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Math Digest

Summaries of Media Coverage of Math

Edited by Mike Breen and Annette Emerson, AMS Public Awareness Officers
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), Allyn Jackson (Deputy Editor, Notices of the AMS), and Adriana Salerno (Bates College)


June 2010


"Silicon Valley math students meet with president in the Oval Office," by Sharon Noguchi. San Jose Mercury News, 30 June 2010.

Oval OfficeA few of the winners of the 2010 MathCounts competition met with President Obama in the Oval Office. Things got interesting when Shyam Narayanan of Overland Park, Kansas asked about the foci of the office. According to Donna Phair, a coach of the winning team from California, "you saw six boys just perk up and get in an animated discussion with the president." Narayanan paced about the room and placed two people at the spots, which looked like pretty good estimates to the other competitors and coach. The San Jose Mercury News printed the dimensions of the office along with its calculations. The oval could be inscribed in a 29 ft.' by 35 ft. 10 inch rectangle, so the foci are about 10.53 feet from the center.

--- Mike Breen


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"Williams College Professor Ed Burger," an interview on 207/Bill Green's Maine. WCSH6.com, 29 June 2010.

In this video, WCSH6.com interviewer Bill Green talks with Williams College Professor of Mathematics Ed Burger, who is this year's winner of the Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching awarded by Baylor College. The interview focused on Burger's thoughts about education and teaching, particularly related to math. For example, Burger described how he discovered his true interest in studying mathematics in college-—in spite of his original plans to go to law school and become a lawyer-—noting that "the point of education is... to mess up plans and to offer you different ways of looking at things." As a teacher, he is committed to offering his students--most of whom will never use calculus--something that's going to change their lives: "In this case it's all about thinking. How do you look at the world like a mathematician? It's not a matter of calling the unknown x. It's a matter of parsing things and looking at the world and trying to find patterns, asking good questions. Then they can take that mindset and actually apply it to whatever they're going to do." His advice to teachers? "Find your own voice... Figure out who you are in the classroom, then honestly project your enthusiasm for the subject." And when asked why we find so many children disliking math, Burger said that "we're teaching these algorithmic things--how to solve for x--how to do things that no young person [and most adults] don't need to know... and don't care about." Instead he thinks we should talk about "intriguing puzzles and mathematical ideas... like infinity. But we can't talk about that because we have the curriculum. It's sad but true."

See the video and learn more about Ed Burger.

--- Claudia Clark


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"Attack of The Math Brats," by Dan Kadlec. Time Magazine, 28 June 2010, pages 41-43.

Two down cardsDan Kadlec writes about new breed of poker players who rely more on data than intuition. This is not the first time mathematics has changed the "Cadillac" of poker, Texas Hold 'Em. Over a decade ago sophisticated probability theory and card counting revolutionized the game. This time the shake-up is data driven and rooted in experience from online playing. Before online poker, a world class player could compete in dozens of live tournaments a year. Today players are participating in the same number of tournaments in a single day. Countless hours spent online have taught the new breed of players a new aggressive way of playing. This strategy has caught more traditional players off guard and the newbies have banked some of the biggest prizes in the past few years.

--- Baldur Hedinsson


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"Are streaks fact or fiction?", by Sam Mellinger. The Kansas City Star, 28 June 2010;
"Tigers pitcher Max Scherzer uses math background as formula for success," by Steve Kornacki. mlive.com, 2 July 2010.

Baseball
action In the first article, Mellinger writes about streaks, prompted by a local player's 21-game hitting streak. He cites studies that show that streaks are expected and not the result of a player getting "hot." Steve Strogatz (Cornell University) and a graduate student (at the time), Samuel Arbesman took more than 130 years of baseball statistics and showed, through simulation, that even one of the most famous streaks--Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak--wasn't that unusual. In their 10,000 simulations, hitting streaks of 56 games or more occurred more than 40% of the time. Feelings aren't trumped by analysis, though, as Mellinger writes, "So don't tell any professional athlete--men who literally have their reputations and millions of dollars on the line--that streaks are just random chance. 'That's done by people who didn't play,' the Royals' Jason Kendall says." The Royals were about to face a pitcher who had pitched 21 consecutive scoreless innings. "You going to bet against him?" asks Mellinger. In this case, it would have paid to do so, as the pitcher's streak ended in the first inning when he gave up a home run.

The second article is about Detroit Tigers' pitcher Max Scherzer, who studied business finance in college and scored a 35 (out of 36) on the ACT. Perhaps because of his background, Scherzer spends more time than most pitchers analyzing statistics and the physics of his delivery. Understanding how he pitches has become a lot easier with PITCHf/x, a system that measures the movement of every pitch in Major League Baseball to within an inch. Also, new statistics, such as "batting average for balls in play" have aided his analysis and temperament in a game: "When a soft liner to right field droped for a hit in Atlanta, instead of getting frustrated by it, I let it go. It's about moving forward." (Image: ©iStockphoto/Matthew Brown)

--- Mike Breen


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"Math error found in Aetna health care's new California premiums," by Bobby Caina Calvan. The Sacramento Bee, 25 June 2010.

After admitting to "inadvertent miscalculations," Anthem Blue Cross exchanged its previous 25 percent rate hike for a more modest 14 percent rate hike. The change will affect 700,000 Californians purchasing their own insurance. The poor mathematics that led to the improper hikes was discovered by an outside actuary hired by the California Insurance Commissioner and involved double counting of projected costs. Although the commissioner has no power to deny rate hikes, he may verify that at least 70 percent of premiums are spent on patient care. Once the flaw was found, Anthem withdrew the proposed 25 percent hike. The new rate of 14 percent will probably take effect on September 1st. See also: "Anthem, Aetna submit new rate requests in California," by Emily Berry, American Medical News, July 19, 2010.

--- Brie Finegold


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"Melting at the microscale," by Alexandre Witze. Science News, 19 June 2010, pages 22-25.

Sea
ice Each June scientists try to predict the area of the Arctic that will be covered by ice the following September when the winter ice cover melts. Because the surface of the Arctic is not uniform, but rather a mosaic of ponds, ice, and open water, these predictions are tricky. On a smaller scale, not even the ice is uniform in its thickness or chemical composition. Pockets of salt water brine are distributed throughout the ice and can connect to form channels, changing the melting point and electrical conductivity of the ice. In addition, algae live in the ice and change its physical characteristics.

In 2007, the area of the Fall ice cover area reached a new low, intensifying the need for analysis by mathematicians, physicists, and biologists. This feature article is an overview of some of the material presented at the February 2010 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. There is a hope that current studies will yield both a better understanding of what causes sea ice to melt as well as a forecast system that may benefit arctic seafarers. (Image courtesy of Ken Golden--click on it for a larger version.)

--- Brie Finegold


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Columns on sports by Burkard Polster and Marty Ross:
"The ball was in AND out? You cannot be serious!," The Age, 21 June 2010; "Penalty kicks hinge on net results," The Age, 14 June 2010; and "How round is your soccer ball?", The Age, 7 June 2010.

skidding tennis balls

During this summer's Wimbledon Championships and soccer World Cup, Math Masters Polster and Ross raise some mathematical points. Could linesmen--or even the electronic "Hawk-eye"--really tell if a tennis ball is out or on the line, given their line of vision and ball-skidding? Do good soccer goalies use game theory to increase the odds of deflecting a penalty kick? How round can a soccer ball be? The columns are informative and include helpful graphics.

--- Annette Emerson


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"The crop circle evolves," by Richard Taylor. Nature, 10 June 2010, page 693.

mathematics in crop circles

While crop circle artists in the 1970s used simple tools and design methods, today’s creators of art in the barley fields are turning to mathematical concepts and sophisticated devices. Richard Taylor traces the evolution of the crop circle, from initial explanations (published in Nature!) in the 1880s that the man-made geometric designs resulted from cyclonic winds to the mathematical underpinnings of a 180-meter-long jellyfish that appeared in a British field last year. Crop art designs have become more complex overtime, to include fractals, mathematical symbols, and variations in scale. The jellyfish, for example, displays precision scaling and symmetry. The increase in intricacy requires an increase in the time needed to carve out these creations, however, which threatens the artists’ ability to maintain secrecy and challenges them to find novel construction techniques.

--- Lisa Dekeukelaere


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"13 Stripes and 51 Stars," by Chris Wilson. Slate, 9 June 2010.

American flag with 51 starsStars and stripes may be forever, but their number and configuration can change. As Puerto Rico takes one of many steps towards becoming a state, we may gain one more star. To neatly incorporate this addition would require a new design of our flag. Mathematician Skip Garibaldi from Emory University has written a computer program that suggests several possible arrangements for a flag with 51 states. His program is based on six configurations of past flags and creates designs for almost any number of stars up to 100. The "flag calculator" does have a few blind spots. To see what they are, check out the applet accompanying the article. (This image was produced using a program by Chris Wilson.)

--- Brie Finegold


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"Program makes math easy as 1, 2, 3," by Carolyn Y. Johnson. Boston Globe, 7 June 2010.

Anna's students using math tutoring programIn this article, Johnson examines some of the work being done to study the impact of subtle environmental cues on students' interest or ability in math or computer science. In one study, researchers Ivon Arroyo and Beverly Woolf at UMASS Amherst set out to see whether a computer math-tutoring program known as Wayang Outpost can reduce students' anxiety. By monitoring indicators of emotion, such as fidgeting, facial expressions, and perspiration, the software can provide timely hints or encouragement to students. The results so far look promising: of the 108 high school students participating in the study, both boys and girls performed better. In addition, girls, whom Arroyo has found to generally "feel more frustrated and anxious [about math in high school] than boys," reported more confidence and less frustration.

Other researchers are looking at a phenomenon known as "ambient belonging," which Mary Murphy of the University of Illinois in Chicago defines as "the ways in which environmental cues, such as a room's décor, can affect whether a person has a sense of fitting in and develops interest in the subject." For example, in a study led by Sapna Cheryan at the University of Washington, college men and women met with actors who portrayed themselves as computer science majors. Some of these actors fit the stereotype of a computer science major--for example, wearing a T-shirt sporting the message "I code, therefore I am"--while others did not. "Cheryan found that regardless of the gender of the actor, women who interacted with the person who met the stereotype were less likely to be interested in the field and more likely to think they would perform poorly," notes Johnson.

--- Claudia Clark


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"Study finds that young hotshots make better mentors," by Jeremy Hsu. The Christian Science Monitor, 2 June 2010.

For every math graduate student one of the most important and terrifying steps is to choose a thesis advisor. When looking for a mentor, students are inevitably thinking of how their choice will affect the rest of their academic career. A recent study shows that students might increase their chances of success by choosing rising stars in the field rather than established big shots. The study by Dean Malmgren, Julio Ottino and Luis Nunes Amaral, called "The role of mentorship in protégé performance," published in the June 3 issue of the journal Nature, looked through data from the Mathematics Genealogy Project (an extensive family tree of mathematicians dating back to Isaac Newton), studying a sample of 7,259 mathematicians who graduated between 1900 and 1960. Malmgren et al found that successful academics were much better mentors during the first third of their careers rather than the last third of their careers (where success was measured by membership in the National Academy of Sciences and number of publications). Specifically, the Northwestern University researchers found that students of mathematicians who were in the first third of their careers went on to mentor 29 percent more students than expected, whereas students trained by mathematicians in the last third of their careers went on to mentor 31 percent fewer students than expected. Malgmgren says this may have something to do with the amount of time mentors and protégés spend together, since mathematicians in later stages of their career may have more administrative responsibilities. In support of this last remark, the study found that mentors with fewer students had protégés who went on to mentor 37 percent more students than on average. Amaral mentions that mathematics was the "perfect laboratory for studying mentorship," but they hope to extend these findings beyond mathematics and even academia to business, the military, and the arts.

--- Adriana Salerno


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"Discover Interview: The Math Behind the Physics Behind the Universe," by Pamela Weintraub. Discover, June 2010, pages 66-72, 76.

Discover magazine has an in-depth conversation with renowned mathematician Shing-Tung Yau in this issue. The extensive interview sheds light on Yau’s groundbreaking work on the math behind string theory and how it relates to the world around us. Yau also tells fascinating stories about his poverty-stricken youth in China and how he got into fights when he led a gang of youngsters. Accounts of his arrival to the United States and falling in love with his future wife are also a charming read. This interview with the outspoken MacArthur Fellow and Fields Medal winner is sure to make you laugh in addition to teaching you a thing or two about topology.

--- Baldur Hedinsson

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"A Simple Twist of Fate," by George Musser. Scientific American, June 2010, pages 14-17.

Musser writes of Roger Penrose's twistor theory and how it has affected current research in physics. The theory began in the 1960s in hopes of creating a unified theory of physics, especially addressing quantum theory's purported "fluctuation of spacetime geometry on quantum scales which could change how events relate to one another." In twistor theory causal sequences don't fluctuate. What does fluctuate are the location and timing of events. Twistor theory was largely forgotten until 2004 when Edward Witten, after talking with Penrose, revived the theory in a paper that related twistor theory to string theory. Now according to string theorist Nima Arkani-Hamed, the field "is developing at a blistering pace..., with a group of roughly 15 people in the world working on it day and night." The combination of the two theories has also made calculations in particle physics more manageable. Musser describes current research and points out that part of the reason why it took a long time for string theorists to discover twistor theory is because of specialization: Twistor theory sprung from people involved in general relativity while string theory originated in the field of particle physics.

--- Mike Breen

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