Math Digest

On Media Coverage of Math

Edited by Mike Breen and Annette Emerson, AMS Public Awareness Officers
Mike Breen (AMS), Claudia Clark (freelance science writer), Rachel Crowell (2015 AMS Media Fellow), Annette Emerson (AMS), Samantha Faria (AMS), and Allyn Jackson (Deputy Editor, Notices of the AMS)

November 2016

On the Multi-Talented John Urschel, by Samantha Faria

John Urschel

Baltimore Ravens lineman and MIT graduate student John Urschel wants everyone to know that they don't have to choose when it comes to being good at things. "You don't just have to focus on football; you don't just have to focus on academics.... It's OK to be into multiple things. It's OK not to fit into these little square pegs." Often students dream of making it to the pro-level in sports, yet few will ever reach that accomplishment. Society focuses its attention on celebrities rather than on successful lawyers, doctors or mathematicians. Urschel explains, "You've got a much better chance of bettering yourself, and having a better life for your kids than you had, by focusing on academics."

See "Ravens' John Urschel on exploring football, math, why and why not," by Noah Frank, WTOP Washington's Top News, 23 November 2016.

--- Samantha Faria

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On math and the "passer-by in the street," by Rachel Crowell

Joseph Diaz GergonneDavid Hilbert, who’s described in this editorial as "the most influential mathematician of the twentieth century," said at the 1900 International Congress of Mathematicians in Paris "A mathematical theory is not to be considered complete until you have made it so clear that you can explain it to the first man whom you meet on the street." Hilbert credited the saying to "an old French mathematician." Math historians June Barrow-Green and Reinhard Siegmund-Schultze recently traced the saying back to Joseph Diaz Gergonne (1771–1859), pictured at left, who was indeed a Frenchman. According to their analysis of historical documents, the saying first cropped up in 1825. That year, Gergonne wrote in a letter that the last word hasn’t been said on a theory until someone has been able to explain it to a passant dans la rue, which translates as a "passer-by in the street." Gerogonne took his statement one step further in 1826 when he said that if it is not possible to explain a theory in this way, then the theory "does not deserve to see the light of day."

Being able to break down any theory into terms that everyone can understand is something to strive for, but this editorial points out that for particularly complex theories, it may be better for us to strive to meet a standard that Einstein set forth: Make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler. (Image: MacTutor History of Mathematics archive.)

See "Being able to explain your work to passers-by is laudable---but not always possible," Editorial. Nature, 16 November 2016.

---Rachel Crowell

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On a formula for perfectly-brewed coffee, by Claudia Clark


If you like coffee, and you use a drip-filter brewing machine, you'll enjoy reading about the work being done at the University of Limerick to make the process of brewing coffee more precise. Researchers there, including mathematician William Lee, have developed a mathematical model of the coffee brewing process known as extraction, which "describes the movement of the coffee from its solid form as a bean into its liquid form when it dissolves into hot water," notes article author Harry Pettit. This takes place in two steps: initially, as hot water flows over a coffee granule, soluble parts of the granule are quickly extracted from the surface of the grain. Then, the soluble parts are extracted more slowly from the interior. Using this information, Lee and his fellow researchers have determined that the size of granules is a big factor in determining the flavor of the brew: too small granules result in more bitter coffee while larger granules can produce a weaker brew. "The larger your coffee grains, the lower its surface area, and so the slower the rate of extraction is," explains Lee.

Their paper, "Asymptotic Analysis of the Dominant Mechanisms in the Coffee Extraction Process," appears in Volume 76, Issue 6, of SIAM Journal on Applied Mathematics.

See "The formula for a PERFECT cup of coffee: Mathematician reveals the best way to make a brew," by Harry Pettit, The Daily Mail, 15 November 2016.

---Claudia Clark

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On female representation on editorial boards, by Rachel Crowell

According to this article, women only hold 15 percent of tenure-track positions in math. What's more, in a study of 13,000 editorial positions on 435 math journals, researchers Chad Topaz, a mathematician and Shilad Sen, a computer scientist, found that less than 9 percent of them were held by women. Also, ten percent of these journals lack female editors entirely. The duo chose to study female representation on these editorial boards, because these people holding these positions are often seen as leaders in their field. Jane C. Hu wrote, "Think of the editors as the gatekeepers of science: They direct journals' peer-review process, the backbone of modern science. Editors call the shots on which papers get published in their journals--and this affects the ultimate direction of a field." Sen also said to Hu, "Editorial boards are a great chance for professional networking." He added "It's important for tenure and promotion, and is seen as a prestigious honor."

More work is needed to understand why women receive such poor representation in these leadership positions. The article mentions some possible reasons for this disparity. Women in math are less likely to be seen as brilliant (as measured on a recent study of student ratings on, which reduces their chances of advancing to the highest levels of academia. The article mentions examples of women who were treated differently from their male colleagues who had the same credentials, including the implication that women have only attained certain successes because they have played the "gender card." An "old boys' club" mentality in math culture can also contribute to women being excluded, diminished or even harassed by their male colleagues, starting early on in their careers. Mathematicians Maria Emelianenko and Sarah Brodsky provided examples of this.

Women might receive more leadership roles if paper submissions were anonymous, parental leave policies were bolstered or journals were more proactive about appointing women to editorial boards, according to Moon Duchin (also a mathematician), Topaz, Sen, Emelianenko, and Brodsky.

See "Why Are There So Few Women Mathematicians?," by Jane C. Hu, The Atlantic, 4 November 2016.

--- Rachel Crowell

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