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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 . . . → Read More: Numerology Goes on Holiday (Again)

Square Root Day?

I just noticed this article on the front page of Yahoo, which discusses the pending celebrations for tomorrow, in honor of the square root function. Tomorrow is given the name “Square Root Day,” naturally enough, because the date is 3/3/09. Seeing as how there are only 9 square root days per century, apparently the sparsity of this phenomenon is enough to make some people excited when such dates do occur. Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 3,996,0011/2.

I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon, but I’m not really sure who deemed this story worthy of inclusion on the front page of Yahoo. Similarly, I don’t know what it means when the article says that tomorrow’s “holiday” is met with great enthusiasm by “math buffs.” The article seems to suggest that a celebration like this falls within the realms of mathematics, when it more appropriately falls into the realm of . . . → Read More: Square Root Day?

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

Commodify your Mathematics?

Here’s an interesting article about Tom Farber, a high school Calculus teacher from San Diego who is fighting tough economic times and cutbacks in education spending in a rather novel way – he’s selling ad space on math tests.

The goal here certainly doesn’t seem to be the development of a second income. Many teachers report having to spend money out of their own pockets for school supplies – in this case, Mr. Farber is using the money to help cover the copying costs associated with making tests and practice exams to help students prepare for the APs. His intentions certainly seem benevolent, but are his actions as innocent?

It seems like the advertising is fairly non-intrusive. There are no graphics, and the ads run on the bottom of the page. The fact that a good chunk of the ad space was bought by parents who wanted to run . . . → Read More: Commodify your Mathematics?

Math in the News: Maybe the Sky Isn’t Falling, After All

Even though we’d like to accuse our math teachers of being more or less incompetent, there is at least one indication that math education in this country is making some progress. In particular, the results of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study shows American students have gained 11 points over their average performance in 1995. A comparison of US scores, along with an article describing the findings, can be read here.

With an international average of 500, American 4th and 8th grade students scored a respectable 529, on par with the Netherlands, Lithuania, Germany, and Denmark. As might be expected, however, we’ve still got a significant way to go when it comes to competing with other countries. Hong Kong made the top of the list, with a score of 607.

Of course, this data by itself doesn’t do much to explain what factors may be driving our improvement. . . . → Read More: Math in the News: Maybe the Sky Isn’t Falling, After All

Math in the News: Are Math Teachers Really Only One Chapter Ahead?

It looks like middle school math teachers can’t catch a break. According to a recent study, a significant percentage of math teachers in grades 5-8 do not have a degree or a certification in math. Sadly, the numbers are even worse for schools in low income areas. While it’s certainly true that you don’t need a math degree to teach middle school math effectively, the data does suggest that there is a significant bloc of underqualified math teachers trying to impart essential knowledge to these young students.

Of course, I doubt this is all the teachers’ fault – elementary and middle school teachers are a rare commodity in this country, and kids need someone to teach them math. An understaffed school will do what it takes to make sure there’s somebody at the front of the classroom. And I certainly don’t envy those teachers out there who may not feel . . . → Read More: Math in the News: Are Math Teachers Really Only One Chapter Ahead?

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: Are Mathematicians the Reason Why You’re Broke?

As you may have heard, the economy is in a bit of trouble. People continue to debate the root cause of the current crisis: some blame so-called predatory lenders for pushing mortgages on people who couldn’t afford them, some blame the borrowers themselves for recklessly taking on loans to try and live beyond their means. And of course, as with any problem, there are those who try to shift the blame to mathematicians.

Why mathematicians? Proponents of this theory assert that our current financial collapse is the fault of the math whiz kids hired to work on Wall Street or manage hedge funds. It is no secret that investment banks have been hiring bright mathematical minds for years, then squeezing that brainpower into models for trading.

The use of mathematics in this case isn’t the problem (indeed, when could using mathematics ever be a problem?). The problem, the critics cry, . . . → Read More: Math in the News: Are Mathematicians the Reason Why You’re Broke?