Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Math in the Media: Homer vs. Pierre?

I just had the pleasure of watching a neat 8 minute video detailing some of the mathematics injected in to the Simpsons animations.  Apparently, there are mathematicians among the creative staff who cannot help themselves throwing in a little math humor into the background every so often. 

The video, listed here on YouTube by Numberphile is titled

Homer Simpson vs Pierre de Fermat

 Do give it a watch.  It is always good to know where the subliminal messages about how cool math really is are lurking, no?

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

What is Mathematics? Passages....

So I was asked during the break between the semesters to take part in an Intersession course designed to bridge the void between the sciences and the humanities (mind the gap!) by having professors from all stripes discuss common topics to a diverse audience.  The idea is that each professor sees the topic from the perspective of their chosen field and the same topic often looks quite different to different people.  It is a wonderful idea hatched and developed by Dr. Kristin Cook-Gailloud, the Director of the Program in French Language and Culture here at Hopkins.  This is the second year running this course and I thoroughly endorse it.  Alas, due to scheduling issues, I did not participate this year.  But a topic in this year's course, Passages, stuck in my head.  The idea of movement from one state to another is something innate to a mathematician, if regarded as movement from a state of ignorance and confusion to clarity and enlightenment. 

So I wrote an essay to clarify my idea of passage in mathematics.  It is here:

Passages in Mathematics

Enjoy and do let me know what you think....

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Math in the Media: Stereotype Threat?

How often we are in Mathematics faced with the fact that our profession was, and still is, quite female-starved;  that boys and men are thought to be better at math than girls and women (an amazingly ridiculous thought, given my view up here!).  So many recent studies seem to point decidedly at the dangerous effects of a person's perceptions of ability at the moment of evaluation and how easily they can affect performance.  For example, reminding students of a stereotype they conform to just before taking a math test tends to degrade performance.  This slow drip of research exposing the damaging effects of culture bias and preconceptions on lack of ability can only have a good effect in the long run.  And I do see here at Hopkins some light in the form of a general welcoming attitude and positive outreach to students studying higher mathematics regardless of gender.  But it does seem that this huge ship turns only very slowly.

Over at the online newspaper, the Huffington Post, Cailin O’Connor, a Professor of the Philosophy of Science at the University of California, Irvine, details some of the evidence that runs contrary to the notion of an innate gender bias in mathematical ability here:
Are Women Worse at Math?  It's Time to Stop Asking
Her take?   Perhaps it is time to stop focusing on looking for innate differences between the genders in mathematical ability and start simply addressing the cultural barriers that keep the gender balances way too tilted to one side. 

I agree, but still love seeing the rising tide of evidence condemning the idea that math is more a male thing.  Geez!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Math in the Media: Prime Gaps....

I am always amazed at how some of the most vexing, curious and fascinating puzzles in mathematics can be stated so simply, even as they evade solution or even complete understanding for centuries.  It is one of the more alluring aspects of this trade. 

Here's one:  Just how big can the gaps between consecutive pairs of prime numbers get as one traverses the natural numbers out toward infinity? 

One would expect the gaps to get larger and larger and also tend toward infinity in the long run, no?  But showing this, and providing some sort of measure of the growth of the size of the gaps as one goes "out there" has been remarkably elusive. 

I'll let you read this nice article by Erica Klarreich in Quanta Magazine, to "see" that progress has recently been made, and there is promise of more progress coming. 
Mathematicians Make a Major Discovery About Prime Numbers
Will math ever cease to amaze....

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Math in the Media: Mathematics is Evil?

There is an old saying (really, I just made this up):  If you are looking for immortality, you have two choices.  Become famous, or become infamous.  Either way, you will not soon be forgotten....

A professor here is uncovering an interesting conjecture.  The fictitious, evil mastermind and arch-nemesis of Sherlock Holmes, Professor James Moriarity, was modeled by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on a mathematics professor here at Hopkins.  The similarities are quite striking, detailed here by current professor Carl McTague

Moriarity at Hopkins

Give it a read.  Nice idea, eh?

Friday, September 26, 2014

Math in the Media: Return on Investment in a Math Degree?

So I would up devoting my life to the study of Mathematics because I absolutely love the subject.  It is inherently beautiful, surprisingly counter-intuitive, and seems to exhibit a logical framework for all that is in a way that I find ever intriguing.

However..., the study of math at a high level is also quite lucrative!!

Here is an article from Bloomberg Business Week, from June:
Undergrad Business Majors Don't Get the Career Payback Math Majors Do
You must love this title from my perspective.  The article highlights a measure of the lifetime worth of different college majors in term of a return on investment of time and effort.  Some majors are harder than others, I am sure.  And why they decided to include math and computer science together is a mystery to me (perhaps that is how the business world sees us?  As the studiers of logic?

In any case, they make a good case for choosing math as a major while here in the Ivory Tower. Call that reason number..., what... 132 in the countably infinite number of reasons why someone can benefit from choosing math as a major?  (BTW, have you heard that over 80% of statistics are made up on the spot?)

Give it a read.  I will await your change-of-major form....  ;-)

Monday, August 18, 2014

Real Mathematics!

I am gearing up for the fall semester here at Hopkins.  This fall, I am teaching our version of vector calculus (aka multivariable calulus), 110.202 Calculus III.  It is a great course, beautifully visual and quite subtle in many ways.  Good stuff! 

I sent out a "hello" email to my 300+ students, inviting them to check out the webpage and generally welcoming them to the course.  In this email, I say near the end:

Even though one may think of calculus as simply a math course where one learns some techniques for solving physics and statistics problems, it actually is much more than this.  Instead of simply learning techniques, we will be learning how and why the techniques even exist, what they say about the structure of mathematics like calculus, and how to think analytically and reason deductively and abstractly.  THIS is the real mathematics.  The techniques will come along for the ride.  You will learn those also. 
Perhaps the best way to drive this point home is the following:  It does not matter what your current and/or future major is or will be.  You are here at Hopkins to train to be a scholar at something.  Part of that training includes proficient and efficient understanding of the abstract logical structural framework found in all complex ideas and constructions.  This is really what mathematics is.  We typically use numbers and operations on those numbers to study and exhibit mathematical ideas because they provide the self-consistent framework needed for the study.  I will say a lot more about this on the first day of class. 
Perhaps this is one of my personal definitions of mathematics.  But I like it.  Make sense?