Math in the Media

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Mathematical Digest

Short Summaries of Articles about Mathematics
in the Popular Press

Commentaries on the war in Iraq by mathematician John Allen Paulos:
"Polls, a Proverb and the Price,", 2 March 2003;
"Assessing Military Edge,", 30 March 2003.

In the first column, Paulos asks, "How do we measure popular support for the war with Iraq?" He takes a look at the problems of polling and acknowledges the difficulty of gauging sentiment because of the complexity and volatility of the situation. In the end he states that "although numbers may be helpful, what's really needed is wisdom, for which there is no formula, and every course of action can lead to a variety of outcomes whose probabilities we can only guess at." In his next column---written after the war was under way---Paulos offered what he called a "marginal contribution to the discussion" on the military strategy. He introduced Lanchester's Square Law, which was used to model conflicts during WWI and has since been taught in the military. The law is paraphrased as "the strength of a military unit---planes, artillery, tanks, or just soldiers with rifles---is proportional not to the size of the unit, but to the square if its size." Paulos goes on to illustrate the concept of qualitative and quantitative advantages. In the end, he again admits that the mathematical analysis is simplistic and doesn't take into account many other factors, and offers only that "whatever the duration of the war in Iraq, Lanchester's Law reminds us why urban guerilla warfare appeals to those with a weak conventional military."

--- Annette Emerson