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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)


May 2009

"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

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"Forget Tom Hanks. Meet the Real Professor Langdon," by Scott Smallwood. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 29 May 2009, page A6.

Earth, Air, Fire, Water ambigram
"Illuminati Diamond" ©John Langdon
(See also a larger ambigram, "Mathematics," ©John Langdon.)

Best-selling author Dan Brown earned acclaim for creating the fictional character Robert Langdon, a symbologist whose explorations Brown chronicled in The DaVinci Code and Angels & Demons. Few people know, however, that a real “Professor Langdon” contributed to Brown’s work—John Langdon, a typography professor from Drexel University. Langdon’s specialty is a type of graphical design called an ambigram, which contains words that may appear the same or different depending on the image’s orientation. Years ago, Brown's father, Dick Brown, a math teacher, saw Wordplay, a book of Langdon's ambigrams. Langdon says that "mathematicians and scientists often like the symmetry in my work," and the two became friends. Eventually Dan Brown—then a singer/songwriter—collaborated with Langdon on cover art for his music CD, called Angels & Demons. After switching to literary pursuits, Brown reused Langdon’s design and returned to his graphic designer friend for more artwork to be used in Angels & Demons, the book. Langdon attributes his fascination with ambigrams to the human preference for symmetry, as observed in nature, and innate curiosity. While the real Langdon does not have fame as a scene-stealing action-hero, his work with Brown has yielded some rewards.

--- Lisa DeKeukelaere

 

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"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

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"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

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"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

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"Abel Prize laureate to develop geometric model of human heart." Pravda, 20 May 2009.
"Russian-born Frenchman accepts Abel math prize." Associated Press, 20 May 2009.

"Complex Math, Simple Sum: 3 Awards in 5 Years," by Lisa W. Foderaro. The New York Times, 1 June 2009.

Mikhail Gromov,
            receiving the Abel Prize

 

On May 20, in Oslo, Mikhail Gromov received the 2009 Abel Prize from King Harald of Norway. Gromov is Permanent Professor at the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques in France and is a professor at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University. As pointed out in the article in The New York Times, he is the third professor at Courant to receive the Abel Prize, in the prize's relatively young history: Peter Lax won in 2005, and Srinivasa S. R. Varadhan won in 2007. AMS Executive Director Don McClure says, "It really is phenomenal... [The Abel Prize] has the same distinction as a Nobel Prize, and there's no other institution in the United States or in the world that has had such a concentration of these awards." The Associated Press story quotes Gromov on his reaction to receiving the Abel Prize: "It is wonderful... But I think we are standing very much in the shadows of Abel,... an inspiration for all mathematicians for all times." (For more articles on Gromov's work, see a previous Digest on the announcement of the 2009 Abel Prize.)

--- Mike Breen

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"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

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"Art tied up," by Colin Martin. Nature, 14 May 2009, page 169.

mile of
            string

 

Artist Naheed Raza has spent a year-long residency in the mathematics department at University College London. As a result of her collaboration with mathematician Steven Bishop, four of her works were shown in the "Ravelling, Unravelling" exhibit at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in May. The notice in Nature explains that the works "examine knotted structures and the parts they play in the body and in disease, as well as in mathematical theory." The exhibition review describes the work pictured here, "Mile of String" (sculpture, 45cm x 50cm x 45cm, 2008), as "a three dimensional drawing made from a single line of string one mile long manipulated to such an extent that it becomes rigid holding itself in a complex fractal-like form under its own tension." The University College London announcement of the exhibit notes that the collaborative project, funded by a Wellcome Trust Arts Award, "has involved a creative response to topological and geometric investigations currently undertaken in biomedicine---specifically those related to twisted, folded and raveled structures which have significance both in science and art."

--- Annette Emerson

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"Q&A: Origami Unfolded": An interview with Vanessa Gould. Interviewed by Roxanne Khamsi. Nature, 14 May 2009, page 169.

Eric
            Joisel
Expressive French master Eric Joisel
has a moment of inspiration on camera.

students in
            Israel
Educator Miri Golan uses origami to help
teach math to kids throughout Israel.

 

Vanessa Gould, director of the documentary Between the Folds (Green Fuse Films), is asked "Why did you make a film about origami?" She describes her first visit with mathematician and origami creator Tom Hull, who introduced her to the intricate and beautiful origami creation, the "Five Intersecting Tetrahedra," and to the world of paper-folding artists and mathematicians. She marvels at the works of Eric Joisel, Chris Palmer, and Miyuki Kawamura, and notes that the film focuses on Miri Golan, who has developed a mathematics curriculum for students in Israel, called Origametria. As introduced in the Nature piece, Gould "became captivated by the art and science of transforming sheets of paper into three-dimensional geometric shapes---and exposed a hidden subculture."

--- Annette Emerson

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"Maths can be fun---if only it's taught properly", by Jo Boaler. news.scotsman.com, 13 May 2009.

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

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"Seventh-graders create iPhone app", by Brad Spirrison. Chicago Sun Times, 11 May 2009.
"MathTime: Hinsdale kids design math app for iPhone", by Mick Swasko. Chicago Tribune, 25 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

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"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

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"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 Jér&ocircon;me Kerviel, whose unauthorized trading allegedly caused huge losses for the bank Société Générale in 2008.

--- Brie Finegold

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"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

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"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

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"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

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"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

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"Predicting Flu with the Aid of (George) Washington", by Donald G. McNeil, Jr. New York Times, 4 May 2009;
"Swine Flu Simulation Predicts 1,700 Cases By June," by Frank James. NPR (blog), 1 May 2009.

mapping the flu
Image: Christian Thiemann, Engineering Sciences and Applied Mathematics, Northwestern University & Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems. (See a larger view of the map.)

 

While most of us are trying to help prevent the spread of swine flu by washing our hands frequently and sneezing into the crook of our elbow, scientists are helping by working on ways to predict where the disease will spread and how the world should prepare for this new strain of influenza. Recently, two separate teams, at Northwestern University and Indiana University, have been hard at work developing simulations of how the flu will spread and how many cases the country will have to deal with. Both models predicted that the H1N1 virus would infect only about 2,000 to 2,500 people in the United States by the end of May. The actual number is closer to 6,000, but as Northwestern's team leader Dick Brockmann says, this number is "still in the ballpark." The main sets of data for his model were air traffic and commuter traffic patterns for the country, as well as data from a website called "Where's George?". This website, created 10 years ago by Hank Eskin, tracks the movement of dollar bills across the country. Eskin marked the bills with a note asking its next owner to enter its serial number and a ZIP code into the website. Brockmann realized that this gave him a map of face-to-face transaction, quite similar in nature to the networks that describe the spread of influenza. Brockmann declined to predict what would happen beyond May, because fear and politics, as well as the flu itself, are quite unpredictable. (Note: You can view the Northwestern team's day-by-day projections online.)

--- Adriana Salerno

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"Hidden riddle of shapes solved," by Philip Ball. Nature News, 1 May 2009.
"Hypersphere Exotica," by Davide Castelvecchi. Scientific American, August 2009, pages 22-23.

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

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"Math Machine makes debut at Marshall," by Clark Davis. West Virginia Public Broadcasting, 1 May 2009.

differential analyzer
Bonita Lawrence with the differential analyzer (nicknamed "Art" after Dr. Arthur Porter---now age 99---who built the first differential analyzer in England). Image courtesy of Bonita Lawrence.

 

A team of students, led by mathematics professor Bonita Lawrence of Marshall University, recently unveiled their math machine, a differential analyzer 4 years in the making and spanning 4 tables. The machine, made up of gears and levers, receives as input a differential equation and draws the solutions on a piece of paper. It is not entirely clear from Davis' radio story how the machine does this, or why the team would make a machine that does what a computer program could do. One of the benefits is clearly for the students who worked in the project, like Richard Merritt, who credits the machine with getting him through college and into graduate school. Another reason mentioned in the story, albeit briefly, is that it will be a new way to teach differential equations to high-school and college students (who are naturally intrigued by the machine). In fact, Lawrence plans to use the machine to teach calculus and differential equations at Marshall. When she started the project, Lawrence enlisted the help of Tim Robinson, a mathematician in California who has one of the few other math machines in the country. "There's an ah-ha moment that people get when they see how the machine operates and it's very satisfying to see that," Robinson said. Lawrence invites the community to have this "aha moment" by coming to the university and using the only publicly accessible differential analyzer in the country.

--- Adriana Salerno

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Reviews of Wolfram Alpha:
"Wolfram Alpha: A new kind of search engine", by David Samo. Los Angeles Times, 19 May 2009.
"Wolfram/Alpha Looks Beyond Search Toward Computation", by Thomas Claburn. Information Week, 18 May 2009.
"Like Google, Only Much, Much Worse", by Farhad Manjoo. Slate, 18 May 2009.
"WolframAlpha: Making Data Computable," by Robert Siegel. NPR, All Things Considered, 15 June 2009.

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

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Recent columns by Marcus du Sautoy:
"A game of 12 pentagons", Times Online, 20 May 2009.
"in search of the poetry of Muslim symmetry", Times Online, 13 May 2009.
"Formula won ... the key to boosting faster travel", Times Online, 6 May 2009.

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

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"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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