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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)


April 2009

"'Numbers' [sic] Defies Naysayers", by Paula Hendrickson; and "Caltech Proves Hospitable to Filming", by Craig Phillips. Variety, 30 April 2009.
"Hawking Counts 'Numb3rs' as a Fave", by Christina Kinon, New York Daily News, 1 May 2009.

As the television show NUMB3RS reached its 100th episode, several articles about the popular series appeared in the press. In an article for Variety, Paula Hendrickson writes about the early challenges faced by the series and its co-creators, husband-and-wife team Nick Falacci and Cheryl Heuton. Even though focus groups liked the show---and what they liked most about the show was the math---there were concerns that a show involving mathematics, even used to solve crimes, would not have much of an audience. Instead, executive producer Tony Scott notes that "our audience stays engaged because it's at a level where they can jigsaw, they can put the pieces together. They can do the subtractions and the additions, and they like that sort of engagement." In addition, the writers were able to create the right balance of "math, crime and characters." For example, Heuton and Falacci included a family element in the story because, according to Heuton, "American audiences like crime procedurals, particularly if there's a good dose of character and humor."

In another Variety article, Craig Phillips notes that the California Institute of Technology, known in the show as the fictitious "CalSci," has a long history of serving as a film location. The fact that this show features a mathematician made the Caltech administration "particularly excited and receptive," according to Falacci. In fact, NUMB3RS has become a part of campus life and shooting areas are not cordoned off: "Real students and professors wander by---you can often tell the actual students because some of them tend to be barefoot," says Heuton.

In the New York Daily News, Chistina Kinon reports on Stephen Hawking's surprise visit to the NUMB3RS set during the filming of the 100th episode. "His people were telling us that he loves that we use math in the show and talk about physics a lot," said Heuton. Hawking was even offered a role in that episode but was unable to get a work permit before his scheduled departure a few days later.

--- Claudia Clark

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"'Rappin' Mathematician' meets the president as Teacher of the Year finalist", by Gary Warth. North County Times, 28 April 2009.

Alex Kajitani says his Rappin' Mathematician act was "born out of survival" in an effort to help students connect with and learn math concepts. An example of his rhymes accompanies the article. Wearing dark sunglasses and moving to a beat, Kajitani sings "What's that crooked line? It's a radical sign. When you see a perfect square, pull it out of there." Now he has earned national recognition as one of four finalists for the National Teacher of the Year for his unconventional teaching style. The winner of the award, Anthony Mullen (a special education teacher), will be released from classroom duties to travel nationally and internationally as a spokesperson for the teaching profession. Kajitani, who has been teaching for eight years, is 2009 California Teacher of the Year and will be part of the committee choosing San Diego County's 2010 Teacher of the Year. Several of his raps, like "The Number Line Dance", can be found on YouTube or on his CD, and feature his students from Mission Middle School.

--- Brie Finegold

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"Are Some Breast-Feeding Claims Overblown?" by Lauren Cox. ABC News, 27 April 2009.

According to Cox, "Mathematician Rebecca Goldin, director of research at STATS, a non-profit group designed to improve the quality of statistical information in the media, said in her review of studies, she really was only convinced of a few health benefits of breast-feeding for full-term healthy babies living in the developed world." Her conclusions, based on her review of much literature, found that studies cited by the American Academy of Pediatrics---claiming breast milk could reduce obesity, increase intelligence, and even reduce death risk---were "mathematically questionable," but she concludes that "breast-feeding is a very difficult behavior to study" as there are no control experiments.

--- Annette Emerson

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"Alarm at Australian Research Council 'restrictions'," by Guy Healy. The Australian, 22 April 2009.

The writer interviews mathematician Peter Hall about the Australian Research Council's "plans to effectively restrict the number of disciplines in which researchers can publish under the trial [Excellence in Research (ERA)] exercise." Hall (visiting from UC Davis), "an expert in the application of statistics to economics and the physical, engineering and biological sciences," notes that such research is multi-disciplinary and "will fall between the cracks and won't be assessed well by ERA if the number of research codes is restricted too tightly."

--- Annette Emerson

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"The Numbers Say Robinson Was Bold, to Little Effect," by Dan Rosenheck. New York Times, 19 April 2009, Sports page 9.

Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play Major League Baseball, stole home 18 times. Stealing home is risky---Robinson was caught 11 times---since the runner must arrive at home plate before the pitched ball does. Rosenheck analyzes Robinson's steals by comparing the number of runs his team, the Dodgers, were expected to score before his steal attempt (which depends on the number of outs and the number of baserunners) with the number expected after the attempt. He finds that Robinson's attempts' net effect on run expectancy over the ten-year period was 8.30, a pretty small amount. Rosenheck also finds that although Robinson's steals were often low-percentage plays, they were not foolhardy: "Robinson knew exactly what he was doing when he wandered off third base. Today's best computers could barely have picked their spots better."

--- Mike Breen

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"Return of the Native." Random Samples, Science, 17 April 2009, page 317.

Mathematician Tony Chan, head of the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate at the National Science Foundation, is returning to his hometown of Hong Kong to become president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. The university is small but "aspires to become the Massachusetts Institute of Technology of Asia." Chan's five-year contract as president begins in September 2009.

--- Mike Breen

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"Inside the tangled world of string theory", by Matthew Chalmers. New Scientist, 15 April 2009.

This profile of physicist Edward Witten discusses his ground-breaking work in string theory and why the jury is still out on whether it will provide a unified explanation of all of the fundamental forces of nature. Witten, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, has spent the 2008-2009 academic year at CERN in Geneva. His hope was to witness experiments on the Large Hadron Collider that might test some predictions of string theory. But just nine days after Witten's arrival at CERN, technical flaws shut down the LHC before it could conduct any real experiments, and according to the article the repairs will take a year.

--- Allyn Jackson

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"IBM Makes Math Cool, Current," by Darryl K. Taft. eWeek.com, 15 April 2009.

The Business Analytics and Mathematical Sciences Department at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center is a team of about 200 researchers who are in many ways similar to the lead character in the TV show NUMB3RS, according to its vice president, Brenda Dietrich. Basically, this team of mathematicians and computer scientists applies mathematics to solve a wide range of problems much like Charlie in NUMB3RS applies mathematics to solve crimes: the goal is to figure out the right model and which techniques to apply. These researchers work on a variety of projects, from the more standard creation of algorithms for error-checking codes and making the software and hardware perform better, to analyzing data from social media such as Twitter feeds, social networking applications and blogs. IBM mathematicians, who "make up the largest math department in the world housed in one institution", are also expected to work on their own research, keep current with the field, and to conduct outreach to high school and college students.

--- Adriana Salerno

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"Mining for the 'Prime Jewels' of Numbers", by Joe Palca. NPR, 10 April 2009.

This broadcast begins with the statement that 50,000 personal computers are searching for the "world's largest prime number." Then Joe Palca announces: "The largest prime number is ACTUALLY 12,978,189 digits long." Palca assumes that his audience has forgotten the definition of prime, but they might also have forgotten that there are infinitely many primes, a fact which is contradicted and goes unmentioned. The enormous number to which Palca is referring is the largest prime yet identified by the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search (GIMPS). Left unmentioned is the fact that no one knows if there are infinitely many Mersenne primes. Rather than hearing the definition of a Mersenne prime---a prime that is one less that a power of two---the interested listener is referred to the website. The broadcast is largely spent emphasizing the size of the largest known prime, discussing the fact that distributed computing mitigated the difficulty of finding it, and betting on when the next large prime will be identified. The downloadable software available through GIMPS has led to the discovery of 12 Mersenne primes over the past 13 years.

The written article on NPR's website fills in many of the gaps in the broadcast. A graph shows the exponential growth of the Mersenne primes, but the expression 2n-1 is mistakenly called an "equation" from which the Mersenne primes are derived. Also, no reason is given for why Mersenne primes are easier to find than primes in general. The most striking part of the four-and-a-half minute program and accompanying article is the response by Tennessee mathematician Chris Caldwell to Palca's inquiry as to why one would search so doggedly for large prime numbers. He says that the largest known prime number is like the Hope Diamond: "Nobody there looking at the Hope Diamond ever asks, 'Why did they bother to dig it up?'"

--- Brie Finegold

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"Berkeley Math Circle Takes Teens to New Dimensions," by Shelley Schlender. Voice of America News, 8 April 2009.

Berkeley Math
            Circle
Cliff Stoll captures the minds and hearts of the Berkeley Math Circle students with his animated presentation of cornerstones of topology. Photo courtesy of the Berkeley Math Circle.

 

The Berkeley Math Circle is one of the most prestigious programs of its kind. The program, directed by Zvezdelina Stankova, exposes talented teens from the Bay area to advanced mathematics that they are not commonly taught in their schools, like differential equations and the fourth dimension. This radio story by Schlender focuses on one particular meeting, in which astrophysicist Cliff Stoll takes the students on a multidimensional ride. His goal is to teach them to compare the different features of 2-, 3-, and 4-dimensional space. The ideas are subtle, but the bright students soon catch on and come to unintuitive, but correct, conclusions: you can't tie your shoes in the fourth dimension, in fact, you can't even exist in the fourth dimension because your DNA wouldn't work! Stoll's enthusiastic two-hour lecture actually exposed students to the ideas behind the main questions cosmologists are asking about our universe today. The gifted students hope to one day become scientists, mathematicians, and doctors, and Stankova says that she still hopes one of them becomes a Nobel Prize winner. (The book, A Decade of the Berkeley Math Circle: The American Experience, Volume I, edited by Zvezdelina Stankova and Tom Rike (AMS, 2008) includes sessions at the Berkeley Math Circle, how the circle got started, and how it functions.)

--- Adriana Salerno

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"Freeman Dyson's 4th-Grade Math Puzzle," and "Puzzle Answers From a 4th-Grader and Freeman Dyson," by John Tierney. New York Times, 6 and 10 April 2009.

In the mood for some recreational mathematics? Check out these two entries in John Tierney's TierneyLab.blog. The main question Tierney poses---and answers---in these entries came from an anecdote in a New York Times Magazine profile of Freeman Dyson. According to the story, a question is casually posed during lunch among a group of scientists, including Dyson, as to whether "there is an integer where, if you take its last digit and move it to the front, turning, say 112 to 211, it's possible to exactly double the value." Dyson's response to the question---"Oh, that's not difficult...but of course the smallest such number is 18 digits long"---caused the group to fall silent; "nobody had the slightest idea how Freeman could have known such a fact or, even more terrifying, could have derived it in his head in about two seconds." Such a 2-parasitic number, as well as other parasitic numbers, can actually be generated using some very simple arithmetic, which Tierney describes in detail in the second blog, "Puzzle Answers From a 4th-Grader and Freeman Dyson".

 

--- Claudia Clark

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"Phillies Will Contend: So Says the Math Man," by Tom Avril. Philadelphia Inquirer, 6 April 2009.

Mathematician Bruce Bukiet (New Jersey Institute of Technology) predicts that the 2009 baseball season will find the Philadelphia Phillies in a three-way tie with the New York Mets and the Atlanta Braves for first place in the National League East. Unlike most sports fans, Bukiet bases his forecast on a complex set of equations and variables, a model for performance that accounts for each player's record within the past three years. The predictions aren't exact---the model underestimated the number of Phillies' wins last year by six and did not pick the Tampa Bay Rays to win---but according to Bukiet, a gambling sports fan could have netted earnings from his predictions in six of the last eight years. Bukiet also uses math to calculate the probable outcome of each individual game during the season, including adjustments to account for injuries and starting pitcher selection. His other picks: AL East: New York Yankees by 2, AL Central: Cleveland Indians by 5, AL West: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim by 21, Wild Card: Boston Red Sox; NL Central: Chicago Cubs by 12, NL West: Los Angeles Dodgers by 12.

--- Lisa DeKeukelaere

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"State wades into debate about how to best teach math", by Kristen Alloway. Star-Ledger, 5 April 2009.

This article discusses the ever shifting debate between supporters and critics of "Reform Math." Alloway writes, "At one extreme in the debate is an approach called 'reform math,' which emphasizes conceptual learning---or an understanding of why we do math the way we do." And at the other extreme? This question is not explicitly addressed, although Alloway often refers to "both" methods or apporoaches, as if two methods have been described. The section of her article entitled "In Defense of Reform" is actually dominated by criticism of reform, which has apparently dominated the curricula in New Jersey over the past decade. As the article progresses, it seems that the other extreme in the debate is an approach that emphasizes computation and rote learning, but few particulars concerning this approach are mentioned.

In New Jersey, debate is heating up because of a new opportunity to revise the current curricula for public schools. Twenty-five parents, math educators, and math professors will meet to make recommendations to the state concerning possible changes to the curricula. Although New Jersey's schools currently earn better test scores than 35 other states, some feel that a "back-to-basics" approach is needed in lieu of the current Reform Math. No mention is made of how teachers are being trained or would be trained to adjust to any revisions in the curriculum, and all the opinions in the article are from the point of view of educators who do not currently work with students. The article wraps up with the following sentiment: "You can't isolate computational fluency and conceptual understanding," said Sandra Stotsky, a professor at the University of Arkansas and a member of the National Math Advisory Group. "The two must march together."

--- Brie Finegold

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"Quantum mathematics could boost keyword searches." New Scientist, 4 April 2009, page 18.

This short news article describes a new application of random matrix theory, which is used to analyze quantum systems, to the problem of internet keyword searches. Most keyword searches simply look at the frequency of the word in a given document and compare the result to the frequency of that word in a set of standard documents. A document is considered relevant if the frequency of that word is larger than the frequency in the standard documents. The new work evaluated the importance of words in a document based on where they appear, following the logic that the most important words tend to appear close to each other, while less important words are evenly distributed. The researchers are also looking into whether the method can extract information about genes.

--- Allyn Jackson

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"Profile: Ken Golden: Cold Equations," by Dana Mackenzie. Science, 3 April 2009, pages 32-33.

Ken Golden
            taking an ice sample
Image courtesy of Ken Golden.

 

Mackenzie describes how Golden (at left, taking an ice sample) has used mathematics to understand the properties of sea ice---an important, yet poorly understood, component in the climate. One of Golden's important discoveries is the "rule of fives," which describes a sudden change in the permeability of sea ice that occurs at about -5o C when the sea ice brine fraction is about 5%. In the article Golden also relates some of his many adventures studying sea ice in the Antarctic. He is the author of "Climate Change and the Mathematics of Transport in Sea Ice, appearing in the May issue of Notices (pp. 562-584). " Read more about Golden's work with sea ice and listen to him talking about his work and his adventures in the Mathematical Moment Going With the Floes. In addition to conducting his research into sea ice, Golden served as this year's Mathematics Awareness Month Committee chair, helping to organize activities and create materials centered on the theme "Mathematics and Climate."

Note: Also in this issue of Science is a picture of AMS Associate Executive Director Sam Rankin, head of the AMS Washington Division, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, at the 15th annual Coalition for National Science Funding (CNSF) Exhibition on Capitol Hill. In the article ("Nancy Pelosi: Foursquare for Science," page 24), Pelosi is interviewed about government funding of math and science.

--- Mike Breen

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"ASU engineering professor has designs on origami," by Charlsey Panzino. USA Today 3 April 2009.

The Wave, by
            Goran Konjevod

 

USA Today picked up this profile of Goran Konjevod, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, after his work "Wave (32), 2006" (pictured here) was awarded First Prize at the 2009 Mathematical Art Exhibition. Konjevod, a computer science and engineering professor, says, "Origami provides excellent examples that span both serious topics and fun exercises for teaching mathematics, computer science and engineering design." In his courses he uses origami to design models of bridges and test design principles, and notes that folding, "the main principle behind origami," is used in making telescope lenses that unfold in space and stents that unfold in blood vessels.

The image can be sent as an e-postcard.

--- Annette Emerson

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

Euclid with
            students

 

Marcus du Sautoy writes a regular column about mathematics for TimesOnline in the U.K. "Drawing parallels in geometry" (8 April), written just after the 2009 Abel Prize was awarded to Mikhail Gromov for his revolutionary contributions to geometry, provides an overview of the contributions of Euclid and mentions Riemann, Gauss, Bolyai and Lobachevsky. (The image here is of the ancient Greek mathematician Euclid with students.) "The Fibonacci sequence's prime rate" (15 April) describes Fibonacci numbers in nature, rhythm patterns, and Le Corbusier's architecture, and concludes, "It is still a mystery whether you can get infinitely many Fibonacci primes. But then mathematics would be boring if we knew all the answers." "What's unique about the number 1,729" (22 April) notes that this number has made an appearance in the television show Futurama and in the plays A Disappearing Number and Proof. du Sautoy retells the anecdote about G. H. Hardy and Srinivasa Ramanujan, in which Ramanujan disputes that 1,729 is a dull number: "No, Hardy. It is a very interesting number. It is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two positive cubes in two different ways."

--- Annette Emerson

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