Top Math Stories in the Media - 2015

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.

John Nash, his Abel Prize and tragic death


Our first story is a tragic one. It was only days after John Forbes Nash, Jr. was awarded the 2015 Abel Prize in Oslo that he and his wife, Alicia, died in a car accident in New Jersey as they were returning home. Media worldwide covered his impact on mathematics (his Abel Prize was awarded jointly to Louis Nirenberg for their work in nonlinear partial differential equations and its applications to geometric analysis), his difficult life with schizophrenia (the subject of the book and film A Beautiful Mind), and his sudden death. (Photo: John Forbes Nash, Jr. by Berit Roald ©NTB Scanpix.)

See Math in the Media for Tony Phillips's Take on "The death of a beautiful mind" and "More on John Nash" in Science and Nature, and Math Digest (2015 Abel Prize and on the death of Nash).

Pentagonal tiling discovery

Pentagonal Tiling

Researchers Casey Mann, Jennifer McLoud, and David Von Derau at the University of Washington Bothell found a new pentagon that tiles the plane. As jouralist Alex Bellos wrote, "Pentagons remain the area of most mathematical interest when it comes to tilings since it is the only of the '-gons' that is not yet totally understood." Although tilings have applications in packing problems, the illustrative image no doubt caught the attention of media and readers. (Image: Representatives of the 15 types of pentagons that tile the plane. The newest one is in the bottom right corner. Image: Ed Pegg Jr, via Wikimedia Commons.)

See Math in the Media for Tony Phillips' Take "New pentagonal tiling in The Guardian," on coverage in Forbes, Mother Nature Network.

Mathematics Education, still a hot topic

Talithia Williams

Interest in mathematics education continues to be strong. Mathematics curricula, teaching and learning, and related socio-political issues (Common Core State Standards, diversity, "math literacy," and influence of parental attitudes) generate articles, conversation, and debates. (Photo: Talithia Williams, Harvey Mudd College, who is deeply involved in increasing diversity in STEM.)

What are the challenges and what can be done to improve mathematics education, especially in the U.S.? See Math in the Media for Tony Phillips' Take on "Long-term effects of gender bias in math education" in The New York Times, Slate; "Math in The New York Times ("A Math Problem From Singapore Goes Viral: When Is Cheryl's Birthday?" and "Are You Smarter Than an 8th Grader?"); "The inheritance of math anxiety"; "Bedtime math boosts kids' scores;" and Math Digest summaries: "The Importance of Failure," "On the old new math," "On the status of programs to increase the number of math and science teachers," "On an interview with Talithia Williams on increasing opportunities for minorities in STEM," "On American Students' Drop in Math Skills," among others.

U.S. team wins the International Mathematics Olympiad

US IMO team

The U.S. team finished first with 185 points at the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) this summer in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Five members of the team--Ryan Alweiss (Bergen County Academies, NJ), Allen Liu (Penfield Senior High School, NY), Yang Liu (Ladue Horton Watkins High School, MO), Shyam Narayanan (Blue Valley West High School, KS), and David Stoner (South Aiken High School, SC)--earned gold medals, while Michael Kural (Greenwich High School, CT) earned a silver medal. (Photo, left to right: Michael Kural, Yang Liu, Allen Liu, Ryan Alweiss, Shyam Narayanan, and David Stoner, courtesy of the MAA.)

See Math in the Media for Tony Phillips' Take "They're No. 1: U.S. Wins Math Olympiad" as reported on National Public Radio and in The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Guardian.

Terence Tao, genius

Erdos and Tao


Tony Phillips praises journalist Gareth Cook for the profile of Terence Tao that was published in The New York Times Magazine on July 24, 2015: "Cook uses the human interest generated by a compelling life story (Australian child prodigy with savvy parents grows up to be an unusually unpeculiar world-class mathematician with talented and well-adjusted kids of his own) to keep his readers' attention while he delivers a substantial amount of information about some of the problems Tao works on--in particular, the twin primes conjecture and the stability of solutions to the Navier-Stokes equations--and about mathematics, and the life of a mathematician, in general..." Tao also received coverage after presenting a solution to the Erdős Discrepancy problem. (Photo: Paul Erdős and Terence Tao in 1985. Photograph courtesy of Terence Tao.)

See Math in the Media for Tony Phillips' Take "Terence Tao in The New York Times Magazine" and "Maths whizz solves a master's riddle."

Progress on the Graph Isomorphism Problem

Two isomorphic graphs

This news came late in the year. The problem of deciding whether two graphs, such as the two at left, are isomorphic has been a special problem in complexity theory and is known as the graph isomorphism problem. László Babai of the University of Chicago gave a seminar talk in November and submitted a paper in which he described new work that purports to show that solving the problem takes only slightly longer than polynomial time, quasi-polynomial time. Most people agree that Babai's result would be an enormous advance in the field and would have implications for the million-dollar P vs. NP problem. Babai himself is not rushing to take credit preferring to let the peer review process run its course.

See the Math Digest summary by Allyn Jackson, "Complex problem made simple sends computer scientists wild," New Scientist.

3-14 = Pi Day

Pi Day

What would March 14 be without a celebration of Pi Day! And this year's Pi Day (3-14-15) was a one-of-a-kind (or at least once-in-a century) event. The media (as well as social media and the blogosphere) love to cover Pi Day with its pie-baking contests, graphic representations of pi, and an explanation of the meaning of 3.1415926535897... As Steven Strogatz noted in The New Yorker, "Pi does deserve a celebration, but for reasons that are rarely mentioned.... The beauty of pi, in part, is that it puts infinity within reach. Even young children get this. The digits of pi never end and never show a pattern. They go on forever, seemingly at random--except that they can't possibly be random, because they embody the order inherent in a perfect circle..."

See on Math Digest media coverage of Pi Day 2015 in The Boston Globe, The New Yorker, Marketwatch, and on National Public Radio.

Yitang Zhang's discovery in number theory

Yitang Zhang

It's not often that a mathematician is profiled in The New Yorker, but perhaps because Yitang Zhang was "a solitary, part-time calculus teacher at the University of New Hampshire," it was all the more intriguing when he solved a mathematics problem (submitted in 2013) that had been open for more than 150 years. He was able to demonstrate that there are an infinite number of primes that are a fixed distance apart (getting that distance down to two would prove the Twin Primes conjecture). Later mathematicians working together in a Polymath Project were able to lower the bound on the gap established by Zhang in his paper. Zhang received several prominent awards for his achievement, published in "Bounded Gaps Between Primes" in Annals of Mathematics. (Photo courtesy of the MacArthur Foundation.)

See Math in the Media for Tony Phillips' Take, "Yitang Zhang and twin primes in The New Yorker," and on Math Digest, "On an interview with Yitang Zhang" in Quanta.

John Urshel, football player and mathematician

John Urschel

A football player who's also a mathematician--now there's a story! John Urschel plays professional football for the Baltimore Ravens and he's also committeed to telling young people how much he loves math. He explains in one piece, "... the things I love the most in this world (reading math, doing research, playing chess) are very, very inexpensive... I've fallen in love with football and the physical contact associated with it." (Photo: John Urschel, giving a talk at the NSA. Image courtesy of the Baltimore Ravens.)

See Math in the Media for Tony Phillips's Take on "Mathematicians on the gridiron" as covered on National Public Radio and in The Players' Tribune, and on Math Digest, "John Urschel, on his interests" about an article in The New York Times.

Math and the mystery of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370

Simulation of flight impact

Even after a year, people worldwide still wanted to make sense of how a large passenger jet could disappear from radar--and completely elude being discovered. The April 2015 issue of Notices of the AMS carried an article describing a possible explanation, and it was a story media picked up on. Using the mathematics of fluid dynamics and supercomputer simulations, the seven authors of the article, led by mathematician Goong Chen of Texas A&M University, modeled the conundrum as a classic "water entry problem." (Image: Pitch angle = -90°, angle of approach = 93°. This corresponds to Case 4. A video animation can be viewed at Images and videos by Goong Chen, et al.)

See Math Digest, "On a team of math modelers' analysis of the fate of missing Malaysian flight," for a summary of articles in International Business Times, The Age, CNN, among others.

2016 Breakthrough Prize to Mathematician Ian Agol


Ian Agol, mathematics professor at University of California, Berkeley, currently on sabbatical at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, received the 2016 Breakthrough Prize "for spectacular contributions to low dimensional topology and geometric group theory, including work on the solutions of the tameness, virtual Haken and virtual fibering conjectures." The Breakthrough Prize, founded by Mark Zuckerberg and Yuri Milner, aims to recognize outstanding scientists just as other awards and prizes recognize outstanding performers and athletes. The $3 million award and the renowned prize founders generated media coverage, and the spectacular televised Hollywood-like award ceremony was simulcast in the U.S.on the Discovery Channel and Science Channel on November 15, aired on BBC World News Worldwide on November 22, and was then re-broadcast on Fox TV in December. (Photo of Ian Agol courtesy UC Berkeley.)

See Math in the Media for a summary and links to coverage.

Op-Eds and Letters to the Editor

We also acknowledge some of the fine Op-Eds and Letters to the Editor that appeared in the media in 2015: "The Importance of Recreational Math," by Manil Suri, The New York Times, October 12, 2015; "The ‘New’ New Jersey Mathematics Standards -- Circa 2009," by Joseph G. Rosenstein, NJ Spotlight, July 13, 2015; "Mathematicians and Blue Crabs," by Manil Suri, The New York Times, May 2, 2015; "New math needed to explore new networks," by Jordan Ellenberg, Wisconsin State Journal, March 20, 2015; and "The real reason why the US is falling behind in math," by Tara Holm, The Boston Globe, February 12, 2015. Find these and more Recommended Reading: Op-Eds and Letters to the Editor by Mathematical Scientists.

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