Math Backs Limited Profiling in Airport Screening

William Press, a computational biologist and computer scientist at the University of Texas, Austin, applied a statistical model for studying rare events to the problem of determining how often to select people for searches in airport screenings. This NY Times article (free registration required) by Sandra Blakeslee describes his findings.

Of the Algorithms, by the Algorithms, for the Algorithms

This article in Slate describes the efforts of mathematicians to detect and combat gerrymandering. (Gerrymandering is a political trick whereby a political party in power restructures the voting districts in such a way that the party is extremely likely to remain in power.) The problem turns out to be pretty difficult, even from the mathematical standpoint of just figuring out what an “unnatural looking” district looks like.

Calculating the Geography of Crime

This article from Science News describes the work of Mike O’Leary, a mathematician at Towson University, in Maryland. O’Leary is developing a mathematical model that attempts to take information about a particular crime, information about crimes committed in that locale, and geographical information, to come up with likely locations where the crime’s perpetrator might live.

The Kidney Connection: Math Makes a Match

This TIME magazine article describes a literal marriage between math and medicine: the couple made up of transplant surgeon Dory Segev and his mathematician wife Sommer Gentry. Together, Segev and Gentry developed a new way to more efficiently match kidney donors with the more than 60,000 Americans awaiting transplants. Gentry was also interviewed by various radio, TV, and newspaper outlets.

When Zombies Attack! Mathematical Modelling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infection

This mathematical research paper by Philip Munz, Ioan Hudea, Joe Imad, and Robert J. Smith? (yes, Robert spells his last name with a “?”), applies mathematical models of epidemic spread to a hypothetical zombie “epidemic”. Their conclusion:

[A] zombie outbreak is likely to lead to the collapse of civilization, unless it is dealt with quickly. While aggressive quarantine may contain the epidemic, or a cure may lead to coexistence of humans and zombies, the most effective way to contain the rise of the undead is to hit hard and hit often. As seen in the movies, it is imperative that zombies are dealt with quickly, or else we are all in a great deal of trouble.

In other words, those movies where nearly everybody is turned into a zombie except for a small band of survivors, but then the small band of survivors figures out a way to turn the tables and vanquish the zombie horde? In actuality, that could never happen.

The paper was featured in the Wall Street Journal online here and Wired magazine here, as well as many other online sites. Addendum: the paper also appeared in the NY Times “The Year in Ideas” issue, 2009 edition.

Can Game Theory Predict When Iran Will Get the Bomb?

This Aug. 12, 2009 NY Times article (free registration required) by Clive Thompson features the work of Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, a professor at New York University who has been using game theory to forecast political events and decisions over the past 30 years. Also see Bueno de Mesquita’s TED talk here and his interview on NPR.