Math in the Media

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Math Digest

On Media Coverage of Math

Edited by Mike Breen and Annette Emerson, AMS Public Awareness Officers
Mike Breen (AMS), Claudia Clark (writer and editor), Rachel Crowell (2015 AMS Media Fellow), Annette Emerson (AMS), Samantha Faria (AMS), and Allyn Jackson (Deputy Editor, Notices of the AMS)

Winton Gallery

A new math gallery in London.

"The news should start with mathematics, then poetry, and move down from there," from The Humans, by Matt Haig.

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Click here for a list of links to web pages of publications covered in the Digest.

See also: The AMS Blog on Math Blogs: Mathematicians tour the mathematical blogosphere. PhD mathematicians Evelyn Lamb and Anna Haensch blog on blogs that have posts related to mathematics research, applied mathematics, mathematicians, math in the news, mathematics education, math and the arts, and more. Recent posts: "The Lure of the Rubik's Cube," by Anna Haensch, and "Mona Chalabi's Datasketches," by Evelyn Lamb.

On why a liberal arts education is important for STEM majors, by Claudia Clark

In this article, mathematics professor Neal Koblitz makes the case for science, math, and engineering majors to study the humanities. He laments the "weakening of liberal-arts traditions and the corporatization of higher education," which includes the "nationwide trend toward education-on-the-cheap" in entry-level courses. This manifests itself in the increasing number of undergraduate courses being taught online—which he argues is "in most cases not good for the student"—and the increasing number of non-research faculty teaching introductory courses—which he asserts "creates further distance between students and the world of research and innovation." Koblitz's argument in favor of the liberal arts tradition is a simple one: "With few exceptions, in order for people in the STEM professions to have an impact, they must be able to write effectively and creatively." In essense, they must be able to "tell a story." He provides several examples of the importance of this ability, not just for writers of groundbreaking books and articles, but also for "rank-and-file" scientists and engineers: a well-written grant application may have a greater chance of success, and a journal article with an engaging introduction may attract more readers.

"How can a student learn to tell a story well?" Koblitz asks. "First and foremost by reading great literature. Another way students can learn how to analyze content and trace the development of an idea is through the study of history. And finally, one of the most effective ways to acquire a broad perspective and an appreciation for the nuances of communication is through the study of foreign languages and literatures."

See "Why STEM Majors Need the Humanities," Neal Koblitz, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 6 January 2017.

--- Claudia Clark

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On Discover's top 100 stories, by Claudia Clark

Three of the stories included in Discover magazine's annual coverage of the top 100 stories in science describe mathematical discoveries.

  • In a summary entitled "Picky Primes," Julie Rehmeyer writes about the discovery by Kannan Soundararajan of Stanford University and Robert Lemke Oliver of Tufts University that "prime numbers…aren't quite as random as mathematicians thought…Primes especially dislike following primes with the same final digit as their own." The researchers submitted a paper in March in which they "showed that the pattern holds among the first 400 billion primes and offered an explanation for it."
  • In a summary entitled "Mathematicians Find the Answers," Rehmeyer discusses elliptic curves and the interest in determining how many of an elliptic curve's solutions it is necessary to know in order to find the remaining solutions. She reports that "a new model published in February found that 21 solutions will almost always suffice, based on a statistical approach that simulates the behavior of elliptic curves."
  • In a third summary, "Babylonian Tablets Tracked Jupiter," Jonathan Keats describes the "baffling references to trapezoids" in instructional texts that were written by Babylonian priests about planetary motion. He then explains the realization made by science historian Mathieu Ossendrijver: these trapezoids were actually formed by drawing a graph of Jupiter's "apparent velocity in the sky over 60 days," with velocity represented by a downward-slanting line (with time measured along the horizontal axis, and velocity measured on the vertical axis). "Combined with the chart's vertical [and horizontal] axes, that makes a right-angled trapezoid [whose] area then equals the distance Jupiter has traveled."

See "Top 100 Science Stories, #23, 35, and 48" by Julie Rehmeyer and Jonathon Keats. Discover, January/February 2017, pages 31, 41, and 54.

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On wrapping spherical gifts, by Rachel Crowell

Wrapping a sphereGifts of certain shapes can be a challenge to wrap. This article discusses the work of four scientists who determined the best way to wrap spherical objects, aside from placing them in a box first. The scientists looked for answers to the question of the best way to wrap spherical objects by studying how foil wrappers fit around a type of chocolate called Mozartkugel. Erik Demaine, a computer scientist at MIT, is one of the researchers. He told article author Sophie Bushwick that Mozartkugel is "the first perfectly spherical chocolate. It’s concentric spheres of various yummy things, like nougat, marzipan, and chocolate." The other three researchers are Martin Demaine (Erik Demaine’s father), John Iacono, and Stefan Langerman. Martin Demaine is a visiting scientist (in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab), artist-in-residence and technical instructor at MIT. Iacono is a computer scientist at NYU, and Langerman is a research director in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Brussels. The researchers studied how two versions of Mozartkugel were wrapped: the first, a hand-made product by the inventor of the treat, Paul Fürst; the second, an industrial product made by Mirabell.

The team deduced that Fürst wraps his Mozartkugel in a square piece of foil. To wrap a sphere using this method, you need a piece of foil that has a diagonal length equal to the sphere’s circumference. Place one pole of the sphere in the center of the foil. Wrap the square's corners around the sphere. They should meet at the opposite pole of the sphere. The last step is to crinkle the edges of the foil. For the other method, the Mirabell method, you’ll need a rectangular piece of foil with two properties: a length that’s equal to that of the sphere's circumference and a height that’s equal to half of that length. Wrap the long side of this foil around the equator of your spherical object. Now crinkle the top and bottom parts of your foil so the rest of your object is covered.

The researchers devised a new method that reduces the amount of foil you'll need to use to wrap your object. Create a foil triangle. (An example of such a triangle is pictured. The places where there is direct contact between the foil and sphere are shown in bluish green.) Place your spherical object in the center. Wrap each corner of the foil around the object. The corner should go just past the opposite side of the pole to the one it was on originally.

Erik Demaine said the researchers think the paper about their work is "the first paper on computational confectionary." He also said "We hope there will be more." (Image: courtesy of Erik Demaine.)

See "Here's how to wrap a spherical gift, according to scientists," by Sophie Bushwick. Popular Science, 23 December 2016.

--- Rachel Crowell (Item posted 12/30/16)

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On the 2016 Breakthrough Awards, by Claudia Clark

On December 4, a remarkable assembly of scientists and mathematicians, Hollywood actors, award-winning singers, and technology giants came together at NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley for the awarding of the 2017 Breakthrough Prizes to researchers in the fields of life sciences, mathematics, and fundamental physics. Mathematician Jean Bourgain of Princeton University received the Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics "for contributions to analysis, combinatorics, partial differential equations, high-dimensional geometry and number theory." The Breakthrough Prizes were created four years ago by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, 23andme founder Anne Wojcicki, and Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Altogether, seven Breakthrough Prizes for scientific accomplishment were awarded this year, along with a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, each worth $3 million. In addition, two Breakthrough Junior Challenge prizes, worth up to $400,000 each, were awarded.

See "Morgan Freeman, Mark Zuckerberg and Yuri Milner host the 'Breakthrough Awards': Gala gives £19 million in funding to the world's top scientists," by  Abigail Beall. Daily Mail, 5 December 2016.

--- Claudia Clark

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On the Science Museum of London's new math gallery, by Rachel Crowell

Winton GalleryOn December 8 the Science Museum of London opened a new math gallery called "Mathematics: The Winton Gallery." The gallery was designed by the same firm that's behind the London Olympics Aquatics Centre---Zaha Hadid Architects. It includes more than 100 objects over a time span of 400 years. The lead curator of the gallery is Dr. David Rooney. The gallery was created with the aim of helping people become less fearful and more excited about math. Article author Josie Gurney-Read wrote that the gallery "will explain why maths is at the heart of everything we care about."

In recent years, officials have been working to boost the UK's performance in math on international assessments and other measures. Rooney thinks the new gallery will support this mission. He told Gurney-Read that "Museums are profoundly important in the learning landscape...The maths gallery shows that you could work anywhere with a maths education---aerospace, finance, architecture, engineering."

The focal point of the gallery is a 1929 experimental airplane that was built to compete in the Safe Aircraft Competition sponsored by Daniel Guggenheim. Bidisha Sinha, a senior associate at Zaha Hadid Architects, was involved with creating the gallery. She told Gurney-Read: "The entire gallery is a consequence of the movements that might have happened around the plane, almost like a graphical representation of the air flow…" The gallery also includes Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, which Rooney described as "a 19th-century computer" and the Monetary National Income Analogue Computer (MONIAC). The MONIAC was built in 1952 by New Zealand economist Bill Phillips. The machine was used to teach undergraduate students and it "used water to show the flow of money," according to Rooney. He said that a touchscreen simulation is in the works, which would give people a chance to try operating the MONIAC.

See "A space where mathematical ideas burst into life," by Josie Gurney-Read. The Telegraph, 3 December 2016.

--- Rachel Crowell (Posted 12/13/16)

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On the Multi-Talented John Urschel, by Samantha Faria

John Urschel

Baltimore Ravens lineman and MIT graduate student John Urschel wants everyone to know that they don't have to choose when it comes to being good at things. "You don't just have to focus on football; you don't just have to focus on academics.... It's OK to be into multiple things. It's OK not to fit into these little square pegs." Often students dream of making it to the pro-level in sports, yet few will ever reach that accomplishment. Society focuses its attention on celebrities rather than on successful lawyers, doctors or mathematicians. Urschel explains, "You've got a much better chance of bettering yourself, and having a better life for your kids than you had, by focusing on academics."

See "Ravens' John Urschel on exploring football, math, why and why not," by Noah Frank, WTOP Washington's Top News, 23 November 2016.

--- Samantha Faria

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On math and the "passer-by in the street," by Rachel Crowell

Joseph Diaz GergonneDavid Hilbert, who’s described in this editorial as "the most influential mathematician of the twentieth century," said at the 1900 International Congress of Mathematicians in Paris "A mathematical theory is not to be considered complete until you have made it so clear that you can explain it to the first man whom you meet on the street." Hilbert credited the saying to "an old French mathematician." Math historians June Barrow-Green and Reinhard Siegmund-Schultze recently traced the saying back to Joseph Diaz Gergonne (1771–1859), pictured at left, who was indeed a Frenchman. According to their analysis of historical documents, the saying first cropped up in 1825. That year, Gergonne wrote in a letter that the last word hasn’t been said on a theory until someone has been able to explain it to a passant dans la rue, which translates as a "passer-by in the street." Gerogonne took his statement one step further in 1826 when he said that if it is not possible to explain a theory in this way, then the theory "does not deserve to see the light of day."

Being able to break down any theory into terms that everyone can understand is something to strive for, but this editorial points out that for particularly complex theories, it may be better for us to strive to meet a standard that Einstein set forth: Make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler. (Image: MacTutor History of Mathematics archive.)

See "Being able to explain your work to passers-by is laudable---but not always possible," Editorial. Nature, 16 November 2016.

---Rachel Crowell (Item posted 11/28/16)

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On female representation on editorial boards, by Rachel Crowell

According to this article, women only hold 15 percent of tenure-track positions in math. What's more, in a study of 13,000 editorial positions on 435 math journals, researchers Chad Topaz, a mathematician and Shilad Sen, a computer scientist, found that less than 9 percent of them were held by women. Also, ten percent of these journals lack female editors entirely. The duo chose to study female representation on these editorial boards, because these people holding these positions are often seen as leaders in their field. Jane C. Hu wrote, "Think of the editors as the gatekeepers of science: They direct journals' peer-review process, the backbone of modern science. Editors call the shots on which papers get published in their journals--and this affects the ultimate direction of a field." Sen also said to Hu, "Editorial boards are a great chance for professional networking." He added "It's important for tenure and promotion, and is seen as a prestigious honor."

More work is needed to understand why women receive such poor representation in these leadership positions. The article mentions some possible reasons for this disparity. Women in math are less likely to be seen as brilliant (as measured on a recent study of student ratings on, which reduces their chances of advancing to the highest levels of academia. The article mentions examples of women who were treated differently from their male colleagues who had the same credentials, including the implication that women have only attained certain successes because they have played the "gender card." An "old boys' club" mentality in math culture can also contribute to women being excluded, diminished or even harassed by their male colleagues, starting early on in their careers. Mathematicians Maria Emelianenko and Sarah Brodsky provided examples of this.

Women might receive more leadership roles if paper submissions were anonymous, parental leave policies were bolstered or journals were more proactive about appointing women to editorial boards, according to Moon Duchin (also a mathematician), Topaz, Sen, Emelianenko, and Brodsky.

See "Why Are There So Few Women Mathematicians?," by Jane C. Hu, The Atlantic, 4 November 2016.

--- Rachel Crowell

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Math Digest Archives || 2010 || 2009 || 2008 || 2007 || 2006 || 2005 || 2004 || 2003 || 2002 || 2001 || 2000 || 1999 || 1998 || 1997 || 1996 || 1995

Click here for a list of links to web pages of publications covered in the Digest.