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Numerology Goes on Holiday (Again)

I made my reservations fairly clear regarding the double dose of math holidays last month. Despite my objections, I remained confident that the headlines they gathered would quickly fade away, and I wouldn’t have to worry about these faux math headlines for the next 12 months. In this way, I was able to sleep peacefully at night.

Unfortunately, it seems there are those who wish to disturb my slumber.

Dan Vergano over at USA Today recently wrote a brief article which highlighted the fact that this year there are a whopping 2 “square days,” one of which is today, 4/01/2009. The day is called a square day because if you read the date as a number, the number turns out to be square. In this case, 4,012,009 = 2003 * 2003.

The article attempts to be relevant by making a tenuous link between this sort of mathematical wizardry and the latest film excursion into numerology – Nicolas Cage’s most recent triumph, Knowing. Mr. Vergano was also kind enough to link to my article on Square Root Day, although based on the tone of his article, I’m not sure he appreciated the point I was trying to make. Perhaps he intended to address my concerns, but in the process of writing he got lost in Nic Cage’s eyes. Lord knows it can happen to the best of us.

What's that, Mr. Cage? Sorry, I got a little distracted.

So, Mr. Vergano, if you’re reading this, I beg of you: use your powers for good. With a readership as large as I’m assuming yours must be, you have a venue to help dispel stereotypes about people who study mathematics. Of course, those stereotypes include, but are not limited to, the idea that mathematicians spend their days looking for significance in arbitrary dates.

To his credit, Mr. Vergano does point out the insignificance of these types of diversions. But if there isn’t any significance, what’s the point in writing about it? Does this happen in other fields besides mathematics?

I get that advances in math may not seem as sexy to the lay person as certain advances in the sciences, and sometimes the ideas can be difficult to communicate. But there are opportunities for those willing to look. Here’s one: why not write an article celebrating the contributions of Mikhail Gromov, recent recipient of the Abel prize? This, it seems to me, would be a much more worthy topic for a writer with such exposure.

I don’t think I’m alone in this, either. A look at the comments to Mr. Vergano’s article reveals many others who fail to see the importance of today as a square day.

Perhaps one day the USA Today blog will discuss some real mathematics. And on that day, I shall declare a legitimate math holiday. Until then, I will remain here and nervously await Pi Day 2010.

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