January 2004
Michael in India. Sir Michael Atiyah's visit to the subcontinent this fall has been noted in the local electronic press. ExpressIndia's Delhi Newsline for November 8, 2003 has a page one story by Amba Batra entitled: "Maths guru with Einstein's dream prefers chalk to mouse." Batra interviewed Atiyah, who refers to his current work linking geometry and physics as "a continuation of Einstein's dream," and states: "It will help us understand the forces of gravity, magnetism, and nuclear forces and give them geometric configurations." Batra quotes Delhi University Professor Dinesh Singh on Atiyah's reception: "The students have not left his side for a moment, their lunch today extended for more than four hours." (Atiyah: "I have never received the kind of audience that I have in India. I feel like a pop star.") On November 18 the Mumbai Newsline interviewed Sir Michael "in a quiet study at the Tata Institute." When asked about mathematics in 2050, he volunteered: "We're on the verge of a major revolution in biology, with big problems nobody really understands. Mathematicians will provide models on how the human brain works and to make sense of the human genome project. When any science gets complicated, you need mathematics." Calculators vs. math skills. ABCNews.com has leapt into the controversy with a piece by Marc Levenson: SciTech, December 11, 2003. The title is actually "Do HighTech Calculators Take the Challenge Out of Learning Math?" and the focus is on CAS (Computer Algebra System) equipped calculators, the kind that can solve an equation or calculate an indefinite integral. Levenson presents the pro (Henri Picciotto, math teacher at the Urban School in San Francisco: "The idea is, if you automate some of the more routine tasks, the kids can think about more challenging and interesting questions. It's as if I prevented you from writing if you don't know how to spell. Certainly, you should learn how to spell. But does that mean I should prevent you from using a spell checker when you may have interesting things to write about?") and the con (Berkeley's HungHsi Wu: "I want them to learn how to think. That's the greatest virtue in having a good mathematics education. If you're a high school student, you're only beginning to learn the elementary thinking processes. The beginner needs the time, needs a little drudgery, even, to acquire that thinking skill.") He also interviews some students at the Urban School, like Aaron Brown, who remarks: "in some ways it's easier to know how to do it on paper than on the calculator." Largest prime yet. "MSU student's prime number largest one yet" is a story by Sharon Terlep in the December 4 2003 Lansing State Journal. "Michael Shafer, a 26year old chemical engineering student, made math history by discovering the largest prime number known." Shafer did it by running a program that "hooked up .., more than 200,000 computers worldwide." The program had been running for 19 days when "an alarm sounded letting him know his computers tagged a prime number." The number is a Mersenne prime (of the form 2^{p}1, where p is prime); in Schafer's case p = 20,966,011 and the number itself has over six million digits. According to Shafer, "The number itself really isn't useful. What's more important is what's gone into developing the server and that the programs can get all these computers to work together for a common goal." And: "There may come a time when there's more important research that can harness this technology and use it for something more relevant." Terlep's story is available online, as is Largest prime number ever is found on the New Scientist News Service. Mathemusical instrument. It's the tritare ("TREEtar"), it's the invention of two Canadian mathematicians (Samuel Gaudet and Claude Gauthier, both at the University of Moncton), and it may revolutionize music. The story, by Karen Burchard, ran in the November 28, 2003 Chronicle of Higher Education. Gaudet and Gauthier are number theorists. In their research on "the oddnumber portion of the 'pseries' problem" they came across a class of numbers with symmetries that seemed initially to have potential in engineering but ended up instantiated in a musical instrument "shaped like an inverted Y and equipped with six networks of strings that can produce a range of sounds, from guitarlike musical notes to percussive beats reminiscent of a church bell. If one string is plucked, it vibrates across all three of the fretboards." More details are available from various canadian sources. CBC  New Brunswick shows a photograph of the apparatus. Radio Canada has link to a 4minute streaming video interview with the two inventors and their instrumentalist (en français. Gaudet: "Tout à coup on a pensé que ça pouvait faire un méchant instrument de musique.").Guitariste.com has some hints about the design (also en français). CBC Arts News has a link to a 1minute broadcast where you can actually hear the tritare playing in the background. Tony Phillips

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