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Tony PhillipsTony Phillips' Take on Math in the Media
A monthly survey of math news

This month's topics:

Mersenne primes on NPR

Morning Edition for April 10, 2009, carried a piece by Joe Palca ("Mining for the 'Prime' Jewels of Numbers") about the search for "the world's largest prime number." A serious possible misunderstanding is averted when, at the end of the next paragraph, he specifies: "But there's always a larger one to find." This is after telling us about the latest contender in words we can understand: "if you write 10 digits per inch--all 12,978,189 of them--the number would extend for 20.45 miles." Palca mentions that the recent largest primes have been Mersenne primes and that the "current reigning champ ... was discovered last summer as part of a program called the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search, or GIMPS." Palca asked Chris Caldwell (UTM), one of the mathematicians behind this gigantic distributed computing effort, why it was worth the trouble. Cadwell answers with an analogy: when he went to Washington, he took his kids to see the Hope Diamond at the National Museum of Natural History. "Mersennes, in a way, are kind of like a large diamond. Nobody there looking at the Hope Diamond ever asks, 'Why did they bother to dig it up?' or 'What is it good for?' - even though it really isn't good for much other than to just hang there and people to look at. And in many ways the Mersennes play that same role - that they really are the jewels of number theory."

Some of the gaps in Palca's presentation (e.g. what is a Mersenne prime?) are filled in a companion piece ("See The Largest Known Prime, All 13 Million Digits") by Andrew Price, on the same NPR webpage. But neither cites Euclid or mentions that 211-1 = 2047 = 89 x 23, elementary but meaningful in this context.

"The identification of nontriviality"

double
pendulum

A double pendulum with labels for lengths, masses, angular cordinates and velocities; the motion-tracking data fed into Schmidt and Lipson's algorithm (color codes match the diagram); the conserved quantity the algorithm detected: the system's Hamiltonian. Adapted from an image kindly provided by Hod Lipson.

Recently two Cornell scientists have found an algorithmic way to "identify and document analytical laws that underlie physical phenomena in nature." As Michael Schmidt and Hod Lipson describe their work in Science (April 3, 2009), "A key challenge to finding analytic relations automatically is defining algorithmically what makes a correlation in observed data important and insightful." They propose what they call "a principle for the identification of nontriviality," and exhibit its application to the analysis of motion-tracking data from various physical systems; for example the double pendulum illustrated above, where the conserved quantity detected by their algorithm is the system's Hamiltonian. To test the significance ("non-triviality") of a quantity f(x,y), detected by their algorithm to be constant, their idea is to measure the discrepancy between the implicit derivative δy/δx = (∂f/∂x)/(∂f/∂y) calculated from f, and the implicit derivative Δy/Δx = (dy/dt)/(dx/dt) calculated from the continuing stream of data. "In higher-dimensional systems, multiple variable pairings and higher-order derivatives yield a plethora of criteria to use."

Schmidt and Lipson give several examples of how reasonable their algorithm is. In the case of the double pendulum, when the algorithm was only given data measured in high-energy runs, it "fixated" on angular momentum, which is conserved (to good approximation) in that context. On the other hand, "given only data from low-velocity in-phase oscillations, the algorithm fixated on small-angle approximations and uncoupled energy terms." Finally, "By combining the chaotic data with low-velocity in-phase oscillation data, the algorithm converged onto the precise energy laws after several hours of computation." The paper's title is "Distilling Free-Form Natural Laws from Experimental Data."

Freeman Dyson's magic number

 

Part I of this story is tucked inside a long profile of the famous physicist in the March 25 2009 New York Times Magazine (The article, by Nicholas Dawidoff, stirred up a firestorm of outraged commentary because it allowed Dyson to present his iconoclastic views on global warming). Dyson participates in Jason, a small super-classified think-tank the government runs "each summer near San Diego." At lunch, one of the scientists "will idly wonder if there is an integer where, if you take its last digit and move it to the front, turning, say, 112 to 211, it's possible to exactly double the value. Dyson will immediately say, 'Oh, that's not difficult,' allow two short beats to pass and then add, 'but of course the smallest such number is 18 digits long.'" The meal ends in silence with nobody having "the slightest idea how Freeman could have known such a fact or, even more terrifying, could have derived it in his head in about two seconds." (This last quote from William Press, who presumably was there).

Part II is in the online New York Times, in two installments of the TierneyLab, a science blog on the website. On April 6, John Tierny posts the Dawidoff quote, along with an analysis from Pradeep Mutalik (Medical Informatics, Yale). "In fact, the procedure to find the answer requires no more than 4th-grade arithmetic skills. I know, because I actually showed my fourth-grader daughter, Maya, how to do it, and she had no problem whatsoever in computing the answer." Mutalik calls the number in Dawidoff's account the Dyson number for 2, generalizes the problem to finding the Dyson number for n (moving the last digit to first place multiplies the original number by n), defines "reverse Dyson numbers," etc.

On April 10, Tierney publishes Mutalik's 4-th grade daughter's solution. (Meanwhile he had heard from Freeman Dyson: "I am sure I had seen the problem before .... Mr. Dawidoff made a big deal out of something very ordinary. The problem is well known among recreational mathematicians.") As instructed by her father, she started with a 2 on the right side of a sheet of paper, and extended towards the left as follows. The second digit is twice the first, the third is twice the second, etc., with "carries" added in as she went along. She stopped when she found a number starting with 10....

                   2
                  42
                 842
               16842
              136842
              736842                 
            14736842        
            94736842        
          1894736842                 
         17894736842                
        157894736842                
       1157894736842                 
       3157894736842                 
      63157894736842                 
    1263157894736842                 
    5263157894736842                 
  105263157894736842                 

Moving the last 2 to the front gives 210526315789473684, manifestly twice 105263157894736842. The April 10 blog also contains Dr. Mutalik's explanation of the phenomenon in terms of arithmetic mod 19.

Of math and money

 

  • Lawrence Summers, "the former Treasury secretary and Harvard president who is now the chief economic adviser to President Obama, earned nearly $5.2 million in just the last of his two years at one of the world's largest funds, according to financial records released Friday by the White House." This from a piece by Louise Story in the April 5 2009 New York Times. The fund is identified as D. E. Shaw. And how did he get the job? "As part of Shaw's rigorous screening process--the firm accepts perhaps one out of every 500 applicants--Mr. Summers was asked to solve math puzzles. He passed, and the job was his."
  • "Still Doing the Math, but for $100K a Year" is the heading on an article by Michael Winerip in the Times for January 30, datelined Rochester NY. It starts: "This is a great economic time to be a veteran public schoolteacher. Valerie Huff, a math teacher at East High here, a tough urban school, made more than $102,000 last year." The point is that "now, with the economic collapse, a lot of people who sneered at teachers, wish they had it so good." Another example is "Gaya Shakes, 56, 101K," who tells Winerip that before the recession "people would be like, 'Oh, you're just a teacher.' Now you hear, 'How do I get on the substitute's list?'" Ms Shakes, by the way, has a Ph.D. from the University of Rochester. She still teaches because the schools there are two-thirds black and, as she says, "our children need advocates" (Ms Shakes is African-American); and also because "She makes more teaching in the public schools than she could as a college professor."
  • "You'll get better jobs, better pay, more interesting work and have a future" by improving math skills. This is Allannah Thomas, as quoted in the New York Times on April 18, 2009. The context is a "Jobs"-rubric piece by Tanya Mohn about Helicon, a non-profit founded by Ms. Thomas in 1999 "to address a lack of math proficiency among low-income women. As the sole instructor, she has taught more than 5,000 women (and many men, too) about basics of bookkeeping and has helped them prepare for G.E.D. tests." Mohn interviews two Helicon graduates, women both in their 30s, who "took several of Ms. Thomas's classes last year and in September became apprentices in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3, making $11 an hour with yearly raises. After a five-and-a-half-year apprenticeship, they will earn about $47 an hour, they said."

 

Tony Phillips
Stony Brook University
tony at math.sunysb.edu