A Disappearing Number

A Disappearing Number is a new play by Simon McBurney and London’s Theatre Complicite. As with a number of modern plays and books the storyline actually consists of two separate and non-linear storylines, each one resonating with the other at different moments and in different manners. Unusually for modern plays, however, both stories are centered around mathematics:

McBurney likes to confront difficult subjects in his theater work. Like a lot of people, he’s scared by mathematics — which is why, he says, “I wanted to create a show in which mathematics was absolutely at the center of it.”

One of the storylines concerns the real-life association of the mathematicians G.H. Hardy and Srinivasa Ramanujan in the early 20th century. The second storyline involves a fictional present-day relationship between Ruth, a mathematics professor fascinated by Ramanujan’s work, and Al, an Indian-American hedge fund trader. Throughout, mathematical ideas like infinity, parallels, and even weighty topics like string theory augment the emotional and narrative dimensions of the play’s events.

A Disappearing Number got rave reviews in London, dominating the Olivier awards there. (The Olivier awards are the British equivalent of the Tonies here.) The quote above is from a story on NPR about the play, but any number of almost uniformly positive reviews (for example, from the NY Times, where the image above is taken from) are available online by doing a search on the title.


Stephen Colbert coined the word ‘truthiness’ on the very first episode of The Colbert Report, in an attempt to describe statements that have that truthful flavor about them, but without any actual truthful content. The word caught on and entered the lexicon, and the most recent NY Times Magazine On Language column looks back at its five-year history and the “Colbert suffix” that has now come to indicate that ersatz feeling.

Mentioned as an example of the suffix’s spread is Charles Seife’s latest book Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception. Seife’s book is a look at “the idea that you can use the language of mathematics to convince people something is true even when it is not.” The book is chock full of various people—primarily but not always political people—tinging their speeches, statements, and arguments with ‘mathiness’ in order to make their positions seem to have a factuality and solidity that isn’t really there. The book is getting very good reviews, from the Washington Post, NPR, and the NY Times, for instance. Interviews with Seife can be found here and here, and a brief excerpt appears here.

20 Moves or Less Will Solve Rubik’s Cube

People have been solving Rubik’s Cube since it was invented in 1974, and some have gotten quite fast at it. But just how fast is possible? In other words, if you were an omniscient solver, what’s the most number of moves it would take you to solve any starting position of Rubik’s cube? Since there are 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 possible starting positions, many of which require different strategies to solve, answering that question seemed outside the realm of possibility: a computer dealing with each starting position in less than 20 seconds would still require 35 years of analysis. But by using some high-powered mathematics to chop the problem down to size, a team consisting of a mathematician, a Google engineer, a math teacher, and a programmer (and yes, a powerful computer) have indeed answered the question, determining that all starting positions are solvable in 20 moves or less. The story was picked up by a number of news outlets, including NPR, Discover, BBC News, and others.

Short-Circuiting Malaria

Malaria affects hundreds of millions of people throughout the world annually, killing over one million of them. Almost all of these victims live in third-world countries, and many of them are children—one estimate is that a child dies of malaria every 30 seconds. This Newsweek article, by Daniel Lyons, describes Intellectual Ventures, an American start-up that is trying to use first-world know-how to combat the disease. The company got its start when its founder, Nathan Myhrvold, was told by Bill Gates, “Come up with some good ideas and I’ll come up with some money to pursue them.” Some of the inventors mentioned are mathematicians, and one of those ideas is a massive mathematical model of the disease that “lets researchers see the effect of potential vaccines that don’t exist, so they can choose which one to develop.” Other ideas are also mentioned and many of them, as Myhrvold admits, sound farfetched. But really, as Lyons concludes, how can you argue against trying?

Addendum: In another development on the malaria front, researchers at Case Western Reserve University recently developed techniques that can quickly identify drug resistance in strains of malaria. The new technique is expected to “enable the medical community to react quickly to inevitable resistance and thereby save lives while increasing the lifespan of drugs used against the disease,” according to the article “New Methods, New Math Speed Detection of Drug-Resistant Malaria” from ScienceDaily. The key—developed by mathematics Prof. Peter Thomas and a student, Drew Kouri—involved “using a nontraditional mathematical analysis that’s proved more accurate than traditional methods.” (That ‘nontraditional analysis’ mentioned, by the way, was simply switching to polar coordinates.)

Monkey Brain ‘Hardwired’ for Simple Math

There seem to have been a number of articles recently that detail evidence that humans are “hard-wired” for math; in fact, one such article appeared on this blog already. Now comes further evidence that not just humanity, but primates in general are innately mathematical. An article appearing on Yahoo describes findings by German neurobiologists that “rhesus macaques can engage in abstract mathematical reasoning using specific brain cells dedicated to the comprehension of math rules and relationships.” In fact, the article notes that this recent observation is just the latest piece of evidence for innate math abilities: apparently a 2007 study found that young chimpanzees actually out-performed some human adults in tracking numbers and remembering sequencing!

Addendum: And here comes more evidence. A new article entitled “Preschoolers Use Statistics to Understand Others” details the result of an experiment where babies intuited a character’s feelings about a kind of toy by observing how likely the character was to select the toy. I’ll let you read the article to see exactly how the experiment worked. I’m guessing that many more articles with findings like this one are on the way.

The Ninth Annual Year in Ideas

2009 Year In Ideas

The NY Times Magazine annually publishes its The Year in Ideas issue, devoted entirely to “the most clever, important, silly and just plain weird innovations … from all corners of the thinking world.” A surprising number of these ideas are based on a study or research article or something similar that employs some bit of mathematical and/or statistical analysis. The ones I’ve listed below are chosen as being the ones that most prominently feature mathematics ideas, or feature mathematics and/or mathematicians centrally. Listed alphabetically:

  • Black Quarterbacks Are Underpaid by Jason Zengerle describes the statistical analysis of two economists, David J. Berri and Rob Simmons, who discovered that in the NFL black quarterbacks are typically paid much less than white quarterbacks. Their analysis goes farther, however, and notes that the apparent cause is not necessarily racism. Instead, the NFL quarterback rating statistic is the culprit. NFL contracts are often based on hitting certain statistical levels, and for quarterbacks the statistic used is often the QB rating. Since QB rating fails to count rushing yards at all–something that black quarterbacks typically excel at–black quarterbacks are typically ‘discounted’, QB rating-wise.
  • Forensic Polling Analysis visits a topic seen already here in this blog: the suspicious polling numbers of the polling firm Strategic Vision LLC. You can visit that entry or the Times article for more info.
  • In a blow to meritocracy-lovers everywhere, another entry notes that Random Promotions, rather than merit-based ones, can actually produce better businesses (and typically do, at least in simulations). The article by Clive Thompson describes a study done by a trio of Italian scientists in which the researchers created a virtual 160-person company and then tried out various different promotion schemes within the company, with the aim of seeing which scheme improved the company’s productivity the most. Promoting on merit turned out to be a lousy idea (at least for the company as a whole) while promoting at random turned out to be the top strategy. In the middle was the curious idea of alternately promoting the best and then the worst employees. The fact that the mixed best/worst strategy outperformed the merit strategy is yet another example of Parrando’s Paradox, a phenomenon first identified by game theory.
  • Massively Collaborative Mathematics features the first mathematical theorem proved by a ‘collective mind’, if you will. In January 2009, Timothy Gowers, one of the top mathematicians in the field, proposed on his blog that the mathematical community, as a whole–or at least that portion that knew and read his blog–attack a long-standing unsolved problem in mathematics known as the Density Hales-Jewett Theorem. Contributors ranged from eminent mathematicians to high school teachers, and hundreds of thousands of words worth of ideas were eventually proposed, developed, discarded, combined, and so forth. Gowers had initially set the bar low, hoping this ‘Polymath’ project would result in “anything that could count as genuine progress toward an understanding of the problem.” Instead, six weeks later the problem was completely solved. A paper detailing the result, authored by D.H.J. Polymath, has been submitted to a leading journal.
  • Finally, the (alphabetically) last idea listed, “Zombie-Attack Science,” features a story that appeared on this blog previously. See that entry, or the Times article, of course, for details.

Hard Problems

Hard Problems is a documentary about the members of America’s International Math Olympiad (IMO) team. The IMO is an annual competition that pits the top high school math students from various countries against each other, nominally—but in actuality each of them is pitted against an exceptionally challenging mathematics test. (In its 50 years of existence, only once has a team aced the test: the American team of 1994.) The documentary is a great behind-the-scenes peek at the competition, the members, and their experiences.

The documentary will be running on various American Public Television stations across the nation, and a schedule is here. The trailer for the film is here. More information about the DVD and purchasing options can be found here.

Between The Folds

The documentary Between the Folds looks at the art and the science of origami. Our blog has had an entry on the mathematics of origami previously; here is the chance for an extended look. The film debuts on PBS in December 2009. There apparently are also free screenings at various locations around the US. A description from PBS’s website:

Think origami is just paper planes and cranes? Meet a determined group of theoretical scientists and fine artists who have abandoned careers and scoffed at graduate degrees to forge new lives as modern-day paper folders. Together they reinterpret the world in paper, creating a wild mix of sensibilities towards art, science, creativity and meaning.

The film has won numerous accolades at various film festivals; check out the webpage for the production company.

Humanity’s Other Basic Instinct: Math

Everyone knows that human brains are hardwired for certain behaviors like music and language. Add another one to the list: math. Neuroscientists are discovering that “our species seems to have an innate skill for math, a skill that may have been shared by our ancestors going back least 30 million years.” An article from the “Brain” section of Discover magazine, details a number of these discoveries. For example, scientists showed people two sets of dots for a split second, and then asked them to pick out the sum of the two sets of dots. The results?

People do fairly well on these tests, which summons up a weird feeling in them: They know they are right, but they don’t know how they got the answer. Even in toddlers who cannot yet count, these studies reveal, the brain automatically processes numbers.

For Decades, Puzzling People With Mathematics

For those who don’t know him, Martin Gardner is a unique figure in mathematics: although he never took a math course beyond high school, Gardner “more or less single-handedly renewed and nurtured interest in recreational mathematics in North America for a large part of the 20th century.” (That quote is from his Wikipedia entry.) Among other things, Gardner wrote the ‘Mathematical Games’ column in Scientific American for decades and is the author of over 70 books, many (though not all) of which are devoted to fun and thoughtful mathematical puzzles, and is the centerpiece of the Gathering for Gardner (G4G) conference, held in Atlanta every two years, which attracts a wide variety of mathematicians and puzzlists. For a necessarily tiny selection of number tricks, science fiction puzzles, or columns from Scientific American, just click on the links, or buy the books referenced there.

The NY Times article mentioned in the title commemorates Gardner’s 95th birthday, which also happens to coincide with the release of his latest book. Happy birthday, Martin!

Addendum: Unfortunately Martin Gardner died this past May. In his honor obituaries appeared in all the major newspapers and in many magazines as well. In particular, Scientific American (the magazine for which he wrote for 25 years) re-published a profile of his life from 1995. Good night and God bless, Mr. Gardner.