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

This month's topics:

Hardy and Ramanujan - the play

 rehearsal scene

The Complicite production of A Disappearing Number in rehearsal. Paul Bhattacharjee, Divya Kasturi and Simon McBurney; crew members in background. Photo: Sarah Ainslie, used with permission. See larger image.

Complicite's production of A Disappearing Number opened in London September 5 and runs through October 6. The play, written and directed by Simon McBurney, is described on the company's website as "a meditation on mathematics, infinity and our relentless compulsion to understand," which "takes as its starting point the story of the most mysterious and romantic mathematical collaborations of all time." McBurney was interviewed by Sara Abdulla for the September 6 2007 Nature.

  • "I learnt that mathematics is a relay race. This provides an important image of human continuity in these egotistical times."
  • ... "when you discard ideas, you have to be careful not to take away what was instinctive and intuitive. You can be left with something much too simplistic. This brings us back to Ramanujan and Hardy. Ramanujan lived with an enormous amount of mystery and, in mathematical terms, roughness. He was constantly guessing and approximating, nonetheless coming up with extraordinary ideas. Hardy was a great deal more disciplined in the way that he created proofs. In the end, some say the mathematics of Ramanujan is much greater than that of Hardy."
  • "The play begins with the explanation of the functional equation of the Riemann zeta function -- to do with the distribution of primes -- and that is as difficult as it gets. Even if the audience doesn't understand the mathematics, they start to get a sense that it can be beautiful, simply for its elegance and economy. Great ideas themselves are touching, in the same way that a human story is touching."

Hardy and Ramanujan - the novel

In an apparently unrelated development, this September also saw the publication of The Indian Clerk, David Leavitt's novelistic imagining of the Hardy-Ramanujan story. Nell Freudenberg's very positive review of The Indian Clerk took the front page of the New York Times Book Review for September 16, 2007. As she explains it, the genre here is "a novel about people who really existed, recreated by an author who plays with the facts, and especially the intriguing lacunae, of their lives." Leavitt is a specialist in gay-themed intellectual history, and this book seems to be no exception. "Hardy was a member of the Cambridge Apostles, an illustrious secret society that counted Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore, John Maynard Keynes and Lytton Strachey among its members. Many of the Apostles were homosexuals," as, we are given to understand, was Hardy himself. "Leavitt has been praised and condemned for the explicit sex in his fiction," Freudenberg tells us. But rest assured, readers: whatever bodice-ripping (or the equivalent) takes place in the novel, it will not involve our two protagonists. As Freudenberg puts it: "... what he makes of their relationship is much more subtle than a love affair. Initially frustrated by the young genius's tendency to pursue several ideas in an associative fashion, Hardy eventually realizes he has come in contact with a mind that expands his notion of their discipline."

Math: Gift from God or Work of Man?

This is John Allen Paulos' column, posted September 2, 2007 on the ABC news website; the subtitle: "Mathematics, Religion and Evolution in School Curricula." The insertion of religion into science courses (under the guise of "intelligent design," etc.) has now begun to spread to mathematics. So far, it does not seem too worrisome. Most of the examples Paulos shows us are merely peculiar: a standard mathematics curriculum with clumsily interpolated references to a higher being. "The study of the basics of geometry through making and testing conjectures regarding mathematical and real-world patterns will allow the students to understand the absolute consistency of God as seen in the geometric principles he created." (Many of us have done worse in trying to justify pure mathematical research to federal funding agencies). The staff at Maharishi University are more creative: "Infinity: From the Empty Set to the Boundless Universe of All Sets -- Exploring the Full Range of Mathematics and Seeing its Source in Your Self." Still OK, as long as that Boundless Universe is not itself a set.

Next we take on the transcendentalists in our midst; like Eugene Wigner who believes, Paulos tells us, that the "ability of mathematics to describe and predict the physical world is no accident, but rather is evidence of a deep and mysterious harmony." For these people Paulos has a nice statement of the natural history of mathematics:

"The universe acts on us, we adapt to it, and the notions that we develop as a result, including the mathematical ones, are in a sense taught us by the universe. ... evolution has selected those of our ancestors (both human and not) whose behavior and thought are consistent with the workings of the universe. The usefulness of mathematics is thus not so unreasonable."

Women, Girls and Math - on NPR

Science Friday plays from 2 to 4 Friday afternoons on many National Public Radio stations. On Friday, September 21, 2007, Hour 2 of the broadcast was devoted to "Women, Girls and Math." (Archived audio records of the program are available here). The host as usual was Ira Flatow; his guests for this segment were Diana McKellar ("Math Doesn't Suck"), Jennifer Iglesias (on the US team at the 2007 China Girls Math Olympiad), Melanie Matchett Wood (Princeton graduate student and coach of Jennifer's team) and Maria Klawe (math Ph.D. and president of Harvey Mudd College). From the panel:

  • "I think it's ... extremely unfortunate ... that there's an idea that part of being good is 'toughing it through' and not needing help; and because of that the mathematical community doesn't provide enough mentors to students and doesn't provide enough opportunities for students struggling to improve." (MK)
  • "My favorite math class was a class called Real Analysis. ... What I love is anything that has to do with infinity. I've always thought that it was really neat that we could even have a handle on that, somehow, in math." (DMcK)
  • "How fast you can learn a mathematical concept has nothing to do with how good you are at math." (MK)
  • "Some of the Chinese girls were amazing. The standard of education is so much higher over there and they work so much harder." (JI)
  • "You introduce yourself to someone and they ask what you do ... and they say 'Oh! I was really horrible at math. It was my worst subject.' -- and they're proud of it! ... in China, saying that you're bad in math is shameful."(MK)

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