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), Rachel Crowell (2015 AMS Media Fellow), Annette Emerson (AMS), Samantha Faria (AMS), and Allyn Jackson (Deputy Editor, Notices of the AMS)

September 2016

On modeling crime, by Claudia Clark

Andrea BertozziIn this article, Fenella Saunders interviews mathematician Andrea Bertozzi and sociologist P. Jeffrey Brantingham about the software they have developed to help police departments determine where crime is likely to occur in the very near future, and therefore where departments should increase patrols. This practice, known as predictive policing, applies algorithms to large amounts of data, looking for patterns of specific criminal events and their locations. "We're using statistical methods, and these methods work very well when you have a large population where you've got a number of different interacting players in the process: for example, residential burglaries, criminals interacting with the environment," Bertozzi explains. "Then we look at how one event might trigger another event. To date, we've mainly focused on crimes of opportunity and ones that happen fairly frequently." (Among some of the models they've "tapped into" are those related to earthquakes and the subsequent aftershocks that are triggered.) According to Brantingham, the advantage of using a predictive algorithm is not in identifying, say, the top three "hot spots" for crime in a community: police departments already have a very good idea where these are. But "if you get down to hot spots 18, 19, 20, you're making it up. The algorithm doesn't have that same limitation. It can look at every single event in the context of the complete history in space and time, and make a much more accurate call about, 'This is hot spot 17 today,' or 'This is hot spot 12 today. In this context the algorithm has an advantage of being able to manage a much larger volume of data to pinpoint that risk."

Watch the entire interview and see "First Person: Andrea L. Bertozzi and P. Jeffrey Brantingham," by Fenella Saunders, American Scientist, September-October 2016, and hear a podcast interview with Bertozzi.

--- Claudia Clark

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On vision and mathematical processing, by Rachel Crowell

Brain PET scan

According to this article, researchers at Johns Hopkins wanted to know how visual experience influences the way people conceptualize numbers, so they studied the brain activity of congenitally blind and sighted people. From a 2013 study conducted by researchers at Stanford School of Medicine, it is known that people owe their processing of numbers to a cluster of specialized nerve cells in their brains. However, the researchers at Johns Hopkins discovered something further: When people who are congenitally blind perform math calculations, they make use of an area of their brains that sighted individuals use only for vision. What’s more, activity in this region of the brain increased in proportion to the difficulty of math problems congenitally blind participants were given.

Shipra Kanjlia is a graduate student in psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University. Kanjlia was the lead author on the study. She and her colleagues published the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences.

The results of the study leave an important question for future work: Do blind people have an advantage over sighted people when it comes to learning math? However, the results of the study challenge the idea that math is an innately visual process. (Photo: Jens Maus/Wikimedia Commons)

See "What Math Looks Like in the Mind," by Adrienne LaFrance, The Atlantic, 19 September 2016.

--- Rachel Crowell

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On London's most influential mathematicians, by Annette Emerson

The Evening Standard has included in its "The Progress 1000" series a piece profiling London's most influential mathematicians. They are (in the Standard's order): Hannah Fry, lecturer in the mathematics of cities, University College London (UCL), for her work researching human behavior and the math behind the railway network, and for her public outreach through books, radio, and a TED Talk; Marcus du Sautoy, professor of mathematics, Oxford University, for his "knack for explaining complicated number theory in accessible terms"; Colin Hegarty, mathematics teacher and Global Teacher prize finalist, for his "mission to make calculus cool"; John Pullinger, national statistician, for mobilizing "the power of information 'to help Britain make better decisions'"; Martin Anthony, head of mathematics, London School of Economics, for his research on Boolean theory and machine learning; Robb McDonald, head of mathematics, UCL, for his research and for encouraging more women to go into mathematics; Dame Celia Hoyles, professor of mathematics education, UCL Institute of Education, and "former government 'maths tsar'" for "sharing her enthusiasm for numbers with children and raising teachers' morale"; David Harding, founder and chief executive, Winton Capital Management, for his "research-driven approach to investing" and "employing maths and science whizzes to develop computer programs which lie at the heart of modern trading"; Jenny Watson, chair, Electoral Commission, and chief counting officer, for launching "a public awareness campaign in May to increase voter registration"; Paul Johnson, director, Institute for Fiscal Studies, for explaining dubious economic claims of politicians to the general public; Robert Chote, chairman, Office for Budget Responsibility, for overseeing public finances at the OBR; Anne-Marie Imafidon, co-founder, Stemettes, for inspiring girls to study STEM subjects; Alex Bellos, writer and broadcaster, for his best-selling popular science books and math coloring book; and Simon Tavaré, president, London Mathematical Society, for "promoting maths to a wider audience" and his work on the effects of genome alterations on cancer.

Congratulations to these mathematical scientists for their contributions, and congratulations to the Evening Standard for drawing attention to them.

See "The Progress 1000: London's most influential people 2016--Mathematics," Evening Standard, 7 September 2016.

--- Annette Emerson

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On Margot Lee Shetterly's Hidden Figures, by Rachel Crowell

Margot Lee ShetterlyMargot Lee Shetterly's (left) first book, Hidden Figures, tells the stories of black female mathematicians who made important contributions to NASA's mission before measures were taken to desegregate NASA in 1958. A movie version of the story is scheduled to be released at the end of this year. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe star in the movie.

According to this article, the job title of these influential women was, "colored computers." Among the women discussed in the book are Christine Darden and Katherine Johnson. Darden, who is 73, became a leader in engineering research of sonic booms before retiring from NASA. Johnson, who is 98, was responsible for calculating trajectories of rockets for the Mercury and Apollo missions. She and her husband of 57 years--James A. Johnson--live together in a retirement home.

Shetterly's father was a scientist at NASA. As a youngster, she knew female mathematicians and scientists who worked for NASA, including one of her Sunday school teachers. Shetterly was inspired to write the book after a conversation she had with her husband (Aran Shetterly) and her father. Photo: Aran Shetterly.

See "On Being a Black Female Math Whiz During the Space Race," by Cara Buckley, The New York Times, 5 September 2016.

--- Rachel Crowell

[Editor's note: For more on the film, see  “This movie about black female mathematicians looks glorious,” by Lili Loofbourow, The Week, 15 August 2016; “The African-American women behind NASA's rocket launches,” by Jan Crawford, CBS This Morning, 7 September 2016; “The Forgotten Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Send Astronauts to Space,” by Maya Wei-Haas, Smithsonian, 8 September 2016.]

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