Math in the Media

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

This month's topics:

"The Great Math Mystery" on NOVA

(subtitle: "Was math invented by humans, or is it the language of the universe?"), was broadcast by PBS on April 15, 2015. Available online. This program is an installment in the NOVA Physics series: despite the title, it is actually a program about physics, and how those people have been able to make amazing predictions using a mysterious technique called "mathematics." We hear how "Galileo's centuries-old mathematical observation about falling objects remains just as valid today." How Newton's inverse-square gravitation law holds just as well for colliding galaxies as it does for bowling balls on Earth and for planets in the Solar System. How Neptune was discovered: "Mathematics had accurately predicted a previously unknown planet." How television, your garage-door opener, etc. "all use invisible waves of energy to communicate, and no one even knew they existed until the work of James Maxwell." And how the Higgs boson was discovered: "A subatomic particle mathematically predicted to exist nearly 50 years earlier ... one of the greatest predictions ever made." Meanwhile we do see some mathematicians, but all they talk about is whether they experience mathematics as discovered or invented, without anyone giving a single example of a mathematical discovery or invention.

So, no mathematics at all. Perhaps because of that, it's a very entertaining hour. The show is impeccably produced, with some brilliant sequences. In one, the jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding demonstrates octave, fifth and fourth as corresponding to whole-number ratios of lengths and then, as she improvises, fractions stream out of the instrument, dancing. In another, Max Tegmark, the physicist who maintains that "math works so well to describe reality because ultimately math is all that it is" morphs into himself as a character in a Mario Brothers game where all is, indeed, in the computer code. And some irresistible lemurs show us how numerosity is everywhere. On the other hand, repeatedly showing bogus footage of a Rover supposedly landing on Mars was not a good idea.

"The Great Math Mystery" is scrupulously and elegantly gender- and color-balanced; let's hope this is the mathematical world of the future.

Math in the New York Times

For April 1-26, 2015 a search for references to mathematics in the Times turns up 37 items. Here are some of the more substantial.


Robert Langlands in the Toronto Star

"The Canadian Who Reinvented Mathematics" is Sandro Contanta's piece in the Star for March 27, 2015. (The day before, Contenta posted a video: Robert Langlands and his mathematical revolution giving some of the mathematical background). Beyond the "local boy makes good" is a fairly lengthy, thoughtful and careful story of Langlands and some of his accomplishments. "In 1967, as a young [mathematics] professor at Princeton University, he revolutionized the ancient discipline. He discovered patterns in highly esoteric objects called automorphic forms and motives, and he restructured mathematics with two dazzling theories." (As Contenta tells us later, that year "Langlands published his two theories, called functoriality and reciprocity, under the title 'Problems in the Theory of Automorphic Forms.'") "They indicated what mathematician Edward Frenkel calls 'the source code of all mathematics,' and are credited with linking math's main branches--number theory (once called arithmetic), harmonic analysis, which includes calculus, and geometry. Frenkel is convinced the conjectures lay the groundwork for a 'Grand Unified Theory of Mathematics,' although some aspects remain beyond Langlands' embrace." Some direct quotes from Frenkel: "He pointed us into a direction where we can go and find the truth, find out what's really going on. It's about seeing the world in the right light." "He's like a modern-day Einstein. But everybody knows about Einstein and nobody knows about Langlands. Why is that?"

Tony Phillips
Stony Brook University
tony at