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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 Arizona), Baldur Hedinsson (2009 AMS Media Fellow), Allyn Jackson (Deputy Editor, Notices of the AMS), and Ben Polletta (Boston University)


October 2013


See also: Blog on Math Blogs: Two mathematicians tour the mathematical blogosphere. Editors Brie Finegold and Evelyn Lamb, both PhD mathematicians, blog on blogs --on topics related to mathematics research, applied mathematics, mathematicians, math in the news, mathematics education, math and the arts and more.

"Root of maths genius sought," by Erika Check Hayden. Nature, 29 October 2013, pages 602-603.

Jonathan Rothberg--a Connecticut native, biologist, entrepreneur, and philanthropist--has enlisted about 400 mathematicians and theoretical physicists from top-ranked universities in the U.S. in his quest for the genes underlying mathematical genius (no pun intended). Of course, these luminaries won't be looking for the genetic basis of STEM smarts on the blackboard or in the literature. Rothberg--who has founded and sold two gene sequencing companies for undisclosed scads of money--will be using his Ion Torrent technology to sequence participants' DNA in an effort he is calling Project Einstein. "I'm not at all concerned about the critics," says Rothberg, "this study ... is not a crazy thing to do." What critics, you ask? There are plenty, with a cornucopia of objections. For one thing, there is no guarantee that genetic determinants of high mathematical ability exist. Studies have found that up to two-thirds of twins' numerical literacy in primary school is shared, and so may be due to genetic factors. But the road from primary school to a successful career in mathematics is a long and tortuous one, and many would agree with Berkeley mathematician Michael Hutchings that, on this journey, "the notion of 'talent' may be overrated." Even if there are genetic influences on high mathematical ability, the complexity of human cognition suggests they are likely to be the sum of small effects from many genes, rather than large effects from a single gene, and teasing out these effects--in so-called genome-wide association studies--requires a huge number of genomes to attain statistical power. A recent GWAS (genome-wide association study) of 126,000 individuals (abstract available to all, full text available to Science subscribers), searching for genetic determinants of educational attainment, found only three mutations that together accounted for about three months' worth of schooling. Finally, if there are genetic determinants of mathematical genius, and they can be isolated, many question whether this information can and will be used for good. Still, there is something inevitable about the quest. A similar search through the genomes of 1,600 mathematically precocious children is being conducted in Beijing, and while some, like Fields medalist Curtis McMullen, have balked at Project Einstein's ethical dimensions and refused to participate, others have caught Rothberg's enthusiasm. "I like the idea of having my own genome sequenced,” says Berkeley mathematician David Aldous. "Maybe I’ll print a segment onto a T-shirt."

--- Ben Polletta

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"The Myth of 'I'm Bad at Math'," by Miles Kimball and Noah Smith. The Atlantic, 28 October 2013.

In this article, economists Kimball and Smith challenge the idea that mathematical aptitude is based purely upon some inborn genetic ability rather than on "hard work, preparation, and self-confidence." They begin by describing what they have observed in their roles as educators, as well as a little of the research that has been done on the impact of students' beliefs about the nature of intelligence on their levels of success. Kimball and Smith then explain their focus on beliefs about mathematical intelligence: "math skills are increasingly important for getting good jobs these days," and "math is the area where America's 'fallacy of inborn ability' is the most entrenched ... If we can convince you that anyone can learn math, it should be a short step to convincing you that you can learn just about anything, if you work hard enough." One way to "help Americans excel at math" might be to adopt (some of) the features of the educational systems of East Asian countries, which "focus more on hard work than on inborn talent." They also suggest that we "treat people who work hard at learning as heroes and role models. We already venerate sports heroes who make up for lack of talent through persistence and grit: why should our educational culture be any different?"

--- Claudia Clark

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"Penn State star tackles math with ease," by Tom Avril. The Inquirer (Philadelphia), 21 October 2013.

John UrschelThis is about John C. Urschel (the player at left with the perfect sixth-power number), who is a starting offensive lineman for the Penn State football team, a first-team all-conference player (in the twelve-team Big Ten) and a graduate student in math. He maintained a 4.0 GPA as an undergraduate math major, has already earned a master's degree, and has one publication. Penn State professor Ludmil T. Zikatanov has worked with Urschel and is impressed with him: "This kind of intuition, you don't build it. You kind of are born with it." His mother agrees, and tells of the math challenges she would give her son as he was growing up. Urschel entered Penn State planning to pursue an engineering degree but switched to math because he liked the reasoning involved in the subject, as opposed to just using formulas. Now he says, "I feel bad for kids who go through the math system and really miss out on the beauty of math. ... I feel like sometimes when they're teaching kids math, they really focus too much on just computation, doing problems. They treat it more like a methodical exercise." Urschel is currently working on a master's degree in math education and hopes to pursue a PhD. On November 1, Urschel was named a National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame Scholar-Athlete (one of 16 nationally)--good for an $18,000 scholarship--and a finalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy, which goes to the top scholar in college football. Update: Urschel won the Campbell Trophy. (Photo: Penn State Athletic Communications.)

--- Mike Breen


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"Math cents: Professor and student use pennies to illustrate math concepts," by Lynn Monty. Burlington Free Press, 19 October 2013.

Math curves using pennies Tim Whiteford, associate professor of education at St. Michael's College in Vermont, and student Lydia Koch have created some mathematical art, representing finite versions of the Sierpinski triangle and--coincidentally--Koch snowflake using pennies. The display "Maths: The Science of Patterns and Art of Using Cents" (no quarter asked for, none given), which grew out of a project Koch did last semester, can be seen on the walls outside Whiteford's office. He says, "Mathematics being the science of pattern is something I have always believed. So here it is." (Photo by Tim Whiteford.)

--- Mike Breen


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"To Fix Wikipedia's Gender Imbalance: A Big Editing Party?," by Robinson Meyer. The Atlantic, 10 Oct 2013, and "Wiki 'Edit-a-Thon' at Brown U. Will Add Entries for Women in Science," by Hannah Winston. Chronicle of Higher Education, 9 October 2013.

These articles report on an "Edit-a-Thon" held at Brown University during which attendees edit Wikipedia to add and improve entries about women in science, technology, and math. The event marks the fifth annual Ada Lovelace Day, an international celebration of women's contribution to technology. Meyer reports that organizer Maia Weinstock thinks "one reason so many women are left out of Wikipedia pages, or are not properly cited, is that a majority of contributors to Wikipedia know little about women's contributions. She calls it an 'unintentional slant'."

--- Annette Emerson

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"The mathematician's defense of Bitcoin: It's just another option," by Charles Hoskinson. PBS News Hour, 9 October 2013.

bitcoins

PBS News Hour online posts the 8:15 minute video segment and transcript of a conversation with Bitcoin Education Project's Charles Hoskinson, who explains the concept of Bitcoin, a digital international currency. He says "I'm a cryptographer and a mathematician. We and the U.S. government, and the world as a whole, has trust in the cryptography that's used in Bitcoin. And it involves what's called a public-key cryptosystem.... you have the same ability to transact online as you do with credit cards, but the difference is that a credit card is unlimited; as long as they have your credit card they can use it, whereas Bitcoin is one time access and for as many funds as you've decided for that particular transaction." Hoskinson explains the difference between Bitcoins and credit cards, the potential for exploitation of Bitcoins--as theerre is withi any means of transaction (not paying taxes, "fundng rogue states") But, he cnocludes, "Within a few years, with a lot of the innovation that's being done, just with your cell phone, with really strong Department-of-Defense style cryptography, you'll be able to go anywhere in the world and spend your bitcoins. So you have basically the same store of value mechanism of gold, but the transactability of credit cards with even more security layered on top, and that's why we really think Bitcoin is special."

--- Annette Emerson


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"The Nobel Prize in Physics Is Really a Nobel Prize in Math," by Edward Frenkel. The Atlantic, 9 October 2013.

The 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to François Englert and Peter W. Higgs for the prediction of the Higgs boson, which was experimentally confirmed 50 years later with the help of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Frenkel, professor of mathematics at UC Berkeley and author of Love and Math, asks "But how did Englert and Higgs theorize their particle, so long before the evidence was in hand?" and asserts "With math." He says often scientists assume mathematics plays a secondary role, but he notes "The prediction of the Higgs boson is another beautiful example of mathematics driving progress in natural science. In the 1960s, physicists struggled with the fact that an attractive mathematical theory governing the behavior of elementary particles gave a nonsensical answer: It predicted massless particles that no one had seen. What we now know as the Higgs boson solved this problem. Inserted into the equations in just the right way, it gives particles their masses. The rest is history." And he concludes, "Mathematics is not about studying boring and useless equations: It is about accessing a new way of thinking and understanding reality at a deeper level. It endows us with an extra sense and enables humanity to keep pushing the boundaries of the unknown."

--- Annette Emerson


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"Researchers split over NSA hacking," by Ann Finkbeiner. Nature, 8 October 2013.

With the revelation on October 25th that the NSA monitored the phones of at least 35 world leaders including Angela Merkel, and the October 26th rally Stop Watching Us in Washington D.C.--calling for a Congressional investigation of the agency--there is no shortage of people up in arms about the NSA's surveillance activities. One group that has been conspicuously silent is the many researchers who work for or are otherwise funded by the agency, much to the dismay of their colleagues. In this short article, Nature's Ann Finkbeiner discusses the divisions in the mathematics and science community that recent controversies have wrought. Aside from ethical considerations, the "back doors" maintained by the NSA in many national standards for transmitting encrypted information have caused a good deal of discomfort for many researchers working independently on computer security and cryptography. A group of 47 such investigators have sent a letter to President Obama calling for the addition of independent researchers to a group charged with reviewing NSA practices. However, many NSA-funded scientists maintain a comfortable psychological distance between the agency's surveillance and research activities. Dena Tsamitis of Carnegie Mellon's cybersecurity research center says public surveillance is "a policy decision, not a technology decision". Those engaged in basic research--such as physicist Christopher Monroe, who has used NSA grants to study the manipulation of cold atoms, a fundamental issue in quantum computing--are reluctant to throw the NSA's $400 million research budget out, no matter what the bath water smells like. "I understand what's in the newspapers," says Monroe, "but the NSA is funding serious long-term fundamental research and I’m happy they're doing it." Investigators like Philip Rogaway, a computer scientist at the University of California at Davis who has sworn not to accept NSA funding, sharply criticize those who draw such distinctions. "Most have never met a funding source they do not like," says Rogaway, "and most of us have little sense of social responsibility."

--- Ben Polletta

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"U.S. adults lag behind counterparts overseas in skills," by Greg Toppo, USA Today, 8 October 2013.

When will I use math poster

A recently released study of adults aged 16 to 65 shows that the average basic math, literacy, and problem-solving skills of U.S. adults fall below the average scores of the 23 developed countries in the study. In literacy, "adults in 12 countries scored higher and only five…scored lower," while "18 countries scored higher, with only two…scoring lower" in math. The test scores of U.S. adults also showed a "larger-than-average gap in skills between groups, such as those with or without a college degree, and between workers whose jobs do or don’t require advanced math and reading skills," as well as between older and younger workers, "who lag in every category." Some 5,000 U.S. adults were tested between August 2011 and April 2012. (Image: "When Will I Use Math?" poster. To see a larger version click on the image; to order a free copy email paoffice at ams dot org with subject line: "use math poster".)

--- Claudia Clark


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"Le baron Haussmann et les systèmes complexes (Baron Haussmann and complex systems)", by Etienne Ghys (subscription may be required). Le Monde, 7 October 2013.

paris streets ca 1850-1870

Mathematician Etienne Ghys of the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon wrote this brief piece for the "Science et Techno" section of Le Monde. In it he reflects on a July 2013 paper, "Self-organization versus top-down planning in the evolution of a city", by Marc Barthelemy et al., which appeared in Scientific Reports. The paper presents an empirical analysis of the network of Parisian streets between 1789 and 2010. This period covers the city's modernization led by Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, which occurred between 1853 and 1870. Among the paper's surprising findings is the fact that the total length of Parisian streets seems to be simply in proportion to the population. There was a huge change in where critical street intersections occur; prior to Haussmann's modernizations, the critical intersections were almost all in the city center, whereas after the modernizations they were distributed around the city. Ghys recalls an episode in New York City in 1991, when city officials closed 42nd Street for the Fourth of July and found the closure improved traffic flow. Noting this unexpected outcome, Ghys suggests that the complexities of modern city planning require a multidisciplinary approach that includes areas such as complex systems, dynamical systems, and statistical physics.

(Image: A map based that shows (in red) the Haussmannian streetwork between 1850 and 1870. Copyright 2004, Mark Jaroski. Used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.)

[Editor's note: Hear a podcast interview with Luís M.A. Bettencourt of the Santa Fe Institute.]

--- Allyn Jackson


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"Abraham Nemeth, Creator of a Braille Code for Math, Is Dead at 94," by William Yardley. New York Times, 6 October 2013, and "Braille coder dies." Seven Days, Nature, 10 October 2013, page 147.

nemeth-braille

We sighted mathematicians often reflect that one of the nice things about math is that all you need to do it is a paper and pencil. But imagine trying to do math without even these perennial aids, or sans chalkboard and chalk. This is one challenge blind mathematicians face - and before Abraham Nemeth came along, it was deemed an insurmountable one. Nemeth, blind since infancy, showed a keen intellectual curiosity as a young person, teaching himself to play piano from Braille music books and becoming increasingly interested in mathematics. But Nemeth's pursuit of his mathematical passions was stymied by the widespread acceptance that scientific disciplines were closed to the blind, and the limitations of basic Braille - including easily confused representations of numbers and letters, and a lack of symbols for such ubiquitous mathematical operations as square roots and partial derivatives. Academic advisors steered Nemeth into psychology, but he had trouble finding work that utilized his 1942 master's degree from Columbia, and in the late 1940s found himself employed by the shipping department of the American Foundation for the Blind and moonlighting as a piano player in Brooklyn bars. At the encouragement of his wife, Florence Weissman, who was partly blind herself, Nemeth continued his education in math and physics with night classes at Brooklyn College. He began teaching math part-time to sighted students, using his memory and his own body as guides for writing straight lines of mathematics on the blackboard. All the while, Nemeth was playing with the basic representational unit of Braille-- a six-dot cell -- and developing codes for mathematical operations both basic and advanced. The Nemeth Braille Code for Mathematics and Science Notation was published in 1952, and adopted by a number of national organizations in the early 1950s. Since then, the Nemeth Code has opened the door to work in STEM fields for countless blind persons -- not the least of whom was Abraham Nemeth himself. Beginning in 1955, Nemeth taught mathematics at the University of Detroit for thirty years. During that time, he developed MathSpeak, a system for orally communicating mathematics; received his doctorate in mathematics from Detroit's Wayne State University in 1964; and -- amazingly-- founded the University's graduate program in computer science. A devout Jew, Nemeth also created Braille translations of many Jewish texts, and -- as if all that wasn't enough -- he was also an accomplished carpenter. An inspiration to many, Nemeth proved the validity of his own advice to parents and educators, "to expect from a blind child what you expect from a sighted child".

Also of interest: "The World of Blind Mathematicians," by Allyn Jackson, Notices of the AMS, November 2002. See examples of Nemeth Braille.

--- Ben Polletta


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" 'Elementary' CBS episode 'Solve For X' reveals complex math with murder," by Roscoe Pond. The Examiner, 4 October 2013.

Sherlock Holmes

The society and culture section at the Examiner has a piece about a math motivated episode of the hit show Elementary. Elementary is a modern-day drama about the ever eccentric detective Sherlock (Holmes) and his companion, Dr. (Joan) Watson. This time around the crime solving due fight crime not in London but in New York City. In the episode in question “Solve For X” Sherlock comes to a crime scene to find a mathematician shot dead and the only clue to follow a set of complex math equations up on the wall. After crunching some numbers Sherlock figures out that the equations are connected to a complex math problem referred to as the 'P versus NP problem'. This problem is one of the greatest unsolved mathematical challenges and one of the seven Millennium Prize Problems selected by the Clay Mathematics Institute to carry a US$1,000,000 prize for the first correct solution. As the investigation goes deeper, Sherlock finds out that solving the 'P versus NP problem' would turn internet security on its head and that both academics and large companies are working day and night to solve the problem. But who would kill to solve the problem? You can watch the show online (about 42 minutes long).

--- Baldur Hedinsson


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"Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?," by Eileen Pollack. New York Times, 3 October 2013.

Using herself as a starting example, former Yale math and physics student Eileen Pollack explores why so few American women make it to and through doctoral programs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Citing research by the AMS and numerous researchers, as well as a critical examination of the popular television show The Big Bang Theory, Pollack highlights the cultural stereotypes that drive the discrimination against women in the sciences--from stingy lab space allotment to meager mentoring--and that underpin women’s self-selection out of science fields. This lengthy article is laced with perspectives not only from now-senior female science faculty members at top universities that battled discrimination years ago, but also women who continue to face tough obstacles and decisions regarding continued pursuit of a future in science. Pollack argues that ensuring equal opportunities and treatment for woman is an important factor for achieving the White House’s goal of increasing the number of American professionals in the sciences, and she presents a few indications that the presence of women in science graduate programs is increasing, albeit slowly.

--- Lisa De Keukelaere

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"Rethinking particle dynamics," by Eugenie Samuel Reich. Nature, 3 October 2013, page 19.

Scientists are developing new ways to geometrically represent how subatomic particles interact during collisions. Physicist Richard Feynman first made his famous, Nobel-winning diagrams of such interactions more than 40 years ago, helping researchers visualize and calculate the mathematical formulas, known as scattering amplitudes, for the probabilities of various outcomes. Today, scientists are replacing Feynman’s diagrams with algorithms, and theorizing interesting shapes--such as curved surfaces bounded by a polygon--to represent the terms of those algorithms. Physicists hope this new research into geometric representations will be useful in examining the effect of gravity on the geometry of space-time, as well as further explorations into the theory of supersymmetry, in particular using the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland.

--- Lisa DeKeukelaere

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