Archive for the ‘media’ Category

Not really pseudomaths at SB

January 5, 2009

Rebecca Skloot has replied to my comment on her blog in a way that makes me feel like she is, in fact, one of the good guys. She seems to have genuinely believed that the formula seller in question was really trying to make people think about body image and not just taking money to try to get newspaper space for the company that hired him while using his credentials to make people think it was “real” science. I think she is wrong to trust him on this, but as I understand this sort of scam is mostly a British thing so she would reasonably be less sensitive to it.

Also if it is just a one off bit of silliness in a magazine it is quite different to every week in the news pages of the dailys.

Just for kicks here is a classic of the PR-driven equation-for-X genre

EDIT: Actually Skloot’s further comment is even more interesting. She says the researcher in question was very open about the PR-ness and claimed to be taking advantage of the situation to make a point of his own.

Pseudomathematics sympathiser at ScienceBlogs?

January 5, 2009

EDIT: I maybe went off half-cocked with this. See the following post./EDIT

I’m worried about Culture Dish. In her welcome message newest member of the SciBorg, Rebecca Skloot, links to an article she wrote entitled Tushology, which is about a Manchester Met professor’s mathematical equation for the perfect human arse.


Lest we forget

November 11, 2008

For Armistice Day, some sad, beautiful songs about wars. Videos below the jump.

Gödel’s theorems on “In Our Time” by the BBC

November 5, 2008

Hat tip to Yemon Choi (via email) for this very interesting discussion of Gödel’s theorems on Radio 4. It features the aforementioned Marcus du Sautoy, John Barrow of Cambridge and Philip Welch of Bristol. It is pitched nicely with interest whether you are a professional mathematician or if you have no training in maths at all.

I was particularly glad to hear someone at least draw some attention to the philosophical trickiness of the usual popularization of the theorems which talks about “true statements that cannot be proved in the system”. This always erks me a bit, because it isn’t entirely clear that a statement in a formal system has a meaning that survives being taken out of the system (and if it does that is a pretty subtle thing for this level of discussion). Thus just hearing the warning (from Welch?) about the theorems and their proofs being basically syntactic rather than semantic was nice. (It was du Sautoy giving the usual “true statement” version with but I will forgive him since he does so much good work and most mathematicians seem to be happy with the truthiness).

Incidentally, I suspect my feelings of awkwardness towards the claim we can talk about “truth” outside of “proof in a given system” may be related to the sort of maths I work in. My “grand-supervisor” Garth Dales discusses here how those who work in abstract analysis (and in algebra) tend to view their work as essentially formal (although using “realistic pictures” to help us).

It’s [almost] time (to rock a rhyme)³

October 16, 2008

It’s tricki!.

If Tim Gowers’s project for a wiki-like compendium of proof techniques catches on (and the search features work well), it could be a really big deal. These sorts of tricks are traditionally not recorded anywhere. Their use is buried deep in the folds of proofs where it’s difficult to see the scope of the idea. To learn the use of a particular technique you have to have the good luck to work with someone who knows the right tool and shows you it.

If used well, Tricki could speed up problem solving considerably. I don’t want to sound too excitable, but this is like the mathmos’ LHC.

btw. I lost my passport while I was in England and got stuck there (bad) and a bunch of other stuff is going on (good) so I doubt I’ll write the post I mentioned last time for a while. The moment has kind of passed.

EDIT: I could have sworn “It’s Tricky” went “It’s time to rock around”. Apparently it’s “It’s tricky to rock a rhyme” which makes more sense. I’m only half correcting the title though.

Frenchman steals Britain’s plan, tells Americans

September 21, 2008

Moving briefly off the topic of pure maths to less substantial matters, the world economy is apparently imploding. Many people seem to think the United States of America will emerge from it all with their relative importance somewhat dented.
French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy has written an open letter to the next US President suggesting that if he wants to maintain the country’s importance he do the following:

First, make sure that the patents the new capitalists in Asia are working on — continue to be “made in the USA.” Second, make sure that people in Asia and elsewhere continue to think that Yale and Princeton offer the best possible education for the movers and shakers of the world. And third, ensure that American banks continue to offer the most sophisticated and secure financial services to those in possession of the world’s accrued profits.

Industries relying on science on high-technology (say pharmaceuticals, biotech…), a couple of top universities and big banking? That’s our plan for extending our time as a significant power. He stole it and didn’t even reference it!

Speaking of the old country, I’m flying back to England to visit family tomorrow. Either while I’m gone or when I get back I hope to put up post with some stuff about truth in mathematics, undecidability and Gödel’s theorems.

Lockhart, Jenkins and compulsory maths

July 15, 2008

I meant to post about this forever ago but I was kind of busy. I’m going to be talking about maths in school. I have very little teaching experience and none at a level below undergrad, so I’ll mostly be talking about how I wish I’d been taught.

Simon Jenkins’ doesn’t really know what maths is and thinks very little is lost by kids not doing it. Yemon Choi gave him a good kicking for that at the time, and he deserved it. Apart from his blinding arrogance about his own knowledge of the subject, he was happy to push a line of “It’s hard and the kids won’t need it so we should let it go” which I find it hard to believe he would be happy to apply to the works of Shakespeare, or to foreign languages (everyone speaks English these days, right). He implied that the only arguments for the importance of maths were (bad) economic ones or conservative calls for the brain to be beaten into shape, of the sort once used for arguing for teaching Latin. Well, no. There is very good argument for maths teaching as a path towards being able to share in the beauty of the subject. I believe that being familiar with a few proofs (infinity of primes, irrationality of root 2…) and having some concept of what makes them proofs (not too refined a concept, because I don’t think the philosophers of maths have settled on one) ought to on the list of things needed if you wish to call yourself “educated” or “cultured” just as being familiar with a few poems and knowing what makes them poems is.

Despite all this, there was (weirdly) the skeleton of a defensible position in Jenkins’ nonsense. First what I was taught in maths up to GCSE (Sir Simon’s “advanced” quadratic equations and such) really wasn’t the route to sharing in that beauty. It was an awful lot of memorizing algorithms for solving artificial and formulaic problems. I learned how to multiply matrices without knowing that it was composing any kind of function; just remember it’s rows by columns. It was kind of dull. and it makes maths seem boring, and mechanical and all the bad things that people think it is but it isn’t. It got slightly better at A-level but that was more down to good teachers than the curriculum. So yes, a lot of “maths” in schools could be cut away and I’m prepared to believe that neither students, nor the sciences, nor maths itself would suffer.

Another thing in Jenkins’ favour was mentioning Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos and Hardy’s apology. These are books you should be thinking of it you want to cut the tiresome, repetitive nonsense out of maths education. Unfortunately, Jenkins’ views on them were EPIC FAIL. He claimed that Paulos’ recommendation of a good knowledge of probability and statistics to avoid being tricked by numbers from pseudo-scientists, advertisers and politician came down to “simple concepts applied to daily life”. Well not really. Thinking critically about numerical data, knowing what they really tell you and what is random noise or sleight or hand, is something people are naturally VERY BAD at. Our brains didn’t evolve in a setting where big numbers were much of an issue; we can’t get a good intuition of them. That’s why national lotteries exist. It’s also why bad science reporting is so common and thus why Ben Goldacre is so frikkin awesome. So if we are going (collectively) to take Paulos cure for the con men it’s probably going to mean lots of class time.

Jenkin’s on Hardy was bad in a more subtle way. Surprisingly for someone so proud of his training in the humanities he took the Apology altogether too much at face value. It’s a lovely book, but it’s very much A Mathematicians Apology, a personal account of how one mathmo worked. Jenkins’ treats it as a description of all mathematics and thus is able to shrug the subject away as a game done for pleasure by men in ivory towers. Maths includes many things which are very useful. What the Apology shows (better than any other book I’ve read) is that it is also a beautiful, pleasurable activity. This brings me back around to where I started; it’s a shame if this beauty isn’t shared.

American teacher Paul Lockhart’s essay A Mathematician’s Lament gives a plausible way of actually sharing it. Instead of long hours of compulsory drilling in algorithms for solving simultaneous equations teach maths like music. Have a specialist maths teacher, who has actually DONE maths – not just learnt more of it a college, but done some – go from class to class doing little bits of maths with small groups. Show them how you make a conjecture, how you look for counter-examples and find simple proofs. By this method he had a 12-or-13-year-old come up with there own argument why a triangle drawn inside a semicircle always has a right angle; that AWESOME!!!1 He also say that if they really don’t respond to the patterns and proofs of mathematics they shouldn’t be forced to keep doing it because nothing kills the joy of creativity like a compulsory class (He doesn’t mention exempting stats and probability from this; I would since they are more “life skills” than a creative subject).

So, the maths Simon Jenkins did at school probably was as pointless as he said and many of the arguments given why it matters are asbad as he says- but he’s still a clueless arse.