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Math in the News: Counting without Language

Last week, some of you may have seen this article about a study on Australian aboriginies. The study suggests that, even without having the language to describe numbers, the human mind has an innate ability to count and differentiate between numbers.

Australian Aboriginies: Math All Stars? The study focused on two Aborigine tribes in Australia, and found that even though both tribes lack words for individual numbers (the languages only have words to describe ‘one,’ ‘two,’ ‘few,’ and ‘many’), members of the tribe nevertheless seem to have a sense for different numbers and counting. This conclusion was reached, for example, by banging two sticks together n times, and asking children to represent those n times with concrete objects.

I am no linguist, so I cannot speak to the linguistic ramifications of this study. From a mathematical viewpoint, however, it is certainly a good thing to hear, because it suggests that . . . → Read More: Math in the News: Counting without Language

Math in the Movies: Good Will Hunting

Winning them the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 1998, Good Will Hunting propelled Matt Damon and Ben Affleck to the Hollywood A-list (no doubt Phantoms would have done this for Ben Affleck, had it not been for the success of Good Will Hunting only months earlier). I will not summarize the plot, except to say that in this film, Matt Damon is a math superstar. For those wanting more in the way of plot summary, this trailer may help to refresh your memory: There are a number of films that center around math geniuses, and for the most part they have met with some degree of critical and commercial success. Our purpose here is not to critique these films, but to answer a simple question: In what ways do these films perpetuate stereotypes about mathematics and mathematicians, and in what ways do these films rise above those same stereotypes? . . . → Read More: Math in the Movies: Good Will Hunting

Math Gets Around: Dating

Do you wonder whether you will ever find true love? Are you tired of looking for Mr. or Ms. Right? (I mean this in a metaphorical sense – if you are actually looking for an individual by the name of Right, this article will probably be of no use to you.) Have you grown weary of idle party chit-chat, and awkward mornings after nights spent in venues with deceptive lighting? Well, my friend, whether you are willing to accept it or not, mathematics can help you find the one to share your life with. Unfortunately, the primary disadvantage to the method described below is that if you don’t know about it before you jump into the dating scene, it may be too late for you to utilize. But with an open mind, and a willingness to let mathematics do its work, you can maximize the likelihood that you will find . . . → Read More: Math Gets Around: Dating

Math in the News: Monty Hall Strikes Again

I apologize in advance for the fact that this references an article that is four months old. However, given the connection between the Monty Hall problem and popular culture, it cannot rightly be overlooked here, and this article from the New York Times allows us to discuss this problem from a unique perspective.

The Monty Hall problem is so named because of its origins in the game show “Let’s Make a Deal.” The problem itself is famous for having a completely counterintuitive solution, and my goal after discussing the problem and its relationship to the New York Times article on cognitive dissonance will be to explain where this disconnect between the problem and our intuition arises.

Here is a rigorous and unambiguous statement of the problem: Suppose you’re on a game show and you’re given the choice of three doors. Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats. . . . → Read More: Math in the News: Monty Hall Strikes Again

Math in the News: Worms Love Calculus?

Those of you itching for some news last weekend may have noticed the following article, which was briefly featured on the front page of Yahoo News. In short, the article discusses the results of an experiment on the brains of roundworms. The experiment indicates that roundworms can mentally compute changes in salt levels with respect to their position in order to find food. Anyone who’s taken a bit of calculus may recognize that hidden in this is the notion of a derivative. In essence, concludes University of Oregon biologist Shawn Lockery, the worms use calculus to survive. More computing power than an Apple IIe?The notion that insects can do calculus is certainly good for a headline, and from a pedagogical standpoint it may be useful, although somewhat insulting to those who have trouble with math: “If worms can do calculus, anyone can!” All that aside though, isn’t the claim a . . . → Read More: Math in the News: Worms Love Calculus?