Math in the Media

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Tony PhillipsTony Phillips' Take on Math in the Media
A monthly survey of math news

April 2002

*``Hi-IQ Math Hunks heat up films, plays'' is the title of a review of Proof in the March 6, 2002 Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Reviewer Mark Lowry spends less time on the production than on the phenomenon, which he quantifies thus:

(Oscar front-runner A Beautiful Mind plus a national tour of Tony/ Pulitzer Prize-winning play Proof) times (recent movies/plays about mathematicians and scientists, such as Good Will Hunting, Pi, Copenhagen and QED) can only equal one thing.

Left-brained geniuses, and their stories, are suddenly hot.

or, put less formally, ``What movie- and playgoers are discovering is that the kids perennially maligned in high school as math geeks can grow up to live and work in a challenging professional environment - and that's the stuff of great drama.'' The result: ``mathematicians as sex symbols - a status helped along when they're portrayed by the likes of Russell Crowe, Matt Damon, Jennifer Connelly and Jennifer Jason Leigh, who currently stars in the Broadway production of Proof.'' Lowry got A Beautiful Mind's math consultant David Bayer to explain the demographics behind the entertainment industry's new infatuation with matters mathematical:
     ``I was acutely aware of how women responded to the story of my working on [A Beautiful Mind]. Three out of four women - even my mother, who is happily married, is pretty hot for Russell - were taken with the physical attributes. But then there's that fourth woman. The way you get to her romantically or sexually is between her ears. She has an intellectual respect for [sharp] minds.''

*Spinning eggs. ``If a hard-boiled egg is spun sufficiently rapidly on a table with its axis of symmetry horizontal, this axis will rise from the horizontal to the vertical. (A raw egg, by contrast, when similarly spun, will not rise.)'' This from a ``brief communication'' in the March 28 2002 Nature, entitled ``Classical dynamics: spinning eggs - a paradox resolved,'' by H. K. Moffatt (Cambridge) and Y. Shinomura (Keio University, Yokohama). ``... the centre of gravity rises; here we provide an explanation for this paradoxical behaviour, through derivation of a first-order differential equation for the inclination of the axis of symmetry.'' They prove that the mathematics that accounts for the motion of the ``tippy-top'' (the mushroom-like toy that rises to spin on its stem), and which requires a partly spherical surface, also holds for arbitrary solids of revolution. The end of the communication: ``Finally, we may note that a raw egg does not rise when spun, simply because the angular velocity imparted to the shell must diffuse into the fluid interior; this process dissipates most of the initial kinetic energy imparted to the egg, the remaining energy being insufficient for condition (14) to be satisfied and for the state of gyroscopic balance to be established.''

*Cellular automata at the seashore. A ``letter to Nature,'' appearing in the October 25 2001 issue (and picked up in the March 29 2002 email journal ScienceWeek) explains how ``an empirically derived cellular automaton model of a rocky intertidal mussel bed based on local interactions correctly predicts large-scale spatial patterns observed in nature.'' The thick-and-thin pattern of mussel colonisation on a typical mussel bed has a fractal-like aspect. J. Timothy Wooton (Chicago) analysed the factors affecting the spread of a mussel colony, including competition from other organisms, the impact of waves, and the tendency of mussels to attach themselves to other mussels. He gathered data for six years at 1400 reference points in a mussel bed on Tatoosh Island, Washington, used the data to specify transition probabilities for a cellular automaton model of the bed, and ran the model for 500 (simulated) years. At the end, the patterns exhibited by the model were found to be in excellent agreement with those occurring in on the site, showing that in this case ``processes such as species interactions that occur at a local scale can generate large-scale patterns seen in nature'' (the quote from ScienceWeek).

*Math plagiarism, or at least plagiarism in writing about mathematics, was reported in the March 9 2002 New York Times. ``Plagiarism that doesn't add up,'' by Edward Rothstein, tells the story of science writer John Casti and ``Mathematical Mountaintops: The Five Most Famous Problems of All Time'' (Oxford, 2001). Apparently Mr. Casti borrowed unacceptably from the works of Barry Cipra, William Dunham, Allyn Jackson, Thomas Hales and Simon Singh. Rothstein ponders the paradoxical aspects of this infraction. Casti had in fact been quite open with credits and compliments in his annotated bibliography. ``So this case is strange indeed: credit is generously given and scandalously denied; the stakes are, in mathematical terms, unusually small; and the plagiarism is both unnecessary and unsuccessful,'' where this last item seems to mean that the purloined prose is just as unintelligible, for the general reader, as the rest. Oxford has recalled the book.

*More about Nash. Now that A Beautiful Mind has won four Oscars, we will probably hear from everyone who ever had a Nash moment. Better than usual was the contribution, in the March 22 2002 Los Angeles Times, by Daniel Grech: ``What Nash's 'Beautiful Mind' Really Accomplished.'' Grech, a Princeton undergraduate from 1995 to 1999, witnessed the last few years of Nash's non-celebrity, when ``Nash sightings - at the Dinky train station, in the Small World coffee shop, on his slowly looping bicycle rides - were a regular pastime.'' But beyond musings on the eccentricity of mathematicians (Grech studied with John Conway), the piece makes an effort to tell us what Nash's Nobel Prize was for. It explains what mathematicians mean by a game (``any conflict situation that forces participants to develop a strategy to accomplish a goal'') and shows in a classic example how inefficiency can develop in a free market, although it does not go far enough to communicate where Nash's innovation lay. Doubtless the reporter-editor game has some inefficiencies of its own. The article is available online.

-Tony Phillips
Stony Brook

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