Math in the Media

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

May 2000

* $1,000,000 revisited. The New York Times picked up the story of the reward for a proof of Goldbach's Theorem in a lovely article by Bruce Schechter in the April 25 Science Times. Schechter reviews the history of the problem, with asides on Erdös, Fermat, Wiles and Gödel.

*Heinous math? That's how Scientific American writer Alden M. Hayashi describes the underpinnings of string theory. The quote is from the April 2000 Profile of Brian Greene, a physicist (and mathematician) at Columbia. It goes on: "Physicists such as Greene are having to invent unspeakably complex mathematics to describe this surreal landscape, just as Isaac Newton had to develop calculus to elucidate how forces act on objects." This otherwise excellent piece gives the impression that the math is the ugly part of string theory. Far from it. Substitute wondrous for heinous and ineffably for unspeakably.

*"The Five Hysterical Girls Theorem" is a play by Rinne Groff that opened at the Connelly Theater in Greenwich Village this month. It was reviewed by Bruce Weber in the April 27 New York Times with the subheading: "`Zeta function' and other abstractions at a British resort." The play is set at a 1911 meeting of number theorists. The title refers to the name given by one of the characters to a special kind of prime number. Four are known; is there a fifth? Weber is quite severe: "...for all the playwright's obvious research, I'm not sure she understands the math,..." And he ends "But in this case, at least, the issue is whether a play about incomprehensibility must itself be comprehensible. Yes. It must." This calls to mind a wonderful Einstein misquotation printed in the January 1 2000 Miami Herald: "The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is incomprehensible."

*"Flexible Math Meets a Parental Rebellion" was the headline for a long piece in the April 27, 2000 New York Times. The parents are parents of children in one of New York City's better school districts; the flexibility is the district's efforts to improve students' understanding of math by teaching them techniques of estimation, and conceptual approaches to problems, that are not what the parents learned when they went to school. Another episode in the eternally necessary debate about how to balance skill and understanding. Excellent article, by Anemona Hartocollis.

--Tony Phillips
SUNY at Stony Brook

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