December 2008
"The Numbers Guy" columns, by Carl Bialik. Wall Street Journal Online, December 2008. Carl Bialik, a writer for the Wall Street Journal, "examines the way numbers are used, and abused." His recent blog columns are "Call It an Electoral Tie," "Evaluating the Charity Evaluators," "Cellphones' Challenge for Pollsters Grows," "Why ESPN Should Have Expected to Hand Out $1 Million," "The Divergence in WebSearch Stats Continues," "How Big Is Bailout? Peel This Onion to Find Out," "Deciphering a 20% Chance of Rain", and more. Comments from readers follow each. Bialik was given the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics Communication Award in 2008.  Annette Emerson
"Sexy Maths" columns, by Marcus du Sautoy. Times Online, December 2008. Marcus du Sautoy's most recent "Sexy Maths" column is "Warm up with a few festive candles", in which he poses the question, "How many presents did I get from my true love by the twelfth day of Christmas?" and "How many candles are needed for the whole Chanukkah festival?" The midDecember column is "The symmetry of sneezing." He notes that the molecular structure of many viruses are "things of mathematical beauty."  Annette Emerson
"University professor knighted," by Don Frame. Manchester Evening News, 31 December 2008. Martin Taylor, a mathematician at Manchester University, was knighted "for lifelong services to science". "It was a huge shock," he told he Manchester Evening News. "I got the letter some weeks ago, and had been thumbing through the mail feeling a little grumpy to be honest. I suddenly saw the word 'knighthood' and suddenly began to feel a little trembly. It was something that had literally never crossed my mind." Taylor's early research centred on algebraic number theory, and in more recent years he has concentrated on geometric research. He was awarded the Whitehead Prize of the London Mathematical Society in 1982 and the Adams Prize in 1983. He also served as President of the London Mathematical Society from 19982000, and in 2004 he became Vice President and Physical Secretary of the Royal Society.  Allyn Jackson
"Steven Strogatz: How things in nature tend to sync up." Exchange Morning Post, 29 December 2008. The brief article lists some areas of research by mathematician Steven Strogatz, such as how birds, bees, and fish synchronize in flocks, swarms, and schools, and how nonlinear dynamics and chaos theory are applied to physics engineering and biology. He recently published a paper on the Millennium Bridge wobble "and its roots in how people walk on an unpredictable surface." Embedded in the online article is an entertaining video of a presentation by Strogatz.  Annette Emerson
"He creates ways of seeing information," by Billy Baker. Boston Globe, 29 December 2008.
"Numbers Cruncher says Madoff Math Didn't Add up," Svea HerbstBayliss. Reuters, 18 December 2008.
"How Madoff Did It," by Alyssa A. Lappen. FrontPageMagazine.com, 23 December 2008. A flurry of articles on Bernard Madoff's alleged Ponzi scheme mention that, starting in 2000, a Boston securities trader, Harry Markopolos, studied Madoff's investment performance with a colleague, financial mathematician Daniel DiBartolomeo, who investigated the data. The FrontPageMagazine piece reports that, "based on mathematical calculations concerning options and derivatives, and statements from Madoff investors, Markopolos argued that Madoff ran a Ponzi scheme." Markopolos made his argument to the SEC in a 19page memo, "The world's largest hedge fund is a fraud". He claims that the SEC New York branch chief responded with a "thanks," but Madoff continued operating until late 2008.  Annette Emerson
"Prizewinners of the year," selected by Ashley Yeager, and "Images of the Year," researched by Emma Marris. Nature, 18/25 December 2008. Along with interviews of two scientists in "Prizewinners of the Year", a graphic includes the Nobel Prize in Physics to Yoichiro Nambu (who received the award for the discovery of the mechanism of spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic physics), and the Shaw Prize to mathematicians Vladimir Arnold and Ludwig Faddeev. Among the works in the 2008 Gallery "Images of the Year" is a crocheted hyperbolic plane by mathematician Daina Taimina of Cornell University.  Annette Emerson
"The mathematics of playcalling," by John O'Connor. Richmond TimesDispatch, 16 December 2008.
"Specializing in Problems that Only Seem Impossible to Solve," by Bina Venkataraman. New York Times, 16 December 2008. This article presents a profile of Jessica Fridrich, an electrical engineering professor at Binghamton University, who is a legend in Rubik's cube circles. She became instantly "cube possessed" when she first saw a demonstration with the Rubik's cube while attending a mathematics seminar as a student in her native Romania. Although she did not have a cube, she worked out an ingenious new algorithm on paper and then continued to perfect it when she later obtained a cube. In 1982, she won a Czech Rubik's cube speed championship, unscrambling the cube in 23.5 seconds. Although 23.5 seconds "would now be laughably long in international competition," the article says, Fridrich's algorithm has remained a basic tool among Rubik's cube enthusiasts, and she still gets emails from people all over the world asking questions about the cube. Fridrich earned a master's degree in Romania and was working on mathematical models of rock deformation at a mining institute when she was recruited to the doctoral program in system sciences by a Binghamton professor who had heard of her talents. Today she does research in digital forensics, developing algorithms to match a photograph with the individual camera that took it.  Allyn Jackson
"Are you game?": Review of Professor Stewart's Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities, by Ian Stewart. Reviewed by Justsin Mullins. New Scientist, 13 December 2008, page 47. This brief review praises Ian Stewart's latest book, a "menagerie of mathematical jokes, puzzles and treats." The book deftly covers a wide range, from details of the Poincaré conjecture and the Riemann hypothesis to "a quip about a chicken crossing a Möbius strip." "Mathematics doesn't come more entertaining than this," the review concludes.  Allyn Jackson
"Math Gains Reported for U.S. Students," by Sam Dillon. New York Times, 9 December 2008. The gains reported by the New York Times were modest but significant. High school and elementary school students in the U.S. scored 3% and 2% higher (repectively) in 2007 than in 1995 on an international survey assessing mathematics skills. The survey also showed that the gap between lower and higher scoring ethnic groups in the U.S. has narrowed slightly since 1995. And in the eighth grade, the gender gap was statistically insignificant. The survey, called the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), is an analysis of a test administered to approximately 20,000 fourth and eighthgraders from 48 countries including Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan, whose students significantly outperform their U.S. peers. In the science section of the test, U.S. students showed little difference from the last survey, which was done in 2003. A striking finding is the lack of advanced students in the U.S. compared to some Asian countries. Approximately one quarter of Japanese students and almost half of the students in Singapore reached the "advanced" benchmark, which is defined to be the level at which "Students can organize and draw conclusions from information, make generalizations, and solve nonroutine problems." In the U.S., approximately onetwentieth of students perform at this level. Citing the vast differences in population between the U.S. and the highachieving countries, Dillon writes that comparing these scores is a bit like "comparing apples and oranges." Dillon also writes that Massachusetts, whose population is close to that of Singapore's, is one of the highestranked states, outperformed only by Singapore and Taiwan. In the article from The Times, Woolcock reports that English students scored the best in Europe in math and science, but that their enjoyment of the subjects has "plummeted."  Brie Finegold
"Winners of Prestigious Student Science Awards Are Named," by Amanda M. Fairbanks. New York Times, 9 December 2008.
"For Teen Math Whiz, Aptitude Has Ups and Downs," by Claudio Sanchez. NPR: Morning Edition, 8 December 2008. RaphaelJoel Lim, nicknamed RJ, is a 17year old math prodigy who lives in Indianapolis, Indiana. This year, he participated in the Siemens Competition in Math, Science, and Technology and won a US$20,000 scholarship with his teammate Mark Zhang. This radio feature introduces the audience to this exceptional young man and what being a "math whiz" is like. One of RJ's teachers describes him as having a "splendid mind," and his own mentor doesn't really understand the work that he submitted to the competition. Known as a young child as the "human calculator," a nickname he detests, RJ considers his aptitude for math as both a burden and a gift. He describes how he felt isolated and lonely until he met other smart kids in a math camp in Texas, one of whom was Zhang. RJ yearns for more than just being a math genius. His teachers mention he is equally gifted in areas like English and describe him as being very "deep." He has narrowed his choices for college to Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When asked by Sanchez what he wanted to be known for, he simply says he wants people to think of him as a "nice guy."  Adriana Salerno
"Science Weekly: The pub quiz maths challenge," by Alok Jha. The Guardian, 8 December 2008. Podcast host Alok Jha interviews mathematician Ian Stewart, a professor at the University of Warwick, England, about a variety of "mathematical curiosities" described in Stewart's new book, such as why multiplying two negative numbers yields a positive product and why our number system is base 10. Stewart explains that manipulation of integers is an invented system best understood in monetary terms. Negative numbers, for example, are like debt, and multiplication is like making and adding copies of a number. Multiplying two negative numbers is therefore like adding "negative copies" of a debt, which is positive. Stewart also postulates that our number system is base 10 because humans have 10 fingers; the Mayans, for example, used a number system with base 20, possibly because they wore no shoes and counted their toes. Stewart's book, which is titled Professor Stewart's Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities and is aimed at readers with three to four years of mathematical education, also contains entries explaining the Riemann hypothesis and the significance of Fibonacci numbers.  Lisa DeKeukelaere
"Teacher Raises Money By Placing Ads On Tests," by Madeleine Brand. NPR Day to Day, 4 December 2008.
"Generosity: A Winner's Advice," Martin A. Nowak. Nature, 4 December 2008. In this opinion piece, Harvard professor of mathematics and biology Martin Nowak argues that "generosity is an essential feature of winning strategies in games... These strategies underpin many of the choices people make in everyday life." According to Nowak, selection and mutation are not the only fundamental forces of evolution. He describes a third: cooperation that happens "when one individual pays a cost so that another receives a benefit." He notes that, in order for natural selection to favor individuals who cooperate, certain "mechanisms" must be involved, namely "direct reciprocity" (how I act depends upon what you have done to me) and "indirect reciprocity" (what I do depends upon what you have done to me and to others). "In both," he continues, "mathematical analysis shows that winning strategies tend to be generous, hopeful, and forgiving."  Claudia Clark
"Mathematician Knows How to Fold 'em," by Penelope Overton. RepublicanAmerican of Waterbury, 3 December 2008.
"Herdentrieb und Panikreaktionen statt Angebot und Nachfrage (Herd instinct and panic reaction instead of supply and demand)", by George Szpiro. Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 3 December 2008. This article concerns the work of the socalled econophysicists, who try to gain an understanding of financial markets using the tools of statistical physics. Classical economists have been using notions such as supply and demand, the perfect market, and similar concepts, as axioms. Econophysicists are skeptical and take a different approach.  Allyn Jackson
"Wacklige Tische müssen nicht sein (Wobbly tables need not be)", by George Szpiro. Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 3 December 2008. In this installment of his monhtly column, "George Szpiros kleines Einmaleins", Szpiro talks about wobbly, fourlegged garden tables. It has been proved that they can always be made to stop wobbling and placed horizontally, even on rough terrain, simply by rotating them. The terrain must nowhere be steeper than 35 degrees, however. This problem is the 3dimensional counterpart to a problem posed by Otto Toeplitz in 1911, which asked whether any closed curve contains 4 points that can be combined to a square.  Allyn Jackson
"Best Brains in Science 2008: DISCOVER 50," by Corey S. Powell et al. Discover, December 2008. This special issue of Discover magazine is devoted to ushering in a new kind of celebrity: scientific celebrity. The editors carefully compiled a list of the 50 most influential scientists in America at the moment, together with short profiles and descriptions of their scientific achievements. The list is divided into five categories, and it is in two of these that mathematicians shine. In the "20 Under 40" list, which highlights "young visionaries who are transforming their fields," we find Terence Tao, Joseph Teran, and Jon Kleinberg. As one of the "Lifetime Achievers," that is, scientists who "have dedicated their careers to shifting the intellectual landscape in breathtaking ways," we have renowned physicist and mathematician Edward Witten. Here are summaries of the mathematician profiles.
 Adriana Salerno

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