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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)


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 Web-Search 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

 

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"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 mid-December column is "The symmetry of sneezing." He notes that the molecular structure of many viruses are "things of mathematical beauty."

--- Annette Emerson

 

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"University professor knighted," by Don Frame. Manchester Evening News, 31 December 2008.
"Honour for Royal Society luminary," by James Morgan. BBC Online, 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 1998-2000, and in 2004 he became Vice President and Physical Secretary of the Royal Society.

--- Allyn Jackson

 

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"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

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"He creates ways of seeing information," by Billy Baker. Boston Globe, 29 December 2008.

the machine's
            thoughts, opening
"The machine's thoughts, opening," from The Thinking Machine, 2003, by Martin Wattenberg with Marek Walczak.

 

The article profiles Martin Wattenberg, who works in data visualization. He produces beautiful yet informative---and sometimes interactive---visualizations of cultural data such as baby name popularity, US Census data, Wikipedia edits, word use, and historical stock market performance. His work has been shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the London Institute of Contemporary Arts, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, and is (through February 2009) a featured installation on outdoor screens in Harvard Square in Cambridge, MA, as part of the Cambridge-based Lumen Eclipse public art project. Wattenberg received his Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley, after which he moved to New York to work at SmartMoney.com instead of pursuing the academic career track. "It was there that he got hooked on using graphics and interactivity to create new ways of seeing information, and helped create the influential 'Map of the Market,' which provided a simple color overview of the health of the financial markets," the article quotes him as saying. In 2002, he became a founding manager of IBM's Visual Communication Lab in Cambridge, and "began exploring the emotional potential of data visualization." The works of Wattenberg and his collaborators can be seen on bewitched.com.

--- Annette Emerson

 

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"Numbers Cruncher says Madoff Math Didn't Add up," Svea Herbst-Bayliss. Reuters, 18 December 2008.
"The Man Who Figured Out Madoff's Scheme Tells 60 Minutes Many Suspected Madoff Fraud; Says SEC is incapable of Finding Fraud," 60 Minutes, CBS News, 1 March 2009.

stocks

 

Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme was first reported to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) by Harry Markopolos in 2000. Markopolos submitted reports to the SEC on four more occasions since then, with no investigation resulting. In this interview with 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft, Markopolos discusses how his math skills came in handy to help him prove Madoff was committing fraud. The four page transcript of the interview includes the following exchange:

"I mean, you're like a math guy, right?" Kroft asked. "I've taken all the calculus courses, from integral calculus through differential calculus, as well as linear algebra. And statistics, both normal and non-normal," Markopolos said. Asked how long it took him to figure out something was wrong, Markopolos said, "It took me five minutes to know that it was a fraud. It took me another almost four hours of mathematical modeling to prove that it was a fraud."

Oddly absent from the interview is any mention of Dan diBartolomeo, who Markopolos consulted in his effort to discredit Madoff. DiBartolomeo, who received a degree in applied physics and is the president of a company that designs quantitative models for financial markets, is quoted by Reuters as saying, "After spending about three hours playing around with regression analyses and various kinds of calculations, I could not reconcile it." Here, "it" refers to the discrepancy between Madoff's high returns and the methods he claimed to be using to obtain those returns. Markopolos had approached DiBartolomeo after failing to reproduce Madoff's results while using the same strategy. While diBartolomeo said Markopolos "deserves the prize for perseverance" for his role in trying to expose Madoff, we see that Markopolos's gave diBartolomeo the accolade of anonymity during this 60 Minutes interview.

--- Brie Finegold

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"How Madoff Did It," by Alyssa A. Lappen. FrontPageMagazine.com, 23 December 2008.
"Madoff Misled SEC in '06, Got Off," by Gregory Zuckerman and Kara Scannell. Wall Street Journal Online, 18 December 2008.
"SEC doing what whistleblower asked, 9 years too late," by Greg Wilson. New York Daily News, 18 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 19-page 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

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"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

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"The mathematics of play-calling," by John O'Connor. Richmond Times-Dispatch, 16 December 2008.

Lawrence
            Sidbury in action

 

Lawrence Sidbury, Jr., an all-conference defensive end for the University of Richmond Spiders football team, combined his math and computer science knowledge with football for a project in his data mining class. Sidbury's project takes into account many factors, including down, distance, score, field position, and weather, to predict what the next play may be based on previous plays that have been called. The project received an A. Sidbury is a computer science major with a math minor at Richmond and is a math tutor for area high school students. The Spiders are the champions of the Football Championship Subdivision, beating the University of Montana 24-7 in the finals. (Photo of Sidbury [in blue] courtesy of Richmond Athletic Public Relations.)

--- Mike Breen

 

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"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

 

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"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

 

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"Math Gains Reported for U.S. Students," by Sam Dillon. New York Times, 9 December 2008.
"English children 'best at maths in Europe'," by Nicola Woolcock. The Times (London), 10 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 eighth-graders from 48 countries including Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan, whose students significantly out-perform 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 one-twentieth of students perform at this level. Citing the vast differences in population between the U.S. and the high-achieving 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 highest-ranked states, out-performed 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

 

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"Winners of Prestigious Student Science Awards Are Named," by Amanda M. Fairbanks. New York Times, 9 December 2008.

Eric
            Larson

 

The 2008 Siemens Competition in Math, Science, and Technology award recipients includes several students whose research is in mathematics. The New York Times article focuses on the winners from New York and New Jersey. Nityan Nair of Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, was awarded the US$40,000 scholarship for Diffraction with a twist: Forming fractional optical vortices using spiral zone plates. Hayden Metsky of Milburn, NJ, was awarded US$10,000 "for his research on improving the ability of computers to translate one language to another." A separate digest describes an interview with Raphael-Joel (RJ) Lim of Indianapolis, IN, who with teammate Mark Zhang of Sugar Land, TX, won the US$20,000 Team award for "Previously Unknown Parts of the Greene-Kleitman Partition for the Tamari Lattice." News otlets around the country covered the the regional and finalist winners of this year's competition. Learn more about all the Individual and Team winners in the mathematical sciences. (Photo: Eric K. Larson, of Eugene OR, winner of the US $50,000 scholarship in the 2008 Siemens Competition for The Classification of Certain Fusion Categories. Photograph courtesy of the Siemens Foundation.)

--- Annette Emerson

 

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"For Teen Math Whiz, Aptitude Has Ups and Downs," by Claudio Sanchez. NPR: Morning Edition, 8 December 2008.

Raphael-Joel Lim, nicknamed RJ, is a 17-year 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

 

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"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

 

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"Teacher Raises Money By Placing Ads On Tests," by Madeleine Brand. NPR Day to Day, 4 December 2008.

Portion of a
            test

 

"Five years ago or ten years ago, I would never have thought I would have to do something like this," says San Diego calculus teacher Tom Farber, in reference to his selling ad space on his exams. With the US$300 photocopy budget he received from the public school falling US$200 below his class's needs, Farber decided to solicit local businesses and parents to pay for small advertisements and inspirational quotes to be printed on exams. With the full support of parents and the school system, he has earned about US$350. Although kids may be barraged by advertisements throughout the day, Farber says that they look forward to seeing what quotes will show up on the next exam. And considering that teachers spend approximately US$430 each year out of pocket (according to the National Education Association), many other teachers may soon follow Farber's example. (Image of some of the test "ads" courtesy of Tom Farber.)

--- Brie Finegold

 

 

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"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

 

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"Mathematician Knows How to Fold 'em," by Penelope Overton. Republican-American of Waterbury, 3 December 2008.

New Year's Eve
            Ball
New Year's Eve Ball, by Rona Gurkewirtz and Bennett Arnstein. In this gyroscoped truncated icosahedron the dual of the truncated icosahedrons appears as mountain folds on the model.

 

To computer science professor Rona Gurkewitz, origami offers not only a beautiful finished product, but also a useful teaching tool and an exciting way to practice math as geometry without numbers. Modular origami, Gurkewitz's preferred form, involves using folds and flaps to link multiple sheets of paper, folded into special shapes, to create intricate geometric designs. This method is different from the competitive, complex computer-generated origami popular in the 1990s, which, like traditional origami, created objects from a single sheet of paper. Gurkewitz spent years designing her most famous pieces, one of which is a large egg shape containing 48 interlocking triangles, each crafted from a sheet of paper folded 10 times. Along with a partner, she has written four books on modular origami as a teaching tool for math educators. The story was picked up by the Hartford Courant and Denver Post.

--- Lisa DeKeukelaere

 

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"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 so-called 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

 

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"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, four-legged 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 3-dimensional 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

 

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"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.

  • Terence Tao, by Andrew Grant: Terence Tao is perhaps one of the most impressive and famous mathematicians of his generation: he took the SATs at the age of 8, he was a tenured professor at UCLA at 24, and won the 2006 Fields Medal at 31. He has made major contributions in areas ranging from nonlinear equations to number theory. Some of his research (in compressed sensing) is even helping engineers develop better imaging technology for MRIs, astronomical instruments, and digital cameras.
  • Joseph Teran, by Emily Anthes: Like Tao, Joseph Teran is a mathematician at UCLA. Teran works on mathematical modeling of tissues such as tendons, muscles, fat, and skin. This research is expected to be useful in the field of medical imaging and in simulating surgeries on "digital humans."
  • Jon Kleinberg, by Julianne Pepitone: Jon Kleinberg is a computer scientist at Cornell University. His creation of the Hyperlink-Induced Topic Search algorithm revolutionized web searching. He now researches how fads and rumors flow through groups of people and hopes to apply this to political mobilization.
  • Edward Witten, by John H. Schwarz: Edward Witten, a mathematician and theoretical physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study, has been called "the most brilliant physicist of his generation" and has even been compared to Isaac Newton. He is one of the "foremost proponents and most prolific contributors" to the field of string theory. He is also considered the leader in using physics insights to advance mathematics and vice versa.

--- Adriana Salerno

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