Math in the Media

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Mathematical Digest

Short Summaries of Articles about Mathematics
in the Popular Press

"Don't get even, get mad," by Robert Matthews. New Scientist, 10 October 1998, pages 26-31.

Say you receive a terrorist threat to the military base you're assigned to protect--what should you do? Not doing anything could be distastrous, but the base is already well defended, and acting could make other targets vulnerable.

Mathematicians have worked on solving problems like these in the field of game theory. The idea is to give a score to the consequence of each action and choose the one with highest score.

So far, progress has been made in finding the best strategy when both sides are acting rationally. But what if the terrorists are planning a suicide mission? More complex situations like this, which are the norm in real life, haven't been dealt with very well in game theory. However, some mathematicians think they have found a way to boost the theory's power.

Emotions and preferences should be incorporated into game theory, says Nigel Howard, a game theorist. He's developing a modification of the field called "drama theory." While some think it to be touchy-feely compared to the apparently solid results of classical game theory, drama theory has been used to better score the complex strategies of many games, Howard says. While it's still too early to know if drama theory has a future, Howard asks that we give it a chance.

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--- Ben Stein