number sense," a built-in ability that allows people to make rudimentary computations and approximations, and how it relates to more sophisticated mathematical and computational ability. The existence of this primitive number sense has long been studied, and results have shown that six-month-old babies and some animals---such as salamanders, pigeons, raccoons, dolphins, parrots and monkeys---have an innate ability to perceive and represent numbers. Some studies led Dehaene to believe that this number sense is processed by a part of the brain separate from those that process more precise and complex mathematical procedures. In fact, he says there are three modes of thinking about numbers: number sense, numerals, and number words, and that these are "stored" in different areas of the brain. Through some number comparison experiments he noticed that number sense is closely linked to the notion of space, and by studying further with brain imaging he realized that a special fold of the parietal lobe (the area of the brain related to space and location) was activated when subjects did simple computations. Dehaene believes that numerals are related to the visual areas of the brain and number words to the areas that control language. Arabic numerals are widely used around the world, but number words make basic arithmetic more or less cumbersome depending on the language. English and French, for example, have many special words for numbers, whereas the Chinese have a number syntax that corresponds perfectly with the base-ten form of the numerals. Dehaene says that understanding how the brain processes numbers and computations might help in finding better ways to teach math to children.

--- Adriana Salerno

 

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"A Mathematical Tragedy: Sophie Germain had a bold program to prove Fermat's Last Theorem," by Julie Rehmeyer. Science News Online, Week of 1 March 2008.
"NMSU professor unearths manuscripts of first female mathematics researcher," by Austin Craig. Las Cruces Sun-News, 24 March 2008.

Two American professors recently searched through notes of the mathematician Sophie Germain (1776-1831) that were held in a French library. The professors uncovered her attempt to prove Fermat's Last Theorem---a conjecture that Pierre de Fermat had scribbled in the margin of a manuscript and that went unsolved for three centuries. Germain's approach was based Carl Friedrich Gauss' work with prime numbers. Using a male pseudonym, Germain had corresponded with Gauss about her approach to proving the theorem. When Gauss learned her true gender, he praised her perseverance and intelligence but ended the correspondence. Rehmeyer provides a basic explanation of Germain's approach, which, though novel, would not have worked. Interestingly, Germain's notes show a range of small mistakes that she could have avoided if others had been willing to check her work and collaborate. The Las Cruces Sun-News article cites Rehmeyer's two-part series on Germain and explains a bit about the examination of Germain's notes. It was David Pengelley of New Mexico State Unviersity, with Reinhard Laubenbacher of Virginia Polytechnic and State University, who examined hundreds of notes in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and discovered that "Germain's contributions to mathematics, particularly the legendary mathematical problem known as 'Fermat's Last Theorem,' was much greater than previously known."

--- Lisa DeKeukelaere

"The Unknown Einstein". Special issue of Discover, March 2008.

The March issue of Discover includes several articles about Albert Einstein. Among those articles mentioning his aptitude for and utilization of mathematics are "The E Factor," by Richard Panek (which notes Einstein's being drawn to James Clerk Maxwell's 1893 equations that defined the relationship between electrcity and magnetism), "Sliced: Einstein's Brain," by Missy Adams (which notes that Einstein's parietal lobes---"the area related to visual imagery and mathematical thinking"---was 15 percent wider than a study's control group), and "Genius at Work," by Ed Regis (on how Einstein's "labs, his desks, his chalkboards, and his papers trace the near-miraculous process that brought Einstein's insights into the world."). In another article, "Could the Next Einstein be a Surfer Dude?" by Stephen Gass, physicist Lee Smolin notes that the "next Einstein" will likely have some of the same qualities as Einstein---intelligence and the spark of genius that includes imagination. One of the six individuals profiled is Garrett Lisi, who earned a Ph.D. but does not hold a faculty position. Lisi "lives off grants and software consulting" and recently wrote a paper called "An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything", which is posted on the arXiv preprint server and which "aims to unify physics based on geometry of a 248-dimensional figure called E8." His Einsteinian trait? "Surfer dude Lisi is more of an outsider than the onetime patent clerk." (See also the Math Digest summary of earlier articles on Lisi and his work.)

--- Annette Emerson

 

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