Latest tweets

  • Loading tweets...

Look, but don’t Scratch

Ladies and gentlemen, please excuse my prolonged absence. Life occasionally has a habit of getting in the way of the schedule that I’d like to keep; in this case, it means I haven’t been able to update over the past month. Fear not though, for now I have returned, and I am ready to dish on math and pop culture.

In that spirit, I would be remiss if I did not take a moment to mention this article from Wired last month on the man who cracked the code for several scratch lottery ticket games. Mohan Srivastiva, geological statistician by day and mathematical rogue by night, discovered a pattern in certain scratch lottery tickets back in 2003, but I’m sure (as this article suggests) he’s received a bit more publicity since the Wired article hit.

I highly recommend reading the whole article, but I’ll outline the gist of his discovery . . . → Read More: Look, but don’t Scratch

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

Martin Gardner and the Three Way Duel

As you may have heard, last week Martin Gardner celebrated his 95th birthday. Gardner, who authored the “Mathematical Games” column in Scientific American for a quarter of a century, is often credited for introducing generations of young students to the beauty and charm inherent in mathematics. My favorite quote in this vein comes from professor Ron Graham, who is quoted in a recent New York Times article on Gardner as saying that “Martin has turned thousands of children into mathematicians, and thousands of mathematicians into children.” A warm brain is the key to mathematical dexterity.

Both Scientific American and Wired ran articles on Gardner last week, and each one used a different expression to represent his age. Scientific American congratulated him on reaching an age of 25 x 3 – 1, while Wired proclaimed that Gardner had turned 5! – 25. Upon reflection I think I prefer the latter expression . . . → Read More: Martin Gardner and the Three Way Duel

Reforming Education through Geek Chic

Earlier this month, Wired published an article written by Daniel Roth, enticingly titled “Making Geeks Cool Could Reform Education.” It serves as an interesting counterpoint to the commonly used argument that the best way to reform education is to better integrate it with the most current technology, so that going to school feels less like going to school and more like playing video games (family friendly ones, of course).

Sorry, Typing of the Dead, but you're a little too creepy.

The essay in Wired takes a slightly different approach – it profiles schools that have successfully channeled the inner geeks of their students, the argument being that the geek subculture rewards intelligence with popularity. To do this, schools must make learning seem cool. This is a feat which is easier said than done, because, as we all know, there’s no better way to convince a teenager that something . . . → Read More: Reforming Education through Geek Chic

Math Gets Around: Preventing the Zombie Apocalypse

If pop culture has taught us anything, it is that in the event of a zombie outbreak, we are royally screwed. When faced with an onslaught of classical zombies (of the type first made famous by Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead), films have shown again and again that we are no match for hordes of cannibalistic undead. With the more recent interpretation of zombies that are faster and smarter, our hopes for survival have diminished even further.

Despite overwhelming odds, however, it is not in our nature to simply roll over in the face of adversity. While the body count is usually high in films chronicling the eventual war between the living and the dead, in most cases there are a few who survive to continue the fight after the credits roll. But how realistic is this depiction? How prepared are we to . . . → Read More: Math Gets Around: Preventing the Zombie Apocalypse

Math in the Movies: Up

As many of you are no doubt aware, Pixar’s latest film opens this weekend. I have yet to see the film, so I’m sure I am spoiling nothing by telling you that part of the film involves an old man flying through the sky by means of balloons that are attached to his house.

Do not try this at with your home.

Given that I have yet to see the film, you may wonder how I could possibly hope to connect it to mathematics. Thankfully, I don’t have to – the work has been done for me by Alexis Madrigal over at, who wrote an article discussing the feasibility of using balloons to take to the skies in one’s own home.

His assumptions are that the house weighs roughly 100,000 pounds, and that the balloons are spherically shaped with a diameter of three feet, which may seem large at . . . → Read More: Math in the Movies: Up

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: 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