"Danica McKellar Makes Math Vacation-Friendly,” an interview by Ira Flatow. NPR’s Talk of the Nation, 29 May 2009.
In this Science Friday interview, Ira Flatow talks with actress and author Danica McKellar about how she is helping improve the image of mathematics by specifically targeting middle school girls, and about how parents can contribute to the same effort. McKellar has published two books, Math Doesn’t Suck, intended for girls 10 to 12 years old, which focuses on proportions and fractions, and the pre-algebra book Kiss My Math. Both have recently become New York Times best sellers.
She is currently writing a book which is slated for a Fall 2010 release that will focus on algebra. McKellar tells Flatow that her own road to becoming an author was not that straightforward, starting with her fear of mathematics when she was in middle school. She credits great high school teachers with her later success in mathematics. In between her work in TV shows The Wonder Years and The West Wing, she got a degree in mathematics and co-authored a research paper, which caught the attention of a few literary agents. They felt she was a good candidate for a math book directed at a more general audience, and she immediately knew who she wanted her target audience to be. Her books look like teen magazines, and even include personality quizzes, like “Are You a Mathophobe?,” and many examples that involve shopping, gift-wrapping, and popularity. She says she went “so far with the girlie stuff” because she believes that in the ages between 9 and 14, girls are more vulnerable to deciding math is not for them, since society has trained them to believe “how you look is more important than what you think.” McKellar also concludes by inviting listeners (young and old) to email her with any math questions they have, and any requests they may have for her upcoming algebra book, by going to kissmymath.com and mathdoesntsuck.com.
--- Adriana Salerno
"Forget Tom Hanks. Meet the Real Professor Langdon," by Scott Smallwood. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 29 May 2009, page A6.
"Iraq-born teen cracks math puzzle." Yahoo! News, 28 May 2009.
The above period after "puzzle," should probably be three or four question marks. Yahoo! News was one of many Internet news sites reporting that a 16-year old Iraqi immigrant, now living in Sweden, supposedly had found something new (although it was never clear what) about the Bernoulli numbers. Reports also said that the student had been offered admission to Uppsala University. Neither the discovery nor the admission appears to be true, however, although an Uppsala professor did say that he found the student to be mathematically talented. Uppsala University has posted, "No new mathematical solution by Swedish teen," which was also picked up by Yahoo! News.
--- Mike Breen
"Neues aus dem Reich der Primzahlen (News from the kingdom of prime numbers)", by George Szpiro. Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 27 May 2009.
It is known that the leading digits of the prime numbers are uniformly distributed. However, two mathematicians recently discovered that when considering prime numbers below an upper bound, their leading digits follow Benford distributions.
--- Allyn Jackson
"The crisis in math, science," by Solomon Friedberg. The Boston Globe, 21 May 2009.
In this op-ed piece, Friedberg, chair at Boston College, recalls the National Defense Education Act that was spurred by the launch of Sputnik, and calls for a new Mathematics and Science Education Act to produce more well-qualified math and science teachers. Among other things, the act would provide higher salaries for math and science teachers, and courses for more subject knowledge for future teachers. Friedberg hopes that what he proposes will break a "feedback loop, with today's ill-prepared students becoming tomorrow's teachers."
--- Mike Breen
"Abel Prize laureate to develop geometric model of human heart." Pravda, 20 May 2009.
"The Odds of Deal or No Deal", by Richard Knight. BBC News, 18 May 2009.
Contestants on the Deal or No Deal game program (on television in both the U.K. and U.S.) "use a mixture of calculation, superstition, and brinkmanship" when they decide whether to choose a box with an unknown amount of money or to accept the offer of the Banker. The article explains how the game works and says that mathematician-players "would only exchange the unknown quantity inside their box for the Banker's offer if that offer were higher than the value they could expect to win by chance. The value they could expect to win by chance could be calculated by dividing the total amount of money still in the game by the number of remaining boxes." The author suggests people watch the next Deal or No Deal with a mathematical eye.
--- Annette Emerson
"Art tied up," by Colin Martin. Nature, 14 May 2009, page 169.
"Q&A: Origami Unfolded": An interview with Vanessa Gould. Interviewed by Roxanne Khamsi. Nature, 14 May 2009, page 169.
Why do so many children dislike math, leaving them as adults "vulnerable, not only to financial ruin, but in any situation involving mathematical thinking or reasoning"? In this article, Jo Boaler, University of Sussex professor of mathematics education, says the reason is the way mathematics is typically taught in school: "schoolchildren rarely experience real mathematics. Instead of posing questions, solving real and interesting problems, using and applying methods, and investigating patterns and relationships, children spend their time watching a teacher demonstrate methods and then practicing them." In addition, they "suffer because they come to believe that maths achievement equals intelligence, and to fail at maths is a sign of being stupid. This idea serves to erode children's confidence in their ability to think, and it is the reason so many children feel traumatized when they don't do well."
What can be done? Boaler says that parents can "help their children meet the real and exciting maths that exist in the world, and do well in maths at school," and she offers a few suggestions. These include letting your children know that they, like everyone else, can be good at math; giving them math puzzles and games to play with; helping them see that math is all around them; helping them see the logic in their wrong answers; helping them see themselves as good problem-solvers; and encouraging their teachers to apply problem-solving approaches in the classroom.
--- Claudia Clark
"Seventh-graders create iPhone app", by Brad Spirrison. Chicago Sun Times, 11 May 2009.
Eleven-year-old Owen Voorhees of Hinsdale, IL, invented MathTime, a flashcard application for the iPhone, and his nine-year-old brother Finn designed the application icon and math symbols. "I was programming with a hodgepodge of different sample codes," said Owen, and when he got stuck his father just pointed him to resources and let him figure it out. Seventh-graders from the University of Chicago Laboratory School, Sam Kaplan and Louie Harboe, have created an iPhone application called MathMaster that helps students practice square roots and multiplication tables to raise money for more iPhone and Internet projects.
--- Annette Emerson
"Plugging Holes in the Science of Forensics", by Henry Fountain. The New York Times, 11 May 2009.
Writer Henry Fountain begins this article---part of a special Science Times section on forensic science---with a brief review of a report released in February by a committee of the National Academy of Sciences. The committee found "serious problems" with the work being performed in crime labs around the country. Their most significant conclusion was that, with the exception of DNA evidence, "many forensic disciplines---including analysis of fingerprints [and] bite marks---were not grounded in the kind of rigorous, peer-reviewed research that is the hallmark of classic science." That does not mean there are no researchers working to improve the reliability of the forensic disciplines. For example, Fountain describes the work of Sargur N. Srihari, an expert in pattern recognition who "works with databases of fingerprints to derive the probabilities of random correspondence between two prints." He also describes the work that a group of statisticians and psychologists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology is doing to understand the human factors behind errors in forensic analysis.
In another part of this special section, a graphic, entitled "From 2-D Photo to 3-D Crime Scene," demonstrates how forensic photogrammetry is used to obtain three-dimensional information from the two-dimensional images of a crime or accident scene. See more of this collection of articles, videos, and audio recordings on the science of forensics.
--- Claudia Clark
"It May Seem Confusing But Autonomy Can Help", by Mike Harvey. Times Online, 11 May 2009.
Dr. Michael Lynch started Autonomy, one of the most successful information technology businesses in the world, by using ideas from his Ph.D. thesis in mathematical computing. When asked who he admired most, Lynch named Thomas Bayes, an 18th century mathematician and vicar who pioneered the concept of conditional probability while trying to prove the existence of God with mathematics. Of Bayes' work, Lynch says "It can be used to link the objective world of science with the subjective perceptions by which we live, to uncover the concept of meaning". Recognizing patterns in meaning is the bread and butter of the 13 year old company, which has 140 patents protecting algorithms for searching through large amounts of unstructured data such as phone calls and emails. Autonomy's algorithms sort information according to meaning and not just common strings of words or letters. This allows computers using these algorithms to identify the phrases "pink cadillac" and "fancy rose-colored car" as possibly referring to the same thing. However, because the analysis of the data is based on mathematics and not grammar, the same algorithms can be used to analyze different languages. Currently, Autonomy also offers its clients the ability to archive and track the data in their employees emails so as to instantly detect and document fraud. Autonomy's technology was used to track the trading habits of Jérôon;me Kerviel, whose unauthorized trading allegedly caused huge losses for the bank Société Générale in 2008.
--- Brie Finegold
"Experimente mit dem Computer (Experiments with the computer)", by George Szpiro. Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 10 May 2009.
In this piece George Szpiro discusses how computers are being used today as experimental tools in mathematics. This article, together with other pieces on mathematics by Szpiro, is available at www.GeorgeSzpiro.com.
--- Allyn Jackson
"Out of Work in Finance, They Turn to Teaching", by Mary Jo Patterson. New York Times, 7 May 2009.
Laid-off financial analysts and bankers have the opportunity to re-enter the workforce as math teachers, thanks to a new program in New Jersey that not only eases unemployment, but also helps curtail a statewide shortage of instructors. Many of the former Wall Street professionals were interested in entering the classroom, but lacked the requisite number of college mathematics credits to be eligible. New Jersey's program, Traders to Teachers, has helped bring these skilled professionals into the educational system by easing the requirements, enacting a fast-track for teacher certification, and providing free courses at Montclair State University to those accepted. More than 200 people have already expressed interest in the program, and many of the professionals see the large salary cut as worthwhile trade-off for the increased quality of life and the chance to leave Wall Street's instability behind.
--- Lisa DeKeukelaere
"Math outside the classroom: Keeping them hooked", by Arvind Gupta. Vancouver Sun, 7 May 2009.
Mathematician Arvind Gupta's column focuses on ways teachers and parents can try to keep students engaged in---or aware of---math outside the classroom and over the summer vacation. "The trick is to embed mathematical ideas into activities outside the classroom and encourage kids to have fun with math---from local summer math camps and programs at local universities, to science fairs and math competitions, to playing games or sports and thinking about mechanics, probabilities, and statistics. Activities that use or reveal mathematics can illuminate school lessons and open up new levels of enjoyment and achievement in math and science." Suggestions of activities "whether your child is stuck in a mathematical rut or performing brilliantly and looking for more engagement" include: entering fun and challenging math competitions put on around the country each spring (he lists some for various grade levels); playing the new free online math game called MathAmaze; attending a math camp (he lists some in British Columbia, Canada, and the AMS also posts a list of challenging math camps; participating in special events (in Vancouver, the Amusement Park Physics); and organizing a science fair of your own with the help of Science Buddies.
--- Annette Emerson
"Jonathan Ross tops the Twitter 'Most Influential' List", by Emma Barnett. Telegraph, 6 May 2009.
Although Ashton Kutcher is rated most popular amongst Twitter users by the public relations firm JCPR, Jonathan Ross is rated Most Influential and Engaged. The ratings are determined by taking a weighted average of 11 pieces of data pertaining to top celebrities' twitter accounts. Twit A is said to follow twit B if A keeps up with B's posts. The types of data collected include number of followers of the celebrity as well as the number of followers of followers. While popularity might be better indicated by the former, influence might be weighted toward the latter. Still different according to the JCPR website is "engagement", which is measured by a subjective "Involvement Index" and a "signal-to-noise ratio". The "Involvement index" measures quality of the twitter account by counting the questions and comments contributed to ongoing discussions. The "signal-to-noise ratio" is a ratio comparing how much non-personal information the celeb shares compared to how much he/she broadcasts personal activities. By changing the weighting of the average, the PR firm produces its three different lists "Most Influential, Most Engaged, and Most Popular". Read more about the data used to judge celebrity twits.
--- Brie Finegold
"Predicting Flu with the Aid of (George) Washington", by Donald G. McNeil, Jr. New York Times, 4 May 2009;
Three mathematicians---Mike Hopkins (Harvard University), Douglas Ravenel (University of Rochester) and Mike Hill (University of Virginia)---recently solved a 45-year-old problem in topology, the field that examines the characteristics of an object that remain unchanged when it is molded, bent, or stretched (but not torn). The problem, first posed by French mathematician Michel Kervaire in 1960, involved a specific number---the Kervaire invariant---that is tied to the geometry of an object and can be used to classify objects into categories. The invariant is equal to zero in most cases, but Kervaire's challenge was to determine which dimensions could hold objects with an invariant equal to one. Many mathematicians have attempted to answer the question in the past, and the recent solution, which draws on new conceptual ideas, has applications in quantum theory and string theory.
--- Lisa DeKeukelaere
Reviews of Wolfram Alpha:
Stephen Wolfram has released Wolfram Alpha, his "computational knowledge engine." Some are comparing it to the Google search engine, which organizes and ranks information already on the web, but Wolfram insists his engine will compute answers to questions posed by users. As he tells reporter Samo, "We're not using the things people have written down on the web. We're trying to use the actual corpus of human knowledge to compute specific answers." Samo reports that "Wolfram and his team of human curators have equipped their system with a wide array of mathematical equations, as well as 10 terabytes of data from thousands of sources: scientific journals, encyclopedias, government repositories and any other source the company feels is credible." Now that Wolfram Alpha has been released and reviewers are testing it, there are endorsements and criticisms. Reviewers Samo, Claburn, and Manjoo each tried asking questions of the new engine and found that some of the computations were truly remarkable and speedy. Examples of accurate answers cited in the articles are "what is the distance between Mars and Saturn?", "What is the molecular structure of the solvent acetone?", and "What is the musical notation for D# minor?" Manjoo seems to prefer the Google search engine, declaring---after crafting some questions that couldn't be answered---that Wolfram Alpha "is a savant, smart about a few things but profoundly ignorant about large swaths of human knowledge." Claburn reports, "When presented with questions related to its curated knowledge base that can be parsed, understood, and answered through computation, it performs brilliantly... But Wolfram/Alpha is likely to remain a research tool for relatively sophisticated users until its knowledge base expands and its ability to understand poorly crafted queries improves." The general conclusion of all the reviews is that Wolfram Alpha is impressive but will be more valuable as it is enhanced and expanded.
--- Annette Emerson
Recent columns by Marcus du Sautoy:
In "A game of 12 pentagons" du Sautoy considers the game of soccer (called "football" in the U.K., where it is very popular) as a mathematical network: "the 11 players represented the hubs, while the passing options that didn't risk being intercepted by opposing players were the links between them." That leads him to recall that 19th century mathematician William Hamilton created a game based on networks, in which he used a dice-like shape of 12 pentagonal faces, but with one face removed---an 11-a-side game. The "In search of the poetry of Muslim symmetry" column explains symmetry, as exemplified beautifully on the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. He says, "For me, the Moorish palace is one of the meccas of mathematics." In the "Formula won" piece he explains "how mathematicians can get you to the Grand Prix finishing line---and through an airport---more quickly."
--- Annette Emerson
"Fermi, Pasta, Ulam, and the Birth of Experimental Mathematics," by Mason A. Porter, Norman J. Zabusky, Bambi Hu, and David K. Campbell. American Scientist, May-June 2009, pages 214-221.
This article presents an overview of scientific advances in understanding nonlinear systems, following a discovery by Enrico Fermi, John Pasta, and Stanislaw Ulam in 1955. The trio tackled the question of energy distribution within a theoretical group of connected objects perturbed in a nonlinear fashion, later labeled the FPU problem. A linear system, for example, is a spring whose oscillations depend only on the mass of the object and a constant. Linear systems were well understood in comparison with nonlinear systems, in which such oscillations would also depend on the force with which the spring is pushed, and the trio's attempt to answer the question was one of the first uses of using computers to explore mathematical and physical phenomena. The trio discovered that when a particular piece of its theoretical nonlinear system was perturbed, energy at first was distributed across the system but eventually returned to the initial piece---in contrast to their expectation that the distributed state would prevail. Subsequent scientific research has found, however, that more complex models containing more masses affected by perturbations with specific characteristics actually retain energy in a distributed state. This line of research has important applications in heat conduction and touches a range of disciplines including nonlinear dynamics, computational physics, and statistical mechanics.
--- Lisa DeKeukelaere
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