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)


July 2008

"Math study finds girls are just as good as boys", by Libby Quaid. Associated Press, 24 July 2008.
"Girls as Good as Boys at Math, Study Finds", by Maria José Vinas. Chronicle of Higher Education, 24 July 2008.
"Gender gap theory doesn't add up." NBC Nightly News, 24 July 2008.
"Gender Similarities Characterize Math Performance," by Janet S. Hyde et al. Science, 25 July 2008, pages 494-495.
"We must do more to encourage girls to pursue science careers," by Jospehine Cheng. The Mercury News, 19 August 2008.
"Girls as good as boys in math," by WINK News. WINK-TV (Fort Myers, FL), 15 August 2008.

girls do math

 

Recent research by Janet Hyde of the University of Wisconsin, which was published in Science, found that girls are doing just as well as boys on standardized mathematics tests required by the No Child Left Behind program. The research examined test results of 7 million children in 10 states. No gender differences were found at any grade level. Past research found that girls were equal with boys through middle school but then fell behind in high school, but this trend was not found in the new test results. "Girls have now achieved gender parity in performance on standardized math tests," the AP quoted Hyde as saying.

--- Allyn Jackson

 

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"Was ancient Greek 'computer' an astronomical tool?," by Jo Marchant. New Scientist, 30 July 2008.
"Complex clock combines calendars," by Philip Ball. Nature, 31 July 2008, page 561.
"Discovering How Greeks Computed in 100 B.C.," by John Noble Wilford. New York Times, 31 July 2008.

 

Recreation of
            Anitkythera mechanism
Image of recreated mechanism, ©2008 Tony Freeth and the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project.

 

Anitkythera
            mechanism
Image of actual mechanism, courtesy of Hewlett-Packard Company and the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project.

 

These articles describe the so-called "Antikythera mechanism," an ancient artifact found in a Roman shipwreck near the Greek island of Antikythera in 1901, which has been puzzling historians ever since. The mechanism consists of more than 30 bronze gears and pointers enclosed in a wooden case. Possibly dating back to as far as 100 BC, this artifact seems to have been a mechanical computer, which used complex algorithms to calculate the motions of celestial bodies, such as the sun and the moon, and even displayed a 19-year lunisolar calendar based on these calculations. The only other ancient objects approaching that level of sophistication are the mechanical clocks that appeared in medieval Europe, 1200 years later. One of the theories described by Marchant that might be interesting to mathematicians is that the Antikythera mechanism might have some connection to Archimedes. New evidence suggests that the making of bronze devices such as this one may have been a tradition started by the famous mathematician at Syracuse, on the island of Sicily. Marchant has written a book about the Antikythera mechanism called Decoding the Heavens, which will be published in November 2008. (The research is published in the 31 July 2008 issue of Nature, "Calendars with Olympiad display and eclipse prediction on the Antikythera Mechanism," Freeth et al, pages 614-617. Nature has also posted a video, describing the mechanism.)

Another article on the Antikythera, also by Jo Marchant, appeared in the 13 December 2008 issue of New Scientist, "Decoding the Antikythera" (pages 36-40). Marchant is the author of a book about the Antikythera mechanism called Decoding the Heavens: Solving the mystery of the world's first computer (Heinemann, 2008).

--- Adriana Salerno

 

 

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"A tale of two tilings," by Sharon C. Glotzer and Aaron S. Keys. Nature, 24 July 2008, pages 420-421.

Glotzer and Keys explore the mathematical structures underlying novel process for growing quasicrystals---aperiodic arrangements of particles observed in certain metal alloys---created by three German researchers. The researchers grew special quasicrystals in order to use the crystals' special properties in photonic circuits and discovered that the arrangement of the particles resembled Archimedean tilings: periodic patterns of shapes on a two-dimensional plane in which all vertices are composed of the same combination of polygons. The quasicrystals contain two types of such tilings, and the order in which these tilings are repeated is a Fibonacci sequence. Thus, the quasicrystals represent an interesting combination of both periodic and aperiodic orderings. The research is published in the same issue of Nature, beginning on page 501, in the article by Mikhael et al, "Archimedean-like tiling on decagonal quasicrystalline surfaces."

--- Lisa DeKeukelaere

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"A Building of Bubbles," by Julie Rehmeyer. Science News, 19 July 2008.
"A Problem of Bubbles Frames an Olympic Design," by Henry Fountain. The New York Times, 5 August 2008.

Water Cube, from
            the outside
© Arup + Ben McMillan.

 

An inside look at the Water Cube
© Martin Saunders Photography.

The designers of the "Water Cube"---the National Aquatics Center in Beijing---where the upcoming Olympic swimming and diving events will take place, wanted the building to express the spirit of water and to look somewhat random. Yet pure randomness was too expensive to build. They arrived on a motivating theme of foam, represented by gigantic bubbles. The design was done by Arup, an Australian company, and is modeled on slightly curved dodecahedra and a 14-sided shape made of hexagons and pentagons. The foam shape was discovered by Denis Weaire and Robert Phelan, physicists at Trinity College in Dublin, and improves upon a foam shape of Lord Kelvin's (from the 1880s), reducing the surface area of his shape by 0.3 percent. Weaire and Phelan have not been able to prove that their shape gives the minimum surface area, however.

--- Mike Breen

 

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"Brazil's Pirahã grasp numbers without words," by Bruce Bower. Science News, 19 July 2008.
"We are natural born mathematicians," by Roger Highfield, The Telegraph, 18 August 2008
.

Teams of researchers have been studying how the Pirahã people of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil perceive and express the numbers "one", "two", etc. Researchers who conducted studies in 2004 and 2005 differ on whether the tribe has words for---or thinks in terms of---"one", "two" and "many", or "few", "some" and "more". The leader of the most recent team, Daniel Everett (MIT) "claims the Pirahã language, with no words for numbers or colors, brings many theories into question." The article summarizes the methodology, conclusions and implications of the studies.

--- Annette Emerson

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"Obama's shifts could be costly," by Jonathan Farley. Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, 17 July 2008.

Jonathan Farley, a mathematician at Caltech, is an occasional columnist for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. Here he looks at the shifts that Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, has lately made toward more-conservative positions. To illustrate his point, Farley recounts a mathematical conundrum called "The Paradox of the Unexpected Tiger". This paradox shows that "when [liberals] try to convince themselves that they have no choice but to vote for Obama, even if he runs to the right, then that very act of reasoning is what empowers Obama to run to the right."

--- Allyn Jackson

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"Einstein, Plato... and you?", by Marcus du Sautoy. The Telegraph, 15 July 2008.

Many astronomical features, such as craters on the moon, are named for famous people, as are some biological species---Myrmekiaphila neilyoungi (a spider), for example. Now Marcus du Sautoy is offering to name symmetry groups after people who donate to a charity called Common Hope. The charity helps street children in Guatemala. DuSautoy finishes the article by asking the question, "Who said maths couldn't save the world?"

--- Mike Breen

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"In search of a beautiful mind," by Linda Matchan. Boston Globe, 12 July 2008.

Seymour Papert was a professor of mathematics, education and media technology at MIT until December 2006, when he was struck by a speeding motorcycle in Hanoi, Vietnam, the day after he delivered a keynote speech at a conference of mathematicians and educators at Hanoi Technical University. The accident---covered by media worldwide---left him in a coma for a month, and then he spent additional months in hospitals and rehabilitation facilities. This article follows his progress and ongoing challenges since the accident that injured his brain. Papert now lives in Blue Hill, Maine, where he spends his days at a place called The Learning Barn to continue to try to recover his memory, strength, and ability to talk and read. Ironically---fittingly---he is working with dominoes and Legos, the learning tools he wrote about in his 1980 book, Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, while, the author notes, a pile of DVDs on higher mathematics is stacked nearby. Inspired by Papert's ideas on experimental, hands-on learning, his wife Suzanne Massie "encouraged friends and colleagues to relate to him as the mathematician and thinker they'd always known. Colleagues brought learning toys and puzzles to the hospital." Papert remains an inspiration as he learns "something even more challenging---how to be Seymour Papert again."

--- Annette Emerson

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"A mind-bending reef." New Scientist, 5 July 2008, page 48.

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

 

This brief piece includes a picture of a crocheted "coral reef" from the Institute of Figuring, which celebrates aesthetic aspects of mathematics and science. The institute teamed up with mathematician Daina Tamina of Cornell University, who created crocheted models in order to visualize hyperbolic geometries. The models "worked perfectly, and even led to some new results, since Taimina could test out her equations by crocheting them," the article says. It turns out that hyperbolic structures appear in coral growth, and Taimina's crocheting technique led to the creation of the institute's "Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef", which was on display in London in August.

--- Allyn Jackson

 

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"Before Microsoft, Gates Solved a Pancake Problem," hosted by David Kestenbaum. Morning Edition, National Public Radio, 4 July 2008.
"Besting Bill Gates," by David Debolt. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 17 October 2008, page A6.

stacking pancakes

 

Here's the pancake problem: You've got a spatula and want to sort a stack of pancakes with the largest on the bottom and smallest at the top. If you have N pancakes, what's the least number of flips possible? It turns out that this is actually a difficult problem. Host Kestenbaum called Harry Lewis, a professor at Harvard who had assigned this puzzle in his combinatorial math class in the 1970s. Lewis recalls that a sophomore named Bill Gates came up to him to report that he and an assistant professor came up with a solution---an algorithm, which Lewis says turned out to be quite clever. Their work was later published in the paper,"Bounds for sorting by prefix reversal" (Gates and Christos Papadimitriou, Discrete Mathematics, 27, 45-57, 1979). As everyone knows, Gates went on to found Microsoft and find success in that and other ventures (Papadimitrious is now a professor of computer science at UC Berkeley). In the meantime, Kestenbaum reports, recently a team of undergraduates from the University of Texas at Dallas calculated a sorting/flipping strategy that is 1 percent faster than the one proposed by Gates and Papadimitriou. But this result was calculated with powerful computers!

--- Annette Emerson

 

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"Art Authentication," hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. NOVA ScienceNow, PBS, 2 July 2008.

painting strokes

 

This NOVA ScienceNow segment demonstrates how computer algorithms and cutting edge statistical modeling help distinguish "a master fake from a masterpiece." The website carries the 13-minute video segment, which includes mathematician Ingrid Daubechies of Princeton University, and invites viewers to see if they can spot fakes from genuine van Gogh paintings. Computer scientist Eric Postma of Maastricht University answers questions posed to "Ask the Expert." The transcript is also available on the website. Other past mathematics-related segments aired on NOVA SciencNow (and viewable on the website archive) include "Profile: Hany Farid" and "Wisdom of the Crowds" (25 June 2008), "Kryptos" (July 2007) and "Profile: Arlie Petters" (July 2007), "Twin Prime Conjecture" (January 2006) and "Profile: Brothers Chudnovsky" (July 2005).

--- Annette Emerson

 

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"Why Laughing Matters," by Jim Holt. Discover, July 2008, pages 67-69.

The article's subtitle, "Numbers and laughter will last a million years," explains better than the title why this is in Math Digest. Holt's conclusion is based on the Copernican principle, which says that old things (like numbers and laughter) tend to last, but new things (like the Internet) don't. The principle assumes that there is nothing special about a particular moment, so most things are in the middle 95 percent of their lifespans. Many animals seem to have a number sense, which they probably had before their species diverged from species that led to humans, so numbers have been around a long time and should continue for a long time. Holt does think that in one million years, humor will be more esteemed than mathematics. The Riemann Hypothesis was proposed about 150 years ago, so Holt estimates that a proof will come some time between 2012 (1/39 of 150) and the year 7850 (about 39 times 150). This is short of the million years Paul Erdös thought it would take.

--- Mike Breen

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"The Self-Organizing Quantum Universe," by Jan Ambjørn, Jerzy Jurkiewicz, and Renate Loll. Scientific American, July 2008, pages 42-49.

The authors write that they have found a way to reconcile general relativity with quantum theory. Their method allows minute pieces to interact with each other according to the laws of gravity and quantum theory, and those pieces then arrange themselves into a structure that is very much like our observable universe. There is some mathematics, especially geometry, presented in the article but even more is present in the sidebar "A Whole New Dimension to Space." The sidebar has images of fractal sets, along with discussions of Euclidean dimension, Hausdorff dimension, and spectral dimension. Quantum-gravity simulations use spectral dimension, which is based on how quantities spread through a space over time.

--- Mike Breen

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"Simple Groups at Play," by Igor Kriz and Paul Siegel. Scientific American, July 2008, pages 84-89.

M24 game

 

In this article, the authors discuss three permutation puzzles they constructed based on three sporadic simple groups: M12, M24M, and Co1. They describe how the games are played and provide some hints for solving them. Along the way, they describe the familiar permutation puzzle Rubik's Cube, discuss the Rubik's group---the group represented by Rubik's Cube---and provide suggestions for solving Rubik's Cube. They also provide a primer on symmetric groups---the basic components of the Rubik's group---and sporadic simple groups, on which the new puzzles are based. Finally, they provide the games themselves online. Enjoy! (Image of the M24 game, courtesy of Igor Kriz.)

--- Claudia Clark

 

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"Under Fire," by Neil Shea. National Geographic, July 2008, page 116.

a forest fire

 

What's causing the unprecedented spread of forest fires in the Rockies and along the California coast this summer? The answer seems to be a combination of climate and inadequate firefighting resources. Now the federal government is turning to the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory, where Mark Finney "spends a lot of time with virtual fire." Finney, who was "good at math in college", helped develop a computer-modeling program "to try to understand how small fires grow into monsters and how we might fight them." His Fire Spread Probability (or FSPro) program combines and analyzes the three key ingredients that drive a fire: weather, terrain, and fuel. The amount of data is massive and takes hours to generate a model in the form of a map. FSPro is used with other programs like Google Earth that show the locations of homes, other structures, and likely animal habitats. Right now the FSPro may forecast how fires might spread, but Finney himself says the fires will always return for agencies, firefighters and citizens to battle.

--- Annette Emerson

 

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