Math in the Media

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Top Math Stories in the Media - 2016

These stories about mathematics and mathematicians had an impact on the mathematics community and the general public due to their coverage in major or many media, and their human interest.

Hidden Figures, the book and film

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 fully desegregate NASA in 1958. Christine Darden, now 73, became a leader in engineering research of sonic booms before retiring from NASA. Katherine Johnson, 98, was responsible for calculating trajectories of rockets for the Mercury and Apollo missions. A movie version of the story, starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe, is scheduled to be released in January 2017. There was extensive media coverage of the book and upcoming film. (Photo: Aran Shetterly.)

See Math in the Media, Tony Phillips' Take, "Space Race Math Whizzes;" Math Digest "On Margot Lee Shetterly's Hidden Figures," by Rachel Crowell; and links to reviews of the book and film.

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The Man Who Knew Infinity film about Ramanujan

Mathematicians and actors at film screening

The film The Man Who Knew Infinity is based on the life of Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, who died at 32. Dev Patel portrays Ramanujan and Jeremy Irons plays Ramanujan's colleague and champion, G. H. Hardy. Ken Ono (who published an autobiography this year entitled My Search for Ramanujan) and Fields Medalist Manjul Bhargava advised on the film. (Photo, courtesy of Manjul Bhargava, left to right: Ken Ono, associate producer and math consultant on the film; Jeremy Irons, who played G.H. Hardy; Devika Bhise, who played Ramanujan's wife, Janaki; Dev Patel, who played Ramanujan; and Manjul Bhargava, associate producer and math consultant on the film.)

See Math Digest for a summary of reviews of the film, The Man Who Knew Infinity about Ramanujan, and coverage of Ken Ono, by Claudia Clark.

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2016 IMO - U.S. Team Wins Again

2016 U.S. IMO teamThe U.S. International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) team won first place in the IMO for the second straight year. Korea finished seven points behind the U.S. and China was third. All six U.S. team members earned gold medals in the competition. National and local news media as well as social media covered U.S. coach Po-Shen Loh, Carnegie Mellon University, and his description of the team, its training, and the competition. (Photo, left to right: Ankan Bhattacharya, Allen Liu, Ashwin Sah, Michael Kural, Yuan Yao, Junyao Peng; courtesy of the Mathematical Association of America/Carnegie Mellon University.) Ankan won the 2016 national Who Wants to Be a Mathematician, and both Ashwin and Michael are former contestants.

See Math in the Media, Tony Phillips' Take, "U.S. team wins I.M.O.," and Math Digest, "On the 2016 IMO," by Mike Breen.

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Andrew Hacker and "Who Needs Math?"

In essence, Andrew Hacker espouses that since only 5 percent of people use algebra and/or geometry in their jobs, students don't need to learn these subjects. The New York Times and many other publications covered his views, published op-eds, and reviewed his book, The Math Myth and Other STEM Delusions. After months, Hacker participated in a debate with James Tanton, "the mathematician at large of the Mathematical Association of America," that was staged on the premises of the National Museum of Mathematics (MoMath) and covered in The New Yorker.

See Math in the Media, Tony Phillips' Take on the extensive coverage and controversies ("Who Needs Math" Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4).

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Andrew Wiles receives the 2016 Abel Prize


Media worldwide, but especially in the UK, announced the news that Andrew Wiles was named 2016 Abel Prize laureate "for his stunning proof of Fermat's Last Theorem by way of the modularity conjecture for semistable elliptic curves, opening a new era in number theory." NPR provided additional biographical details about Wiles, including, "In 1963, when he was a ten-year-old boy growing up in Cambridge, England, Wiles found a copy of a book on Fermat's Last Theorem in his local library. Wiles recalls that he was intrigued by the problem that he as a young boy could understand, and yet it had remained unsolved for three hundred years. 'I knew from that moment that I would never let it go,' he said. 'I had to solve it.'." (Photo by Alain Goriely.)

See Math Digest, "Andrew Wiles' Abel Prize," for a summary of media coverage.

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Eugenia Cheng on math and baking

Eugenia Cheng, a mathematician currently at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, teaches math to art students, lectures widely and continues her research. Her book, How to Bake π: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics, was published in 2015 and generated interest in her connections between mathematics and baking. She was interviewed in The New York Times and has appeared on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Cheng "insists that the public has it all wrong about math being difficult, something that only the gifted mathletes among us can do. To the contrary, she says, math exists to make life smoother, to solve those problems that can be solved by applying math's most powerful tool: logic."

See Math in the Media Tony Phillips' Take, "Math - a piece of Cake?," and Math Digest "Eugenia Cheng, Math and Cooking."

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Nobel Prize in Physics - topology explained


The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded on October 4, 2016 to David J. Thouless (University of Washington, Seattle), F. Duncan M. Haldane (Princeton) and J. Michael Kosterlitz (Brown). The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences citation includes the statement, "The three Laureates' use of topological concepts in physics was decisive for their discoveries. Topology is a branch of mathematics that describes properties that only change step-wise. Using topology as a tool, they were able to astound the experts." The spokesman for the Academy, Thors Hans Hansson, tried to explain topology using a cinnamon bun, and the video was picked up many news outlets and by social media. (Image from a video on The Guardian, used courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd.)

See Math in the Media Tony Phillips' Take, "Nobel Prize in (topology in) Physics, 2016."

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Weapons of Math Destruction

Cathy O'Neil

Mathematician and former Wall Street "quant" Cathy O'Neil's book, Weapons of Math Destruction, takes a look at what she calls WMDs (weapons of math destruction)--the models and algorithms that have unintentionally "encoded human prejudice, misunderstanding and bias into the software systems that increasingly manage our lives." Her provocative thoughts were covered in Discover, NPR, and other media.

See Math Digest, "On math and credit scores," by Claudia Clark.

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Sphere-packing problem


Finding the most-efficient packing of balls is a question mathematicians have long been interested in. In March, Maryna Viazovska, a postdoctoral researcher at the Berlin Mathematical School and Humboldt University of Berlin, published a proof that E8 is the densest packing for spherical objects in dimension 8. She developed this proof by using the theory of modular forms to find an "auxiliary" function for dimension 8. Auxiliary functions enable mathematicians to calculate the largest sphere density allowed in a given dimension. Quanta Magazine and New Scientist covered this research discovery, which is of great interest to mathematicians, and explained the concepts in terms accessible to a broad audience of readers. (Image: A visual representation of the E8 root system, courtesy of Henry Cohn.)

See Math Digest, "Sphere packing problem in dimensions 8 and 24," by Rachel Crowell, and "Finding the most-efficient packing of balls," by Allyn Jackson.

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Pi Day

Jonny getting pie

As usual, Pi Day inspires celebrations, contests, and media coverage. On the serious side, mathematician Carlos Castillo-Chavez studies epidemics at Arizona State University, and uses pi to study everything that cycles, like his own research into the cyclical re-occurrence of the flu. On the fun side, John Conway, recently stated, "Pi may be irrational, but free pizza is anything but." He teamed up with Pizza Hut by writing three math problems of varying difficulty to offer a unique challenge to "consumers and mathematics wizards." The prize for the first person to correctly solve and submit the correct answer was 3.14 years of free pizza. The AMS held its annual Pi Day Who Wants to Be a Mathematician competition at Providence College (won by Jonny Zhang, at left getting some post-competition pie from his support team).

See Math Digest, "Pi Day 2016," by Samantha Faria for how Pi Day was covered on NPR, Rhode Island Public Radio and Fortune.

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Op-Eds and Letters to the Editor

We also acknowledge some of the fine opinion pieces and letters to the editor that appeared in 2016: "What’s the point of maths research? It’s the abstract nonsense behind tomorrow’s breakthroughs," by Wolfram Bentz, The Conversation, September 19, 2016; "Teaching mathematics creates beautiful minds," by Hilla Rogel, Miami Herald, May 4, 2016; "The Mathematician's 90th-Birthday Party," by Manil Suri, The New York Times (Opinion), April 25, 2016; “Maths isn’t the problem - the way it’s taught is,” by Tim Gowers, The Guardian, March 11, 2016; "Math’s Place in the Classroom," by Lucy Brownstein, The New York Times, February 18, 2016. (Brownstein is a high school student and this letter to the editor is in response to "Who Needs Math? Not Everybody," by Andrew Hacker (Education Life, The New York Times, February 7, 2016)); "A Puzzling Solution for Math Education," by Frank Wilczek, The Wall Street Journal, January 8, 2016.

See Top Math Stories in the Media - 2015.

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