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Let’s Make a Deal with Paul the Octopus

As summer reaches its midpoint, we come to the end of another rousing year of World Cup soccer. As with any international sporting event, fans all over the world have undoubtedly had their share of ups and downs. Of all the countries in this year’s tournament, however, I think Germany may be receiving the most attention, for even though they didn’t make it into the finals, the Germans have one thing no other country has: a precognitive octopus.

At least, that is what the media would have us believe. For the past several weeks, Paul the Octopus has captured the hearts, minds, and stomachs of people around the world. He’s a charming octopus, to be sure, but it isn’t his good looks that have gotten him this far. Instead, it’s his seeming ability to correctly predict the outcome of soccer matches. As time has gone on and Paul’s predictions have . . . → Read More: Let’s Make a Deal with Paul the Octopus

Deep Sea Math Hunting

Every now and then an article pops up which highlights a link between mathematics and the animal kingdom, and I’ve been able to discuss several such links on this blog. The latest entry into this category concerns the movement of sharks (and other ocean creatures) as they hunt for food. A recent article in Nature has spawned a great deal of interest, and the topic has been discussed on the websites of Wired, Discovery, and Physics World.

What does the motion of sharks have to do with mathematics? Well, suppose you are a shark. Unfortunately, there are not yet any In-N-Out’s under water, so when it comes to food you are on your own. What would be the best way to forage for your food? With your heightened senses, you would undoubtedly be a formidable opponent in an area rich with prey, but what if you are in a more . . . → Read More: Deep Sea Math Hunting

Baby Animals Just Want to Do Math

Over the past few months there have been several studies aimed at understanding the mathematical sophistication of some of our friends in the animal kingdom. This is a topic I have discussed before, but these new findings are interesting and worth mentioning. The most recent experiment involves the cutest animal discussed so far: baby chicks. Don’t let their looks fool you, my friend, for under that puff of yellow down sits a mind capable of mathematical wizardry. Surprisingly, researchers found that chicks were not only able to perform simple mental calculations, but could do so from a very young age.

How do you tell if a baby chick can do math? Well, apparently the little ones try to stay close to familiar objects (for example, their mother). Moreover, given the choice between a small group of familiar objects and a larger group of familiar objects, researchers noted that chicks tended . . . → Read More: Baby Animals Just Want to Do Math

Math Gets Around: The Entomology of Civil Engineering

In the continuing saga of animals that are better than you at math, it now appears that ants are much better than most of us at optimization. Granted, they may not be able to think abstractly, but in concrete terms, they far surpass us with a particular type of optimization: the efficiency of traffic flow.

As anyone who has gone to a picnic will tell you, ants do a very good job of creating traffic streams – their foot traffic moves steadily, and without the major pileups to which my fellow residents of Los Angeles have become so accustomed. One could argue that the wide expanse of park area is proportionately much larger for the humble ant than what most motorists have to live with, but even so, the march of the ant colony often appears quite regimented, even with space enough to make a wider path. How is it . . . → Read More: Math Gets Around: The Entomology of Civil Engineering

Math in the News: Elephants are Smarter than your Babies

I missed the memo on this one, but apparently worms aren’t the only animals capable of doing math. A recent experiment coming out of the University of Tokyo suggests that Asian elephants have an unexpected aptitude for arithmetic. While many animals have a rudimentary counting ability, and are able to distinguish between sets with only a few elements, it seems that elephants are able to take things a step further, and can consistently differentiate between larger numbers such as 5 and 6.

Is this difference significant? Within the animal kingdom, it would seem so. Here’s how it breaks down, courtesy of this article: A theory held by some is that humans and other animals share a basic neural system called an “accumulator” that can clearly distinguish numbers of objects less than three or four but that cannot reliably discriminate between bigger numbers. This accumulator is active in animals and, perhaps, . . . → Read More: Math in the News: Elephants are Smarter than your Babies

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?