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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)


September 2008

"'X=Why?' A Year Reliving High School Mathematics," by Michael Allison Chandler. Washington Post Blog, 28 September 2008.

Chandler with a student
Michael Alison Chandler, right, with Arzoo Hassan during algebra class at Fairfax High School. (By Dayna Smith, courtesy of The Washington Post.)

 

Although she claims she is not a "math person," education writer Michael Allison Chandler volunteered to attend a daily 7:20 AM high school algebra class, doing assignments and taking tests, as part of her attempt to "bridge the cultural divide between math people and the rest of us." Just a few paragraphs of her writing have elicited pages of commentary, giving insight into the high-running emotions and variety of opinions associated with school mathematics. In one of her most recent posts, she contrasts the back-ache-inducing textbooks (some over 1,000 pages) used in the United States with the slim texts used in Japan and refers readers to another blog written by an American teacher studying in Japan. Thoughts about matrices, educational reform, and No Child Left Behind are peppered with requests for mathematical reading lists, sample problems, solutions, and examples of how algebra is used in readers' everyday lives. These requests for input as well as the anonymity of the internet encourages a wide variety of parents, educators, parents, and students to comment.

--- Brie Finegold

 

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"Electrons as Math Whizzes," by David Castelvecchi. Science News, 27 September 2008.

Two European scientists are attempting to use the energy levels of electrons---a concept in quantum physics---to prove the Riemann Hypothesis, a famous unsolved mathematical problem. The scientists hope to show that an electron constrained to movement in two dimensions and subjected to electrical and magnetic fields will have energy levels that correspond to the points at which a special function, Riemann's zeta, has a zero value. In addition to earning the scientists international fame, proving the hypothesis would have an important impact on the study of prime numbers and the frequency of their appearance along the number line. Some are skeptical that this recent work, which so far is only an approximation of a connection between energy levels and zero values, will lead to a solution, but the connection between mathematics and quantum physics is nonetheless interesting.

--- Lisa DeKeukelaere

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"11-Year-Old Math Wizard Snags TV Award," by Stephen M. Silverman. People, 26 September 2008.

Darryl Wu

 

Darryl Wu, of Seattle, was named Best Junior Achiever by the syndicated television show Live with Regis and Kelly, which earned him a Relly. Wu, 11, is the winner of the 2008 MATHCOUNTS competition, the youngest person to win the competition in its 26-year history. The Rellys recognize the television show's best moments and are voted on by the viewing audience. Said Darryl, "I would like to thank all of the math-aware people who voted for me and also the MATHCOUNTS organization for providing such an enjoyable experience." (Photo of Darryl courtesy of MATHCOUNTS.)

--- Mike Breen

 

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"The Mathematician And The Pig," by Lionel Tiger. Forbes, 24 September 2008.

This opinion piece by weekly columnist Tiger, who is a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, says that mathematics "defeated" the nation's investment institutions and financiers. He writes that complex financial models "are able to conceal that a bonehead mortgage banker in a suburb of Sacramento sold an alluring house to a property-lusting courtier who couldn't even afford the first date." Tiger says that early humans had to live in the here, the now, and the next moment. Abstract theories about the character of the universe may have been entertaining diversions around the campfire, but far more vital were competent assessments about the realism of others and management of the flow of emotion and enthusiasm that a hunter-gatherer had to live by. Should a member of a group announce that he just developed a structured investment vehicle which was computationally certified by a computer to contain a plump pig, he would have an immediate challenge from his peers---to show them the pig.

He concludes that those using the models did not understand them, so "..in the gratifying swirl of lavishly rewarded human optimism, no one remembered to glance at the pig to be sure it was still there--or ever was in the first place."

 

--- Mike Breen

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"X = 50 Semesters," by Manil Suri. The New York Times (Sunday magazine), 21 September 2008, page 110.

In this short piece in the Lives column, Manil Suri presents a series of humorous and thoughtful vignettes from his career as a math professor over the course of 50 semesters of teaching. Suri writes about awkward moments such as his first day of teaching, developing comfort with the craft and becoming "addicted to seeing the light go on in students' eyes," a stressful term teaching an oversized calculus class, and a less than successful attempt at convincing a new audience---artists and writers---of the beauty of math. He reflects that, "in the end, only the exhilaration of connecting with students through math can keep you going."

--- Claudia Clark

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"Students in advanced math classes are doing worse, according to private researchers [sic] report," by Libby Quaid. Chicago Tribune, 21 September 2008.

A study by the Brookings Institution says that more kids than ever are enrolled in algebra in eighth grade, but aren't necessarily learning more math (the amount of encouragement derived from the title of this article may equal the amount of surprise generated in math teachers by that conclusion). Today almost one-third of eighth graders take algebra. The study's author, Tom Loveless, says that many eighth-grade algebra students "don't know very much math at all and yet they're taking courses in advanced math." The report also looked at low-achieving math students, defined as those who scored in the bottom 10 per cent according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and found that their enrollment in eighth grade algebra has more than doubled since 1990 and that their teachers are mathematically unprepared. William H. Schmidt, a professor of statistics and education at Michigan State University, replies, "So what's the alternative---to let them continue in eighth grade to take low-level or basic math?... My big worry is people will use this [the study's conclusions] to say, 'Aha, see, it ain't working, let's put these kids back where they belong.'" He does agree that students do need better preparation.

--- Mike Breen

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"Prime directive: Ottawa math whiz lands a big one," by Tom Spears. Ottawa Citizen, 16 September 2008.
"Twelve-year search uncovers two massive prime numbers," by Scott LaFee. The San Diego Union-Tribune, 18 September 2008.
"Wissenschafter realisieren zwei neue Primzahl-Rekorde (Scientists reach two new prime records)", by George Szpiro. Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 17 September 2008.
"UCLA mathematicians disover a 13-million digit prime number," by Thomas H. Maugh. Los Angeles Times, 27 September 2008.
"3, 7, 31, and Counting ... ." Random Samples, Science, 10 October 2008, page 171.
"Suche nach der längsten Primzahl der Welt (Search for the longest prime number in the world)", by George Szpiro. Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 26 October 2008.

In late August, two Mersenne primes, 243,112,609-1 and 237,156,667-1, were discovered through the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search (GIMPS), a distributed computing project connecting more than 100,000 computers worldwide. Both prime numbers are more than 10 million digits long, which earns a prize of US$100,000 from the Electronic Frontier Foundation for the first one discovered, the larger number. The cash prize will be shared by Edson Smith, of the UCLA Mathematics Computing Group, where the prime was discovered; and Scott Kurowski and George Woltman, who developed the software for GIMPS. The search will continue. There is now a US$150,000 prize for the discovery of the first 150-million digit prime. Jeff Gilchrist, a math Ph.D. student at Carleton University, was part of the verifying process for the larger prime. This is the sixth time that he has confirmed a record-setting prime number. His non-prime research area involves discovering hidden patterns in vital signs of patients in intensive care.

--- Mike Breen

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"It's Likely That Times Are Changing," by Tom Siegfried. Science News, 13 September 2008, pages 26-28.

The change is a change in the way some physicists are thinking about how space and time fit together. They are rethinking the connection in hopes of making relativity mesh with quantum mechanics, which may help our understanding of so-called dark energy. Perhaps space and time are distinct, emerging separately from basic elements then merging into "the mirage that human inquiry is able to access." The mathematics in the article involves Hermann Minkowski. Einstein was a student---although not a very diligent one---in Minkowski's class. Later, Minkowski helped put Einstein's ideas on a sound mathematical footing. With regard to special relativity, Minkowski said, "Henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality." The physicists in this article now aren't so sure.

--- Mike Breen

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"Queuing conundrums." The Economist, 11 September 2008.

traffic

 

Hyejin Youn and Hawoon Jeon (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology) and Michael Gastner (Santa Fe Institute) have used sophisticated computer modelling, with real-time data from road sensors, satellites, and cell phones, to analyze the efficiency of traffic routes. Their research shows that in some cases the information does not help drivers get to their destinations faster. Their study (to be published in Physical Review Letters) "found that when individual drivers each try to choose the quickest route it can cause delays for others and even increase hold-ups in the entire road network... Eventually the traffic flow on the two routes settles into what game theory calls the Nash equilibrium, named after John Nash, the mathematician who described it. This is the point where no individual drive could arrive any fast by switching routes." The article highlights an example of a trip from Harvard Square to Boston Common in which 246 different links in the road network were possible, and summarizes how the traffic flows were calculated. Although the researchers acknowledge that more work needs to be done to understand the effects of the Nash equilibrium, they suggest that "planners should note that there is now evidence that even a well intentioned new road may make traffic jams worse."

--- Annette Emerson

 

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"Oded Schramm, 46, Mathematician, Is Dead," by Kenneth Chang. The New York Times, 11 September 2008.
"Oded Schramm." The Telegraph, 19 September 2008.

Oded Schramm, a member of the Theory Group at Microsoft Research, who did groundbreaking work on phase transitions, died in a tragic hiking accident on 1 September 2008. Schramm received many awards in his career: the Clay Research Award, the Poincaré Prize, the Pólya Prize, and the Ostrowski Prize; and was elected to the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences earlier this year. His work combining probability theory with Charles Loewner's equation in conformal goemetry, now called Schramm-Loewner evolution, was an impressive breakthrough. Jennifer Tour Chayes of Microsoft Research said that Schramm's work "was a revelation to both mathematicians and physicists... Any time you can relate two different fields obviously there is huge excitement about that. It just opens up all kinds of new horizons in mathematics." Schramm is survived by his wife, Avivit, and two children. Microsoft Research has posted a page in memory of Schramm.

--- Mike Breen

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"The greatest theorem ever told: London calling with a new multimedia performance in Ann Arbor," by Norene Cashen. Detroit Metro Times, 10 September 2008.

Mathematicians have proved to be a genuine source of inspiration to writers, playwrights and filmmakers, as evidenced by the success of works such as Proof, A Beautiful Mind and NUMB3RS. British theater company Complicite has added to this list of mathematician-inspired art with their award-winning play A Disappearing Number. The play follows the brief life of brilliant mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan and his relationship with English mathematician G.H. Hardy and draws parallels between this story and the fictional modern tale of Al Cooper, an American traveling businessman whose life changes when he falls in love with an English mathematician. The multimedia presentation includes a large rotating chalkboard in the middle of the stage, which serves not only as a visual aid for mathematics but also as a screen for video projection and sometimes even as another exit from the stage, with actors stepping in and out of it's frame. Cashen remarks that the play is "whirlwind of science, love, loss, genius and hallucination," in which equations and numbers are characters themselves. The United States premiere of the play ran in Ann Arbor's Power Center from September 10th to 14th.

--- Adriana Salerno

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"Do numbers have personalities? You can count on it," by Damien Henderon. The Herald (U.K.), 6 September 2008.
"Baez to play three gigs in Glasgow," by staff reporter. Hi-Tech Scotland, 9 September 2008.

the
            number five

 

Mathematician John Baez (University of California, Riverside) delivered a series of lectures, including the 2008 Rankin Lecture, at the University of Scotland. The Hi-Tech Scotland article notes that Baez is "a world leader in quantum gravity using higher-dimensional algebra" and author of 'This Week's Finds in Mathematical Physics,' a column of "simple and accessible explanations of advanced mathematical research papers." Baez's three lectures were on "My Favorite Numbers: 5, 8 and 24" respectively. He explains in the Herald, "I've noticed over the years that different numbers have their own personalities. If you're a mathematician doing a calculation and you get the answer 248, it means something completely different than if you get 247 --because the number 248 shows up in all sorts of amazing places, while 247 is just dull. So, I thought it would be fun to explain this idea with some examples." [Baez posted the lectures online.]

--- Annette Emerson

 

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"Meeting Briefs: MathFest 2008," by Barry Cipra. Science, 5 September 2008, pages 1282-1283.

Hinged
            dissection
Image courtesy of Erik Demaine.

 

Cipra writes about four presentations at the 2008 MathFest (31 July to 2 August) in Madison, WI. Erik Demaine (MIT) talked about a proof regarding the re-forming of polygons into equal-area polygons with a different number of sides, such as re-forming a square into an equilateral triangle. If the parts involved are "hinged," the re-forming is more difficult. Demaine, his father, and four students have devised a proof that shows that an arbitrary dissection of polygons can be transformed into a hinged dissection. In the proof, arbitrary hinges are added to an unhinged dissection, then pieces are subdivided, more hinges are added, until the polygon can be re-formed into the desired polygon. Demaine said the idea was "so crazy that we never thought of it." Other MathFest highlights written about are more effective ways of wrapping a sphere with an inflexible wrapper ("Sweet Inspiration"), a queen-and-pawns chess problem ("A Royal Squeeze"), and packing in a borderless space ("Taking the Edge Off").

--- Mike Breen

 

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"Mathematical Biology Center Launched, by John Whitfield. Nature, 4 September 2008, page 11.

A new center for collaboration between biologists and mathematicians is aiming to address growing concerns about outbreaks of animal-borne diseases at the national level. These concerns have led the US Department of Homeland Security to provide partial funding for the center, as diseases such as avian influenza and foot-and-mouth disease appear in headlines worldwide. The National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis hopes to expand mathematical biology beyond traditional use in the fields of ecology and evolution and apply it to development and immunology. One specific problem the Institute hopes to address is understanding the difference between natural outbreaks and deliberate release of a virus. Similar collaboration occurs, only on a smaller scale, in other parts of the world, such as Europe and Japan, and the Institute appears poised to have an important global impact.

--- Lisa DeKeukelaere

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"Die Facetten der Mathematik (The facets of mathematics)": Review of Kaleidoskop der Mathematik (Mathematical Kaleidoscope), by E. Behrends, P. Gritzmann, and G. Ziegler. Reviewed by George Szpiro. Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 3 September 2008.

This book, published on the occasion of the "Year of Mathematics" being celebrated in Germany in 2008, is a collection of articles about the "queen of the sciences". The book is aimed at mathematically talented youngsters and the lay public. The review calls it a "stimulating ramble through mathematics".

--- Allyn Jackson

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"How to keep secrets safe," by Anna Lysyanskaya. Scientific American, September 2008.

There are many things people do online nowadays, from keeping in touch with friends, paying the bills, buying and selling pretty much anything, to reading the news and even finding a date. All the personal information exchanged in some of these transactions is now vulnerable to all kinds of attacks. Someone might be interested in reading our personal correspondence, or they might want to pose as us, or even sell our personal information to annoying telemarketers. A somewhat shocking fact is that 87 percent of the U.S. population can be uniquely identified by just their zip code, date of birth, and gender.

Mathematicians and computer scientists who work in the field of cryptography are dedicated to finding more efficient ways to keep our information safe, and many specialized protocols have been developed to accomplish this. Encryption protocols ensure that neither the ISP (Internet service provider) nor any eavesdroppers can read messages one sends online. Authentication protocols create "signatures" so that the identity of the sender of a message is verifiable. Anonymous channels protocols (or onion routing protocols) make sure that messages are untraceable to the original sender. And zero-knowledge proof protocols are designed so that for example an online service can tell that someone is a member without knowing their identity. Free software that takes care of all these issues is already available, like the GNU Privacy Guard package (which encrypts messages and signs them), and The Onion Router (Tor) project. The protocols mentioned, as well as some of the history behind them, are described in detail in this article by Lysyanskaya, a cryptographer herself. A common problem with all these strategies is that there is no real certainty that the codes won't be broken, but it's enough to know that any algorithm that breaks these systems would also have to answer a really difficult problem in mathematics.

--- Adriana Salerno

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"Putting the science in fiction", by Carolyn M. Brown. Black Enterprise, September 2008, page 53.

This short article focuses on Jonathan Farley, a visiting professor of mathematics at Caltech. Together with a biochemist friend, Farley founded a company called Hollywood Math and Science Film Consulting, which has done consulting for numerous movies and television shows, including the highly popular NUMB3RS. The company helps movie and television producers bring mathematical and scientific accuracy and authenticity to their works.

--- Allyn Jackson

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