Math in the Media

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

December 2000

* That was the election that was. A lot of numbers got tossed around, with a lot of fluff about the uncertainty principle. The voice of mathematical common sense was heard from John Allen Paulos in "We're measuring Bacteria with a Yardstick," a New York Times Op-Ed piece published November 22, 2000. "Measuring the relatively tiny gap between the two candidates is a bit like measuring the lengths of two bacteria with a yardstick. The Florida electoral system, in particular, is incapable of making such fine distinctions." He concludes with a "modest proposal." "Flip a commemorative Gore-Bush coin in the Capitol Building in Tallahassee."

* Fermat's Last Tango. It had to happen. Now it's a musical scheduled to open Off Broadway on November 21st, according to the November issue of the MAA newsletter Focus. The musical, which "combines operetta, blues, pop and, of course, tango," "tells the story of Professor Daniel Keane, who comes up with a proof Fermat couldn't possibly understand, finds a flaw in the proof, and then fixes the flaw ... . Fermat, Pythagoras, Euclid, Newton and Gauss all feature in the show." Performances run Tuesday through Saturday until December 31. 212-239-6200.

* Recognition for mathematics is overdue, according to an editorial in the October 26, 2000 Nature. The piece comments favorably on NSF Director Rita Colwell's proposal of a major new initiative in mathematics. It mentions the "festering problems" hidden by the current US leadership in many branches of mathematics: weaknesses in the educational system, dearth of American students entering mathematics, paltry support for those persisting into academia. It contrasts these with the growing demand for mathematicians: "Their research ... underpins progress in other disciplines. ... this is now as true in the life sciences as in the physical ones." And towards the end it states: "If this [proposal] wins the backing of Congress and the next US administration, the whole of science --and society at large-- stands to benefit."

* The butterfly effect? (The other butterfly effect, the one in meteorology.) An article in the November 24, 2000 Chronicle of Higher Education reports on progress in weather forecasting and plans for the future. In "Weather Forcasting: a Model Effort," Florence Olsen describes T. N. Krishnamurti's success in weather prediction (his team at Florida State outguessed the National Hurricane Center on Hurricane Floyd last year) by using a "superensemble" approach: essentially a weighted sum of a variety of forecasts, weighted according to their track records on a given type of problem. Olsen got a meteorologist at Michigan to say: "In theory, if you had a perfect model with infinite resolution, and you had infinitely good initial data, then you'd get a perfect forecast." An empty statement, or wrong.

* Math history on the web. From time to time the New Yorker runs a column called "Web Sightings" ("An idiosyncratic list of some of our favorite on-line haunts"). The November 27, 2000 column picks up the MacTutor History of Mathematics archive, hosted by the School of Mathematics ans Statistics at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland. The site, characterized by the New Yorker as "superb," has "essays on various topics that have perplexed mathematical minds for millenia" as well as a rich collection of mathematical biographies:

* 31 Prime, 35 Past Prime? A piece by Lila Guterman in the December 1, 2000 Chronicle of Higher Educationtakes up the question: "Are Mathematicians Past Their Prime at 35?" Guterman interviewed mathematicians from Ruth Lawrence (29: "I did things a little bit earlier than usual") and Francis Su (31: "Maybe I'm over the hill") to George Mackey (84: Doing significant work late in one's career involves seeking out problems that require more knowledge than young mathematicians can have accumulated) and touches base with the standard examples (Galois, dead at 20; Gauss, active at 75; Hardy: "...mathematics ... is a young man's game"). The concensus: great achievement in mathematics can come very early. As Noam Elkies (34) explains, math is one of a few fields "in which one can do top-level work without a lot of life experience, something that might be key in the arts or humanities." On the other hand, Guterman quotes the findings of Dean K. Simonton, an expert on the question: mathematicians make their best research contributions, on the average, at 38.8 (biologists: 40.5; physicists 38.2; chemists 38.0). Take heart, Professor Su!

* The exhibit Art and Mathematics 2000, running at the Cooper Union in New York until December 15, is the motivating topic for an very nice essay by Ivars Peterson in the December 2000 issue of the MAA newsletter Focus. ``Art Inspiring Mathematics in New York" recapitulates the interaction since the Renaissance. ``Looking at art with a mathematical eye or at mathematics with an artistic eye ... can be illuminating and immensely rewarding." Beyond the examples in the exhibit, Peterson points out mathematical sculptures (artists: José de Rivera, Charles O. Perry, Max Bill) in and near Washington, D.C. More information about the exhibit from the curator, Clifford Singer.

-Tony Phillips
Stony Brook

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