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

This month's topics:

MoMath in the New York Times

The Weekend Arts section of the Times for August 30, 2013 carried Helene Stapinski's report on a visit she, her children and two of their cousins made last summer to the Museum of Mathematics ("MoMath," 11 East 26th Street, opened 12/12/2012). The youngsters were initially turned off by the idea of a museum about mathematics. "They should change the name to the Museum That Has Nothing to Do With Math" suggested her 13-year-old. "Then kids might want to go." But misgivings evaporated at the doors to the museum. The children's "pained looks disappeared, and so did they, lost among the 31 colorful exhibits." We get to hear in detail how the children interacted with the museum: the Square Wheeled Trikes ("Look, no hands!"), the Tracks of Galileo ("Dude, we need to make this steeper"), the Funny Face exhibit, the Math Square, and the Human Tree ("When I asked him what it was all about he shrugged and said it was about division and multiplication. But he didn't seem to care one way or the other. He waved his arms wildly and said he felt like a superhero, images of himself sprouting out of his hands and head."). The final verdict: "This is definitely more fun than I thought it would be."

Ms Stapinski went back the next day to interview MoMath's founders, Glen Whitney and Cindy Lawrence. She learned from Whitney that the museum had been much more successful than anticpated: "We thought we'd have 60,000 visitors the first year, total. But we hit that mark in April." She mentioned her son's remark about the name of the museum; in fact research had shown that the word "math" would turn some people away. Lawrence: "But this is who we are. We're not apologizing. We're saying math is cool and we're going to show you it's cool."

Edward Frenkel in the media

Edward Frenkel (Math, UC Berkeley) is becoming the Cédric Villani of American mathematics. Il est partout (minus the spider and the floppy tie).


Women in science (and in math)

"Can you spot the real outlier?" by Eileen Pollack, appeared in the New York Times Magazine for October 6, 2013. Pollack is currently Director of the MFA Program at Michigan. Her title refers to the iconic photograph of Einstein, Bohr, Planck and 26 other attendees at the 1927 Solvay Conference on Physics, reproduced in a 2-page spread. The "outlier" is Marie Curie, the only woman in the picture, seated between Planck and Lorenz in the first row. Pollack's question: "Almost 90 years later, why does science remain so much of an old boys' club?" Pollack's article is mostly concerned with physics: she was a physics major at Yale, graduating in 1978, but her senior thesis was supervised by a mathematician (Roger Howe, in fact) and math serves throughout as a symbol for all the sciences, especially as they first appear to students in elementary school. The article draws from a wide spectrum of earlier work. Sources include a 2008 report in the AMS Notices on performances in math competitions, which yielded the quote "Only Asians and nerds do math (extracurricularly)" as an explanation for the low participation of many USA-born students in math clubs and teams; and the 2012 Handelsman report which "directly documented gender bias in American faculty members in three scientific fields --physics, chemistry and biology-- at six major research instiutiotns scattered across the country."

What is new are the personal glimpses. Pollack herself, talking about her early love for mathematics and physics, her success in an outstanding undergraduate research project and how nonetheless her low scientific self-regard (she compared herself to Roger Howe and "judged my talents wanting") drove her out of research and into writing. And, in a different context, "The problem is that most girls--and boys--decide they don't like math and science before these subjects reveal their true beauty." Meg Urry, who at the time of her interview was Chair of Physics at Yale, "flabbergasted" to hear from her own female undergraduates about the derision thay had encountered in high school and how even at Yale "the boys in my group don't take anything I say seriously." Roger Howe, who tells her that "It's very unusual for any undergraduate to do an independent project in mathematics. By that measure, I would have to say that what you did was exceptional," but is "taken aback" when she asks him why he never told her. As she puts it, "The most powerful determinant of whether a woman goes on in science might be whether anyone encourages her to go on."

Tony Phillips
Stony Brook University
tony at

American Mathematical Society