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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), Baldur Hedinsson (Boston University), and Adriana Salerno (Bates College)


February 2010


 

"Math is Hard: Questions for Harry Markopolos," by Deborah Solomon. The New York Times Magazine, 28 February 2010.

Markopolos is the money manager who noticed something wrong with the supposed performance of Bernard Madoff's funds and tried to convince the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that Madoff was a fraud. Marokopolos maintains that the SEC should hire people with a math background who understand modern finance, instead of securities lawyers, "If you can’t do math and if you can’t take apart the investment products of the 21st century backward and forward and put them together in your sleep, you’ll never find the frauds on Wall Street." His reaction to the SEC's replacing many employees after the Madoff scandal is that "They've redisorganized."

--- Mike Breen

 

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"Data, data everywhere." The Economist, 27 February 2010, page 52.
"New Hiring Formula Values Math Pros," by Jessica E. Vascellaro. The Wall Street Journal, 8 April 2010.

The Economist reports on how the increasing amount of digital data is poised to reshape human society and points to where changes are beginning to surface. In the vast amount of data being gathered lies information with the potential of preventing disease, advancing science, and spotting business trends. However managing the data is a big challenge. Safe storage is already a problem and protecting privacy is a major concern as the web of data gets more interconnected. Extracting intelligible information from the abundant available data is becoming an ever more valuable skill. Industry is already finding more uses for mathematicians, statisticians and computer scientists, as business sees the value in digging through the data. The second article is about firms in the Silicon Valley, such as video game companies and Facebook, who are looking for people who know statistics and are giving short statistics courses to their employees--again, to make sense of data.

--- Baldur Hedinsson

 

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"Hero Teacher Tackled Colorado Gunman," by Barry Petersen. CBS Evening News, 24 February 2010.
"Math teacher hailed as hero after Colorado school shooting," by Nicholas Riccardi. Los Angeles Times, 25 February 2010.

At the recent Deer Creek Middle School shootings in Littleton, CO, in which two students were wounded, seventh grade math teacher Dr. David Benke heard a shot and reacted immediately, tackling accused gunman Bruco Strong Eagle Eastwood. Benke "noticed that he was working a bolt action rifle and realized that I had time to get to him before he could chamber another round." He and another teacher held Eastwood until police came. Benke does not consider himself a hero, although thousands of people on the "Dr. David Benke is a Hero!!!!" Facebook page disagree. Columbine High School, where 12 students and one teacher were shot in 1999, is near the Deer Creek school, so teachers there received extra training on school safety. Benke said that during the training, he vowed that he would act if such a situation arose: "I said I hope I am capable to do something about it, and so what was going through my mind was that I promised."

--- Mike Breen

 

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"Want to win a medal? Just do the math," by Arvind Gupta. Vancouver Sun, 23 February 2010.

Gupta is a math professor at the University of British Columbia and scientific director of the Canadian research network MITACS who was in perfect position to discuss math used in the recent Winter Olympics in Vancouver. In the sports themselves, he mentions Bernouilli's Principle and the Brachistochrone Problem--used in ski jumping-- and computational fluid dynamics--used in bobsledding and skiing. Organizers used Poisson's Law to predict waiting times and discontinuous dynamical systems to help move tens of thousands of people (Gupta wrote that this would be necessary "when (not if) Canada wins hockey gold"), and broadcasters took advantage of number theory to encrypt their data and wireless communication. As with many applications of mathematics, a spectator need not know the mathematics to benefit from it, but Gupta writes "you just might impress the person sitting next to you with a nugget of number knowledge."

--- Mike Breen

 

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"Math Wiz Adds Web Tools to Take Education to New Limits," by Spencer Michels. PBS NewsHour, 22 February 2010.

Linear algebra screen shot

Salman Khan quit his job as a hedge-fund analyst and is now posting math, biology, and chemistry lessons online. He records the lessons in a converted closet in his bedroom. The over 1200 lessons are on YouTube and make up what is called the Khan Academy. Khan explains concepts, such as the idea of a linear combination (at left), with his voice and writing, but viewers never see his face. He says that he has about 100,000 students and 40,000 video views each day. One student said that although she likes her teacher, she also likes "the concept of knowing something in class, but then going back and pressing pause or rewind, and actually getting a deeper understanding of it."

--- Mike Breen

 

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"2009 Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge." Science, 19 February 2010.

Kuen's surface
Kuen's Surface: A Meditation on Euclid, Lobachevsky, and Quantum Fields
Click on the image to see a larger version.

Each year the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Science sponsor a contest involving images and videos that "intrigue, explain and educate." This year a math image (at left) tied for first in the Illustration category. The image was created by Richard Palais and Luc Benard of the University of California, Irvine. Palais said, "We wanted to talk about these equations in a way that nonmathematicians could understand. So we took a symbolic approach: The surface itself stands as a symbol for that equation." Benard used more than 200 hours of computer time to render the surface. (Note that the online article with all the winners and explanations of the images is free, but you do have to register. The NSF site also has the images.)

--- Mike Breen

 

 

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"On a Mission to Help Students Pass Math," by Sara Lipka. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 19 February 2010, page A23.

At Florida International University, Jeffrey Knapp, director of the Academy for the Art of Teaching, has seen that failure in a first math course may lead a student to drop out. With Knapp as the driving force, the math department at the Florida university applied for and received a grant from the Institute for Higher Education Policy to help undergraduates pass their math classes. This grant is one of many made possible by the Wal-Mart Foundation. Over the past few years, this foundation has given almost $10-million to two awards-granting institutions—the Institute for Higher Education Policy and the Council of Independent Colleges—for the express purpose of increasing the rate of graduation among students whose parents did not attend or graduate from college.

The math department at Florida International University has used its grant to develop longer introductory math classes, which are to be taught by its best teachers, and has hired “student learning assistants, so that the classes could blend lecture and peer-led, small-group instruction.” So far, reports teacher Ada Monserrat, students are more involved in the classroom—asking questions and working on problems—and initial exam grades are higher than before. Knapp plans to follow the progress of these students in other math classes and keep track of how many graduate. This article was part of a bigger feature ("Wal-Mart's $10-Million Diplomas") about the Wal-Mart Foundation grants.

--- Claudia Clark

 

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"And the winner is ...," by Burkard Polster and Marty Ross. The Age, 15 February 2010.

Figure skater

The competition was a bit fairer this year as the figure skaters hit the ice. In the tense moments during which competitors awaited their scores in 2002, Michelle Kwan fell from first place to fourth as result of just one skater's performance. Furthermore, had there been 18 athletes scored according to the method used then, it would have been possible for her to fall all the way to tenth place from first!

The faulty scoring system used was one in which the four final contestants were ranked from a score of .5 to a score of 2 for the short program and from 1 to 4 for the long program. Then the rankings were added. This method lead to some odd phenomena: namely should the last person do rather well, she raises her own score but the order of others below her can be reshuffled. Luckily this scoring system has since been abandoned, and the article goes on to talk about other silly scoring systems. A challenge is also issued to demonstrate whether Kwan could have fallen all the way to fourth based on the last skater's performance.

--- Brie Finegold

 

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"Can Math Help Predict Future Terrorist Attacks?" WFOR-TV (Miami), 6 February 2010.

These days, when people turn on the news they are bombarded (no pun intended) with news of terrorist and insurgent atttacks overseas. Many of these reports contain numbers, like “ten people killed and a hundred injured.” Dr. Neil Johnson, a researcher at the University of Miami, started listening more carefully to these numbers, and wondered how different insurgent attacks compared to each other. He graphed the frequency of attacks with a specific number of casualties, and for example, found that “the number of events with 10 people killed is 320 times more likely than the events with 100 people killed.” A slightly more surprising result is that the graphs obtained studying insurgent wars in different countries, like Colombia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland, were virtually identical in slope. Dr. Johnson adds that these results are more interesting because there are “all these different variables” in the different cases studied, and asks: “Is it that somehow these variables are adding together in ways that are less important than we might imagine?” This work seems to be in a very preliminary stage, and even though it has sparked the interest of Homeland Security it does not offer information about the practical uses of this possible pattern in the types of terrorist attacks and their frequency. (More on the research can be found in the 17 December 2009 issue of Nature, "Common ecology quantifies human insurgency," by Bohorquez, et al.)

--- Adriana Salerno

 

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"S'porean wins US maths award," by Amelia Tan. Asiaone.com, 5 February 2010.

Charmaine Sia

Charmaine Sia accepting the Alice T. Schafer Prize from the Association for Women in Mathematics at the 2010 Joint Mathematics Meetings in January. Photograph by E. David Luria.

The article, also published in The Strait Times, reports that Charmaine Sia, a student from Singapore at MIT, received the Alice T. Schafer Prize for Excellence in Mathematics by an Undergraduate Woman (along with Hannah Alpert). Sia, who will receive her bachelor's degree in mathematics and physics this spring, is described by mentors as an "astonishing" student who "absorbs mathematics like a sponge." Charmaine's mother, Sia Wai Leng, a mathematics teacher at Singapore's National Junior College, tells the reporter that her daughter was tackling secondary level mathematics problems at age five, and then participated in mathematics olympiads at the national and international level. Prizewinner Sia also excels in economics, is learning Russian, and writes poetry and short stories and sketches, but she intends to pursue a career in research mathematics.

--- Annette Emerson

 

 

 

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"Bletchley's code-cracking Colossus." BBC News, 2 February 2010.

As part of a series presented by the BBC about British computer pioneers, this report describes the development of Colossus, “the world’s first large-scale, electronic programmable computer.” Colossus was built by the British during World War II to decipher messages that were encoded using the German Lorenz SZ 40/42 coding machine, a more sophisticated machine than the Enigma. Of course, the Lorenz code would have to be broken first: this occurred when a mistake made by a German operator---sending the same 4,000-character message twice using the same settings but modifying the text only slightly---led mathematician Bill Tutte to break the code. Then, when human code breakers could no longer handle the volume of intercepted messages, the decision was made at Bletchley Park---home to the Government Codes and Cipher School---to build a machine to decipher these messages. After 10 months of development, Colossus was delivered to Bletchley, where it was up and running in two weeks. In all, it is estimated that more than 63 million characters were decoded by the total of 10 Colossi that were eventually built. It would not be until the late 1990’s when the existence of the Colossus would be revealed, however: all of the existing Colossi were dismantled at the end of the war in order to keep their existence a secret. However, a rebuilt Colossus now exists. The 14-year project was overseen by retired British spy, Tony Sales.

The online article has links to three videos. In one, Sales shows the process by which Colossus turns encrypted text into the information that is used to decode the text. In another, a member of the unit that worked with Colossus gives an example of how he decrypted German messages.

--- Claudia Clark

 

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"'The Quants: It Pays to Know Your Wall Street Math," by Terry Gross. NPR---Fresh Air, 1 February 2010.

Describing his mathematical interest in gambling, professor at UC Irvine and hedge fund manager Ed Thorp says in his radio interview with Terry Gross, "The fun of gambling for me was going out and seeing a mathematical system that I'd thought up actually work and generate real profits in the real world instead of just being something that was an abstract collection of symbols on a piece of paper." Proving his mathematical mettle at the card table and in academic papers, Dr. Thorp published a book in 1962 entitled Beat The Dealer. Later, he wrote a book called Beat the Market and started one of the first market-neutral hedge funds. As other mathematicians brought their talents to Wall Street, quantitative analysts became more numerous. Author Scott Patterson, who is also interviewed, likens these "quants" to weathermen for Wall Sreet.

Patterson's book, The Quants: How a New Breed of Math Whizzes Conquered Wall Street and Nearly Destroyed It, describes the "rise of the quants." He mentions the Black-Scholes model, and the difference between how people like Ed Thorp used this model and others like it and how others have used the models. Refering to the mortgage pools, Dr. Thorp discusses the "unanalyzable" aspects of these investments. He points out that there are certain events that cannot be analyzed with probabilistic models: "It's as if someone asks you to determine (using mathematics) the probability that we'll have a plague of locusts or that the sea will run red with blood."

When asked about current trends in finance, Mr. Patterson describes how the quants are moving into the area of high-frequency trades: thousand of orders per second. He is concerned that lessons have not been learned from "Black Monday" and the recent economic downturn. But the tone of this interview, while serious, is not devoid of humor. Skip to the end for a laugh.

--- Brie Finegold

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"A puzzling Australia Day," by Burkard Polster and Marty Ross. The Age, 1 February 2010.
"The year of the magical dragon,"
by Burkard Polster and Marty Ross. The Age, 8 February 2010.

For several years, “Maths Masters” Burkard Polster and Marty Ross have discussed a variety of mathematical topics in their column in The Age with the intention of providing both the mathematical and non-mathematical public with an appreciation for the beauty of---and fun of doing---mathematics. In this spirit, Polster and Ross begin the first of the two articles summarized here by telling the story of how their Australia Day meeting to solve a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle picturing a map of Australia leads them to the question: “How simple can a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle be?” and, thus, to the topic of tilings. And not just tilings of regular polygons, but the kind created by M.C. Escher. The rest of the article looks in detail at a tiling created by South Australian artist Bruce Bilney and presents a simple example of how such tilings can be created. The reader is challenged to determine the area of a kangaroo pictured in another of Bilney’s tilings.

In the second article, the writers use the recently celebrated Chinese New Year and the Year of the Dragon (to be celebrated in 2012) as a way to introduce the dragon curve, starting with the simple folds that create 1-, 2-, and 3-year old dragon “babies” and ending with some images of the dragon curve. Their challenge to the reader? Determine roughly the length of a 10-year old dragon and a 100-year old dragon. Browse through the entire archive of Math Masters columns.

--- Claudia Clark

 

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