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 (freelance science writer), Lisa DeKeukelaere (2004 AMS Media Fellow), Annette Emerson (AMS), Anna Haensch (Drexel University), Allyn Jackson (Deputy Editor, Notices of the AMS), and Ben Pittman-Polletta (Boston University)

October 2014

Matt Parker turns math into stand-up comedy, by Anna Haensch

Rarely does mathematics inspire laughter, and it would seem downright impossible to find a mathematician who could sell out a 3,500 seat comedy show.  Meet Matt Parker, a most unusual mathematician.  Parker, who grew up in Australia, says he "never got the memo about maths being boring." Since he was a kid, Parker has always been fascinated by math, and now as an adult it’s his mission to spread that fascination around.  And as The Independent explains in its recent article, Parker has found a most unconventional way to spread his good news--through stand-up comedy! 

Parker maintains a Youtube channel full of videos of his stand-up and various other mathematical entertainment, along with other not so mathy things, like how to make ice cream using a fire extinguisher.  In addition to his own channel, he is also a frequent contributor to the very popular Numberphile, where he gives his totally watchable take on some of our most pressing math questions, like why the heck can’t we divide by 0?

His most recent effort at connecting people to math is his new book, Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension, full of games, puzzles, and explanations of all the exciting parts of math that we may have missed in school.  Parker laments the fact that math is "the one thing you’re still allowed to be proud of being bad at…people are almost proud of being ignorant of this huge achievement of humankind."  Parker is out to change that, and he sees that now is the time.  "There has been a huge resurgence of maths as entertainment," Parker says, which we can see playing out all over social media.  For Parker’s latest, follow him on Twitter @standupmaths.

See "'Stand-up mathematician' Matt Parker is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences," by Simon Usborne. The Independent, 30 October 2014.

--- Anna Haensch

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On the sexiness of math, by Allyn Jackson

This piece presents a brief interview with Benedikt Wirth, a mathematician at the Universität Münster who is the 2014 recipient of the Alfried Krupp Sponsorship Award for young researchers. The award comes with 1 million euros. Asked why mathematics is perceived as "so unsexy," Wirth laughs and says "For us mathematicians, mathematics is certainly very sexy---the sexiest science around!" The final question in the interview asks Wirth about his mathematical work, which centers on questions of form and structure in medicine, biology, and engineering.

See "Math is the sexiest science around," by Valentin Betz. DW, 30 October 2014.

--- Allyn Jackson

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Black men in STEM, by Allyn Jackson

The Chronicle of Higher Education published a special report on black men in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). In an article about four black men in STEM, two are in the mathematical sciences. Read the inspiring stories of Karl Walker, assistant professor of math and computer science, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, and Ryan Charles Hynd, assistant professor of mathematics, University of Pennsylvania.

For all four profiles, see "STEM Stories," by Stacey Patton. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 27 October 2014. The profiles are part of a larger article in the issue, "Black Man in the Lab."

--- Allyn Jackson

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On an app that solves math problems, by Mike Breen

And now a free app that allows people to aim their smart phones at a math problem and not only will the app give them the answer, but also it will show the steps to arrive at that answer! The company that created the app, MicroBlink, claims that its goal is not to allow students to "cheat," but rather to help students who don't have access to tutors or can't get individualized instruction. The app was written about by many and performed pretty well in a promotional video but, at least according to the review "Can you really rely on an app to do your maths homework?", point-and-solve technology hasn't arrived quite yet.

See "This app will help kids cheat on math tests," by Sonali Kohli. Quartz, 21 October 2014.

--- Mike Breen

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On an event at the National Museum of Mathematics, by Lisa DeKeukelaere

Glen Whitney and Art SteinmetzGlen Whitney, Cindy Lawrence, and Tim NissenSteven Strogatz and Alan Alda

Photos (left to right) National Museum of Mathematics Co-Executive Director Glen Whitney explains an exhibit to trustee Art Steinmetz; event organizers Whitney, Co-Executive Director Cindy Lawrence, and Chief of Design Tim Nissen; Steven Strogatz (L) and Alan Alda (R) discuss the butterfly effect; courtesy of the National Museum of Mathematics.

Quantitative hedge fund owners may be notoriously secretive about strategy and earnings, but the high-powered, high-earning brains recently came together for a lavish--and, according to this article's title, geeky--affair: the Chaos Ball, to support the National Museum of Mathematics (MoMath) in Manhattan. Ball guests had the opportunity to create a fractal made of lights attached to a blackboard, play with 3-D printed geometric trinkets, and be mesmerized by metronomes and square-wheeled tricycles. Where other charity balls include performances by rock stars, the Chaos Ball had actor Alan Alda talking about chaos theory with mathematician Steven Strogatz. Where other balls have pop-culture celebrities, the Chaos Ball had a string theorist from Columbia University and the CEO of Wolfram Research. The Ball raised $830,000 for MoMath.

See "Billionaires and Mathematicians Crack Jokes at the Geekiest Event of the Season," by Bradley Hope. The Wall Street Journal, 19 October 2014.

--- Lisa DeKeukelaere

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On shipping in Britain, by Allyn Jackson

"If you are planning to post a present this Christmas, it is advisable to be good at maths, or at least go shopping with a tape measure and a pair of weighing scales," this article says. The Royal Mail has changed its prices for various types of parcels depending on their dimensions and weight. A 16-page booklet was needed to explain the changes. In Britain one can also send mail through private carriers, but their price configurations can be just as complicated. Adding to the confusion, some carriers specify volume instead of dimensions. One, MyHermes, uses something called "volumetric area." Packages sent must be under 225cm of volumetric area. The article quotes a MyHermes spokesperson as saying: "To work out the volumetric area, if you add the two shortest dimensions of the parcel and multiply them by two, add the length, the total calculation needs to be under 225cm." Instead of taxing one's brain with such arcana, the article recommends using a web site that does calculations and price comparisons automatically.

See "Why you need to be a maths genius to post a parcel," by Brian Milligan. BBC Business News, 10 October 2014.

--- Allyn Jackson

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"What comes next?" Sloane's database of sequences delivers an answer, by Anna Haensch

What makes the sequence 1, 2, 2, 1, 1, 2, 1, 2, 2, 1, 1, 2, 1, 1,… so cool? In his blog for The Guardian, Alex Bellos explains that along with its crazy mathematical properties, it also has the distinction of being the second entry in the Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences (OEIS). From the beloved Fibonacci sequence, to the more obscure Kolakoski sequence, the OEIS is a database of hundreds of thousands of integer sequences. It's a tremendous technical tool for mathematics researchers, but also a cool resource for the casually number-curious. 

Neil SloaneThe OIES was created by Neil Sloane (left) when he was a graduate student at Cornell University in the 1960s. He was working with one particularly obscure sequence of integers, and it occurred to him that it would be handy to have a record of every integer sequence in the world. It started as a stack of 3 x 5 index cards on his desk, after a few decades became a book with 5,000 sequences, and eventually in 1996 a website with 10,000 sequences. Since then, the website has started crowdsourcing à la Wikipedia, and it now gathers about 15,000 new sequences each year. 

The OEIS was honored at a conference at the Center for Discrete Mathematics & Theoretical Computer Science (DIMACS) at Rutgers University recently, coinciding with the encyclopedia's 50th anniversary, and founder Neil Sloane's 75th birthday--a twofold celebration! Recently, the OEIS and the work of Sloane also got a nod in Wordplay, The New York Times's blog on crossword puzzles.

But wait, I still haven't told the mathematical properties that make that sequence so cool. You can see that 1, 2, 2, 1, 1, 2, 1, 2, 2, 1, 1, 2, 1, 1,… is kind of boring, just 1's and 2's, so the numbers themselves aren't all that remarkable. But notice that they always appear in runs of 1 or 2. So if we count the numbers of 1's and 2's and make a sequence out of that, we get 1,2,2,1,1,2,1,2,2,1,… --the original sequence! Pretty neat. There is only one other sequence that does this, and you get it by just removing the leading 1 from the sequence above. 

Watch 1,000 sequences be plotted at a rate of 2 per second.

See "Neil Sloane: the man who loved only integer sequences," by Alex Bello. Alex's Adventures in Numberland--The Guardian, 7 October 2014.

--- Anna Haensch

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On discovering the art of mathematics, by Claudia Clark

Math and dance In this article, writer Jessica Lahey describes her conversations with Cornell University mathematics professor Steve Strogatz about a course for liberal arts majors that he is teaching. For Strogatz, the key to turning around many of these students' typically negative attitudes toward mathematics is to change the way the subject is taught. To that end, he is using the DAoM curriculum--Discovering the Art of Mathematics: Mathematical Inquiry in the Liberal Arts--developed at Westfield State College by Dr. Julian Fleron and three colleagues. "The DAoM approach," explains Lahey, "is rooted in inquiry-based learning: It focuses on student-led investigations into problems, experiments, and prompts…[It] aims to intellectually stimulate students, to provide cognitive gains, and get students engaged with math rather than passively listening to a teacher." After the first week of class, Strogatz reported to Lahey that it was going well: he described how students "shouted him down" when he tried to give them a hint that would help them solve a puzzle they had already worked on for 30 minutes. "They were having a true mathematical moment," Strogatz said. "That is, they were deeply engaged with a puzzle that made sense to them, and they were enjoying the struggle…Over the weekend I started to get emails from some of them, expressing the excitement they felt when they solved it." (Photo courtesy of Steven Strogatz.)

Strogatz explains the class activity in the photo: This was taken during an activity using dance to make group theory--the math of symmetry--come alive. Specifically, the students are exploring what happens when you combine two transformations to make a third. In the activity shown here, the student on the far right strikes a pose. The student in the middle transforms that pose by (in this case) rotating it 180 degrees about a vertical axis. The student on the left then applies a different transformation (in this case, a mirror reflection in a vertical plane between the left and middle student).

The question they're exploring is: how is the pose of the student on the left related to that of the student on the right? More abstractly, what symmetric transformation do you get by combining a 180 degree rotation with a mirror reflection? As they discovered, the answer turns out to be a "glide reflection"--a reflection through a mirror plane down the midline of the left student's body, along with a translation (a glide) down the line they are all standing on. These kinds of investigations are described on pp.10-11 of the free book, Discovering the Art of Mathematics: Dance.

See "Teaching Math to People Who Think They Hate It," by Jessica Lahey. The Atlantic, 6 October 2014 and Lahey's interview with Strogatz.

--- Claudia Clark

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Age Tables Behind Bars, by Ben Pittman-Polletta

Demographers use a variety of means to study the structures of populations--human, animal, and otherwise--and their evolution through birth, death, migration, and aging. Like mathematicians in every discipline, mathematical demographers model their objects of study--in this case populations--and derive relationships that make the work of their experimental collaborators easier, or even feasible. Carey's equality is a relationship describing the age structure of a so-called stationary population, one in which birth and death rates are equal. In a stationary population, one could say the number of individuals of age zero is the same as the number of individuals whose remaining lifespan is zero. Carey's equality, remarkably, suggests that this is true for all ages: the number of individuals who will die in a given time span is the same as the number of individuals who have already lived exactly that long. This equality was first put forward by entomologist James Carey in 2004 while he was searching for a way to estimate the age distributions of wild populations of Mediterranean fruit flies. The existing techniques for estimating the ages of so-called medflies--such as examining captured individuals for mechanical, chemical, or genetic markers of aging--were proving woefully inadequate. Carey began investigating how the lifespan distribution of a captive population might be used to estimate the age structure of the corresponding wild population. A simple life table model suggested that the lifespan distribution was not just an estimate of the age distribution--it was identical. The result turned out to be true for continuous and nonstationary populations ("Demographic window to aging in the wild: constructing life tables and estimating survival functions from marked individuals of unknown age," by Hans-Georg Müller, Jane-Ling Wang, James R. Carey, Edward P. Caswell-Chen, Carl Chen, Nikos Papadopoulos and Fang Yao, Aging Cell, Volume 3, Issue 3, June 2004).

Carey's equality got its name and its (paragraph-long) proof in a 2009 paper by mathematical demographer James Vaupel ("Life lived and life left: Carey's inequality," by James Vaupel, Demographic Research, January 2009). Recently, a new proof--and a new insight--came to light, when Carey met mathematical modeler and applied mathematician Arni Rao at Ohio State University's Mathematical Biosciences Institute. As Carey described his result and illustrated it with several graphical examples, Rao saw another equality emerge before his eyes: for a stationary population of individuals captured at a random point in their lifespans, the distribution of pre-capture and post-capture lifespans would be identical. This, combined with the set theory Rao had already used to study how the aging dynamics of subpopulations contribute to stability within a population ("Population stability and momentum," Arni S.R. Srinivasa Rao, Notices of the AMS, October 2014), gave rise to a new proof of Carey's equality, to appear in the Journal of Mathematical Biology. "Understanding age structure in these insect populations is a huge deal worldwide," said Dr. Carey in a recent Science Codex post. "It's the older mosquitoes that vector the West Nile fever, malaria, yellow fever, and so forth."

(Image: When individuals from a population are captured at a random time during their lifespan (top, inset), the ordered distribution of the times they spend in captivity matches the distribution of their ages (top), as well as the ordered distribution of the times they spend out of captivity (bottom). Image courtesy James R Carey.)

See "New theorem determines the age distribution of populations from fruit flies to humans," Science Codex, 6 October 2014.

--- Ben Pittman-Polletta (posted 10/28/14)

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Celebrating Martin Gardner's 100th Birthday, by Mike Breen and Annette Emerson

Gardner portrait by Bruce Torrence

In honor of what would be Martin Gardner's 100th birthday on October 21, Colm Mulcahy (Spelman College) and Dana Richards (George Mason University) have written a fond remembrance of Gardner and the many years and ways he inspired so many. "Like a good magic trick, a clever puzzle can inspire awe, reveal mathematical truths and prompt important questions. At least that is what Martin Gardner thought. His name is synonymous with the legendary Mathematical Games column he wrote for a quarter of a century in Scientific American." Mulcahy and Richards give some background on some of the concepts Gardner introduced to a wider audience, such as hexaflexagons, polyminoes, the Game of Life, Penrose tilings, and RSA encryption. Gardner's column influenced many to pursue mathematics professionally, and entertained and informed many others. One of his successors at Scientific American, Ian Stewart, said, "Martin Gardner was an impossible act to follow...What we did try to do was replicate the spirit of the column: to present significant mathematical ideas in a playful mood." Gardner discontinued the column in 1980 but still continued to write about recreational mathematics and wound up writing over 100 books. To this day, his work is celebrated in the biennial Gathering 4 Gardner conference, in less formal Celebration of Mind events, and in the clever work of mathematicians and magicians, as evidenced by the 30 days of activities celebrating Mathematics, Magic, and Mystery, the theme for Mathematics Awareness Month 2014--and, well, for every month, especially this October as we celebrate Martin Gardner.

The image here is "Martin Gardner - Master Puzzler," by Bruce Torrence (Randolph-Macon College, Ashland, VA), on Mathematical Imagery. Torrence describes the work as follows: "This portrait of Martin Gardner (1914-2010) was made by coloring the individual tiles on a kite and dart Penrose tiling. This particular tiling exhibits fivefold rotational symmetry (can you find the center?), and was created by 'deflating' a wheel of five kites eight times. Gardner's oft-cited January 1977 Scientific American column introduced the public to Penrose's aperiodic tiles."

See "Math Games of Martin Gardner Still Spur Innovation," by Colm Mulcahy and Dana Richards, Scientific American, October 2014, pages 90-95. (The full article is available only by subscription.) See also: A BBC Magazine article by Colm Mulcahy, complete with puzzles, published on Oct. 20, and selected articles and websites about and by Martin Gardner.

--- Mike Breen and Annette Emerson

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'Among The 'Brilliant Ten,' A Math-Loving Biologist, by Anna Haensch

Katia Koelle

This month, Popular Science’s "Brilliant Ten" list is a jaw-dropping roster of young scientists who are making a huge impact on the world. One that particularly caught our eye was an evolutionary biologist whose first love was, you guessed it, math!

Katia Koelle specializes in Ecology and Population Biology ("Katia Koelle Models How Viruses Turn Deadly"). She uses math modeling and statistics to understand how certain measures can stem the spread of dangerous infectious diseases. Lately she’s been crunching the numbers with vaccination and vector control, basically asking, what happens to the spread of Dengue when the Orkin man comes in and nukes all the mosquitos? Not what you’d think, the work out of her labs shows. Controlling the mosquito population of course means that people get infected less frequently, but consequently they don’t build up the same storehouse of antibodies to fight the disease.

Koelle also studies the evolution of influenza. In a talk at the Kavli Frontiers of Science last year, she describes a mathematical model to understand the seasonal and yearly chronology of flu outbreaks, and the evolution of the virus itself. Koelle hopes that these, and other fresh ideas from her lab, can be used to inform public health policy.

Some of PopSci’s other Brilliant Ten honorees include a mechanical engineer who studies bat colonies to make better drones, and a biochemist harnessing the power of snot.

See "The Brilliant Ten of 2014," by Veronique Greenwood and Cassandra Willyard, Popular Science, October 2014 issue, posted 9/17/14. (Photo courtesy of Katia Koelle.)

--- Anna Haensch

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