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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)


January 2009

Articles about events at the 2009 Joint Mathematics Meetings in Washington, DC, January 2009:

  • Joint Mathematics Meetings: "When Art and Math Collide," by Julie Rehmeyer. Science News, 16 January 2009.
  • Art by Paul
                Stacy

     

    This article provides short descriptions of some of the mathematical art displayed at the Joint Mathematics Meetings and discusses the inspiration of its creators. Paul Stacy, an Australian landscape architect, created swirling mosaics using special diamond shapes called Penrose tiles, which to have five-fold symmetry and, if assembled using specific rules, can form patterns that never repeat (an example is pictured at left). Vladimir Bulatov, an artist and physicist, developed a sculpture of interconnected starfish-like objects after contemplating the similarities between the symmetries of a cube and special 12-sided shape called a rhombic dodecahedron. Suman Vaze, a high school teacher from Hong Kong, painted a canvas based on her sketches of a theorem involving intersecting lines drawn between circles, which reminded her of a laser light show in her native city. Mathematician Nat Friedman’s creation incorporates the images of knots and soap bubbles, key building blocks in understanding mathematical geometry. (Image courtesy of Paul Stacy.) See more images of art on exhibit at the meeting.

    --- Lisa DeKeukelaere

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  • Joint Mathematics Meetings: "Of the Algorithms, by the Algorithms, for the Algorithms," by Chris Wilson. Slate, 13 January 2009.
  • Fourth Illinois
                Congressional district

     

    Wilson writes about the session on redistricting that occurred on the last afternoon and evening of the Joint Mathematics Meetings. Mathematicians, social scientists, and lawyers came together to discuss how legislative districts are drawn. The question is politically relevant because, after the 2010 census, most states will redraw their Congressional districts. Currently no algorithm exists for redrawing districts, partly because there is no agreed-on measure of the regularity---or irregularity---of a district. Slate has posted images of some of the most extreme examples of irregular districts. (At left: Fourth Illinois Congressional District [in green], from National Atlas.)

    --- Mike Breen

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  • Joint Mathematics Meetings: "Mathematicians Show How Beetles Can Share a Niche," by Patrick Barry. Science News, 6 January 2009.
  • The prevailing wisdom is that, with two species of flour beetle in the same jar of flour, one species will eventually drive the other to extinction. Indeed, that is the case in most instances, but a mathematical model presented by Jim Cushing (University of Arizona) shows how the two species can co-exist. The model confirms an experiment done with flour beetles in the 1960s, in which in all but one case, one species of the beetles was driven to extinction by the other. Since then, an explanation of the anomalous case has eluded scientists. Cushing's model accounts for a subtle evolutionary change in a species, in this case the tendency to eat their own eggs, which affects the birth and death rates and results in the survival of both species.

    --- Mike Breen

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  • Joint Mathematics Meetings: "Fighting cholera by the numbers," by Roberta Kwok. Naturenews, 9 January 2009.
  • Rachael Neilan, a graduate student at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, presented a model to determine the best overall strategy involving vaccination, sanitation, and antibiotic treatment, to control an outbreak of cholera. The model predicts how much of each strategy should be used and for how long. Neilan tested the model on an outbreak that occurred in the early 1900s close to the Bay of Bengal. The tactics suggested by the model reduced deaths (from 31 to 9) and cut the peak number of infections by more than half. Although the model is not ready to be used, Rita Colwell, a molecular biologist and former head of the National Science Foundation says that the model, "allows [epidemiology] to be far more quantitative and far more locale-specific than it has been in the past."

    --- Mike Breen

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  • Joint Mathematics Meetings: "Who Wants to Be a Mathematician?" by Michael Alison Chandler. Washington Post "x=why?" blog, 7 January 2009.
  • Alexander Zhu,
                Mike Breen, and Linus Hamilton

     

    Chandler is a reporter on a one-year assignment as a student in an algebra class at Fairfax High School in Virginia. She writes about math education at the school and in the U.S. Her blog on 7 January was about the AMS math game Who Wants to Be a Mathematician (no question mark). Chandler included a picture of the two game winners, Alexander Zhu (Poolesville High, MD), who won US$500 and a TI-Nspire graphing calculator, and Linus Hamilton (Eleanor Roosevelt High, MD), who won US$3000 in a TI-Nspire graphing calculator. Linus, who is a ninth grader, felt that the game questions were "medium hard."

    --- Mike Breen (in the middle, thought the questions were very hard)

     

  • Read more about events at the 2009 Joint Mathematics Meetings in Washington, DC.
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"Calculating the Geography of Crime," by Patrick Barry. Science News, 31 January 2009.

finding
            criminals

 

Well-established principles of criminology give clues as to where serial criminals may live based on where they commit their crimes. Some mathematical models have been used by social scientists to develop the field of "geographic profiling" (as seen, for example, in the TV show NUMB3RS), but only recently have mathematicians begun to be involved. The techniques that have been developed assume that the likelihood of a criminal striking near his or her home drops off evenly in all directions regardless of geography, and it is a difficult mathematical task to incorporate the geographical data. Mike O'Leary, an applied mathematician at Towson University in Maryland, recently gave a talk at the Joint Mathematics Meetings about his new research in this area. O'Leary is developing software which would combine some of the older techniques with more detailed data about geography (e.g. where the major roads are and where easy targets are located), neighborhood demographics, and even the age of the criminal to get more mathematically accurate likelihood distributions. These analyses are far from perfect, but give police a good starting point and reduce the pool of suspects. O'Leary's code will be free for police departments to use.

--- Adriana Salerno

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"Math Whiz Stamps Profound Imprint on Computing World," by Kevin Robinson-Avila. New Mexico Business Weekly, 30 January 2009.

This profile of Cleve Moler, the creator of the program Matrix Laboratories (MatLab), gives a glimpse into the interactions possible between academic and industrial sectors. As a college student, Moler was aiming more for a career in journalism than math. But his studies led him to Stanford's first computer science department, where he became interested in numerical analysis and computing and earned a Ph.D. in 1965. In the 1970s, while he was a professor at the University of New Mexico, Moler designed MatLab, software for manipulating matrices, as a teaching tool. That teaching tool evolved to become a professional tool widely used by engineers and scientists, as well as mathematicians. In 1984, in an effort to sell MatLab, Moler co-founded MathWorks with an electrical engineer and left academia soon after. Today the company is worth around US$400 million. At age 69, Moler continues to improve MatLab and create new simulation software. He lives in Arizona and just finished a term as president of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM).

--- Brie Finegold

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"The Lumberjack and the Mathematician," by Sean Hurley. New Hampshire Public Radio, 30 January 2009.

lumberjack -
            worst job?
Dangerous, seasonal, low-paying work with a low hiring outlook.

 

Radio correspondent Hurley interviews Tony Lee of JobsRated.com, which recently rated "mathematician" as number one job to have in the U.S. Lee says the rating "is based on a statistical study with weighting on different aspects." Peter Winkler, a mathematics professor at Dartmouth College weighs in, admitting "along with good pay, most mathematicians enjoy low stress, secure futures, a lack of deadlines, and a camaraderie of their fellow mathematicians." The transcript and audio file are online.

--- Annette Emerson

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"Matemática mente (Mathematics mind)", by Javier Fresán. Público, 25 January 2009.

The Spanish newspaper Público devoted a two-page spread in its science section to a report about a conference on the mathematical influence of Alexander Grothendieck. The conference was held in January 2009 at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques in Paris, the institute of which Grothendieck was a founding member and where he did his greatest work. The article presents Grothendieck's early biography up to his employment at the IHES and presents an account of his revolutionary work in reshaping algebraic geometry. The article also describes Grothendieck's pacifist leanings and the quirks in his character that some considered to be paranoia. The article ends with a discussion of the conference itself. Grothendieck, who did not attend the conference, lives today as a hermit in the French Pyrenées. The article includes a rogue's gallery of other well known mathematicians, with headlines intended to highlight their eccentricities; Alan Turing is called "the `hacker' and gay martyr" and John Nash "the hallucinating Nobelist".

--- Allyn Jackson

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"When numbers don't add up", by Laura Spinney. New Scientist, 24 January 2009, pages 40-43.

This article discusses the phenomenon of dyscalculia, the inability to make sense of and manipulate numbers. According to the article, dyscalculia is approximately as common as dyslexia, affecting about 5 percent of all people. The article describes recent approaches to research into dyscalculia that focus on trying to discern whether humans are born with a concept of "exact number" or whether this concept is learned after birth. If the latter is true, there might be ways of correcting dyscalculia.

--- Allyn Jackson

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"In Plato's Cave," by Edward Carr. The Economist, 22 January 2009.

In this article, Edward Carr gives a detailed view of how mathematical modeling is used as a powerful tool for predicting financial markets, and how it can fail. First, it describes how mathematical models have been used to calculate the value of derivatives. Carr states that the Black-Scholes options-pricing model "transformed financial markets from bull rings into today's quantitative powerhouses," but the approach "also led to some of the late boom's most disastrous lapses." Some of the mathematics used in the model assumes that share prices follow a gentle random walk away from an equilibrium, but the reality is that share-price movements are much more violent. "Quants" have not tinkered with the model too much, however, as the computations can get too complex and unwieldy for traders and markets. In "this crash," states Carr, foreign-exchange, interest-rate and equity derivatives models have behaved "roughly as they should."

The main problem came with modeling pools of mortgages with collateralized-debt obligations, or CDOs. Carr then explains how, despite the theory behind them, CDOs were hopeless. He contrasts the modeling with that of derivatives explained earlier: derivatives model an unknown price from known market prices, but CDOs required modeling from history. "There was no guarantee that the future would be like the past," he notes. Also, mortgage originators stopped using their intuition, and instead based all of their decisions on mathematical predictors. Modern finance is about measuring risks, Carr writes, but corporate and mortgage-backed CDOs were a "leap in the dark." He then goes on to explain how in "value-at-risk" (VAR) calculations, "tail risk" was largely ignored. Basically, low probability, big loss scenarios are a lot more probable than it was originally thought. He concludes by quoting Edmund Phelps, the 2006 Nobel prize winner in economics, who says that mathematics can only take you so far. His own conclusion: "There is a big role for judgement and intuition, things that managers are supposed to provide. Why have they failed?"

--- Adriana Salerno

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"Math Whizzes Shoot to Set Record for Traversing Subway System," by Sergey Kadinsky and Rich Schapiro. New York Daily News, 22 January 2009.
"Pair Breaks Subway World Record, Travels Citywide in Less than a Day," by Caitlin Millat and Jose Martinez. New York Daily News, 24 January 2009.

Chris and Matt,
            between trains

 

Image of Matt (left) and Chris (right) between trains, courtesy of Chris Solarz.

 

After publicizing their intent to get into the Guinness Book of World Records for the fastest trip through all 468 local subway stations in New York, two employees of a Manhattan investment firm have done just that. The route they took is "like our special sauce" says Chris Solarz, one of the two friends who both run marathons as a hobby. The pair ran many software simulations to determine the optimal route, taking into consideration bathroom locations. Out of trillions of possible routes, their program chose one that took them about 23 hours to complete, beating the previous record by about two hours. Afterwards, they went straight to their regular jobs as investment analysts.

When contacted by the Math Digest, Chris and Matt described their adventure and gave some details about their algorithm. They worked for more than seven months, using graph theory, lots of computing power, and help from colleagues to refine their algorithm, and did more than 50 hours of test-riding the subway lines. Although it involved a lot of effort, they both agree that it was a "real fun experience" that didn't seem like work at all. About 10 reporters were there to see the pair off when they started, and about 25 were waiting on the platform at the last stop. Despite all these reporters, Chris and Matt say that their Math Digest interview was their first chance to talk about graph theory.

--- Brie Finegold

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"Asimov's Foundation to Become a Movie," compiled by Dave Itzkoff. New York Times, 20 January 2009.

The New York Times, as well as Coventry Telegraph, Animation Magazine, Total Film, among other news media and blogs, report that Isaac Asimov's novel Foundation will be made into a movie. Columbia Pictures won the auction for film rights to the science fiction work, "whose first volume concerns a mathematician put on trial after predicting the collapse of civilization." According to the Newsarama blog, "[Asimov's] original novels are the science fiction equivalent of Lord of the Rings in the eyes of many fans and genre scholars and were based by Asimov on Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire... and [Foundation] is one of Asimov's more cerebral works".

--- Annette Emerson

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"John R. Stallings Jr., 73, California Mathematician, Is Dead", by Kenneth Chang. New York Times, 19 January 2009.

John Stallings was best known for his work in 1960 on the renowned Poincaré Conjecture, which states that any simply connected manifold is homeomorphic to the sphere. Right after Stephen Smale announced a proof for dimensions five and higher, Stallings took a crack at the problem and produced a different proof that worked for dimensions seven and higher. Stallings, who was a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, did research in geometry and topology. In 1970, he received the AMS Frank Nelson Cole Prize in Algebra for his paper "On torsion-free groups with infinitely many ends" (Annals of Mathematics, 1968). The obituary has some intriguing quotations from Stallings's 1965 article, "How Not to Prove the Poincaré Conjecture", in which he recounts a dead-end approach to a proof that had him fooled for a while.

--- Allyn Jackson

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"Gegen den Mangel an Beweisen (Against the lack of proof)", by George Szpiro. Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 11 January 2009.

This month's installment of George Szpiro's monthly column on mathematics ("George Szpiros kleines Einmaleins") discusses a proposal by two Israeli law professors to use basic probability theory to determine the culpability of an accused beyond reasonable doubt.

--- Allyn Jackson

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"Three Q's." Newsmakers, Science, 9 January 2009, page 191.
"Four Q's." Newsmakers, Science, 16 January 2009, page 317.

Each week, the Newsmakers section of Science features a set of questions for a scientist in the news. Mathematics was the focus of the questions for two consecutive January issues. First, documentary filmmaker George Csicsery answered questions about why mathematics and mathematicians are interesting. Csicsery won the 2009 Joint Policy Board for Mathematics Communications Award. His most recent films are Julia Robinson and Hilbert's Tenth Problem and Hard Problems: The Road to the World's Toughest Math Contest. Then former AMS Executive Director and current President of Math for America, John Ewing, was asked about high school mathematics education. Regarding the chance of improving high school math instruction, Ewing said, "I think the prospects are pretty good. ... The money you invest in a teacher, ... when you spread that money out over the thousands of students [taught during his or her career], it's actually pretty cheap."

--- Mike Breen

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"The Rush for '21st Century Skills'," by Jay Mathews. Washington Post, 5 January 2009.

The idea that classroom exercises should tie facts and simple processes, such as addition or subtraction, to real-world applications and examples describes a recent emphasis on "21st century skills"---a buzz concept President Obama has referenced and schools nationwide are working to adopt. Earlier educational doctrine operated on the principle that younger students were incapable of abstract thought, and therefore should learn building blocks of knowledge but not critical thinking just yet. A recent study by the U.S. Department of Education showed, however, that students of all ages benefited most from learning facts and problem-solving skills simultaneously. Schools in the Washington, DC, area are attempting to incorporate this new finding and "21st century skills" into curriculum by developing digital classrooms and new coursework on financial literacy and forensic science. An educator interviewed for the article expresses the fear, however, that additional academic time for technology and "boardroom skills" will come at the expense of art and literature education.

--- Lisa DeKeukelaere

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"Risk Mismanagement," by Joe Nocera. New York Times Magazine, 4 January 2009.
"It's Time to Unravel a Financial Knot," by Gretchen Morgenson. New York Times, 25 January 2009, Sunday Business, pages 1-2.

The cover story "Risk Mismanagement" is about financial models called Value at Risk (VaR), built on probability and statistics, that express risk as a single dollar figure. The risk could be for one portfolio or for an entire company. The figures were created in the 1990s and became widely used and heavily relied upon. Nocera poses the following questions: "Could VaR and the other risk models Wall Street relies on have helped prevent the financial crisis if only Wall Street paid better attention to them? Or did Wall Street's reliance on them help lead us into the abyss?" No clear answer is given. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, says that risk models do more harm than good because the greatest risks are always unforeseen. The models account for what happens 99% of the time, but can say nothing about the remaining 1% which is where the biggest trouble is. On the other hand, Gregg Berman of RiskMetrics (a risk-management consulting firm) thinks "this was much more a failure of management than of risk management. I think blaming models for this would be very unfortunate because you are placing blame on a mathematical equation. You can't blame math."

One part of the financial crisis, which some people think may become a huge part, are credit-default swaps (C.D.S.). Right now it's a US$30 trillion market, about half of which may be at risk. The swaps were also created in the 1990s and are like insurance for bond holders: C.D.S. pay off if a company defaults. Morgenson writes that they became a lure for speculators, betting against weak companies. Now that many companies are teetering on the brink of collapse, huge amounts of C.D.S. may have to be paid off. Sylvain R. Raynes, a mathematics professor at Baruch College, says that "The financial system is frozen largely because of credit-default swaps." To avoid bailing out speculators, Raynes offers a plan he calls inversion, which would treat those who hold debt and bought C.D.S. for protection differently from speculators who bought them as a bet against a troubled company. More details of his plan are online. Morgenson concludes with this: "Credit-default swaps clearly played a role in this debacle, and it is crucial that they are part of the solution. It won't be easy: Wall Street and other beneficiaries of the current setup will scream. But since they are among those who helped bring our ecoonomy to its knees, let's try ignoring their objections."

--- Mike Breen

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"Doing the Math to Find the Good Jobs," by Sarah E. Needleman. The Wall Street Journal, 5 January 2009.
"Do Science Jobs Make The Best Careers?, by Ira Flatow. Talk of the Nation (NPR), 16 January 2009.

Out of 200 careers, that of the mathematician was ranked as the best in the United States, with actuary and statistician close behind. The website CareerCast.com evaluated professions according to five criteria: environment, income, employment outlook, physical demands, and stress. With few physical demands, environmental hazards, little stress, and a relatively high income, mathematicians fare far better than those ranked lowest: lumberjacks. To give an idea of what sorts of activities a mathematician might do on the job, the article features Jennifer Courter, who works from home on computer programs used in the film industry. If you are wondering about where the income rating assigned to mathematicians by the ranking, US$94,160, came from, it is not the average income of mathematicians. Rather, the number was obtained by finding the mid-level income of US$94,000 and adding US$160 corresponding to a 160% "Growth Potential". See the full ranking as well as information on methodology, at the CareerCast website.

--- Brie Finegold

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"Math success doesn't add up for U.S. girls." Science News, 3 January 2009.

This was the top Science News "Numbers" story of 2008, based on three studies published last year, one of which is "Cross-Cultural Analysis of Students with Exceptional Talent in Mathematical Problem Solving," from the November 2008 Notices of the AMS. Science News summarized the article, writing that "Peer pressure, gender stereotyping and low expectations have more to do with the dearth of women in math than ability." The two other studies were both published in Science, one on 25 July 2008 in which researchers concluded that higher SAT scores for boys were a "statistical artifact," and one on 28 November 2008, involving international students, concluding that test scores for males tend to be more variable than those for females.

--- Mike Breen

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"Peek inside a singular mind": Interview with Daniel Tammet. Interviewed by Celeste Biever. New Scientist, 3 January 2009, pages 40-41.

Daniel Tammet has an unusual mind: At the age of 8 or 9, he developed his own intuitive ways of adding numbers that were much faster than those he was learning at school. In 2004, in his 20s, he set the European record for memorizing the largest number of digits of the irrational number pi (he recited 22,514 digits of pi in 5 hours, 9 minutes). "I have a relationship with numbers that is similar to the relationship that most people have with language," he explained. He has a deep sense of the properties of various numbers and how they relate to each other. "Every number has a texture," he said. "If it is a `lumpy' number, then immediately my mind will relate it to other numbers which are lumpy---the lumpiness will tell me there is a relationship, there is a common divisor, or a pattern between the digits." He also excels at learning languages; the article states that he learned Icelandic in a week. Tammet believes that the differences between so-called savants like him and other people have been exaggerated. His book, Embracing the Wide Sky: A tour across the horizons of the human mind, is intended to clear up some misconceptions about savant abilities and show how other people can develop such abilities. Doing so, "they will be more comfortable with language and mathematics, and learning and education in general."

--- Allyn Jackson

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"More or Less?" Radio segments aired on BBC News in January and February 2009.

BBC's Radio 4, in partnership with the Open University, airs segments related to mathematics, numbers, and statistics. Recent programs include "The figures on fertility," "Politics special," and "Statistics jargon."

--- Annette Emerson

Recent "Sexy Maths" columns by Marcus du Sautoy. TimesOnline, January 2009.

Mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, Oxford University Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, writes a regular column called "Sexy Maths" in TimesOnline. The columns shed light on the mathematics behind many everyday topics, as well as some choice topics of his own. Columns posted in January: "Rubik's Cube returns," and "Survival of the mathematician."

--- Annette Emerson

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