Monday, April 20, 2015

Loving... Mathematics

For today, just a bit of humor lifted verbatim from Jim Henle's short, delightful, new volume, "The Proof and the Pudding," a fun book which, rather to my surprise, I'm loving (...a review sometime in the future):
"A mathematician was trying to decide: Should I get married? Or should I take a lover? The mathematician consulted a lawyer.
'By all means take a lover. The legal complications of marriage are immense. You're much better off with a simpler affair.'
The mathematician then consulted a doctor.
'By all means get married. Marriage is much healthier. Married people live longer. Don't distress yourself with the uncertainties of affairs.'
Finally, the mathematician consulted another mathematician.
'Do both. Your spouse will think you're with your lover, your lover will think you're with your spouse, and you can do mathematics.'"

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Geometry and Physical Space

Today's 'Sunday reflection' from physicist Carl Rovelli (via John Brockman's "This Idea Must Die")... in which I get to learn the word, "pullulating"!:
"We will continue to use geometry as a useful branch of mathematics, but it's time to abandon the longstanding idea of geometry as the description of physical space. The idea that geometry is the description of physical space is ingrained in us and might seem hard to get rid of, but getting rid of it is unavoidable and just a matter of time. Might as well get rid of it soon....
"Einstein discovered that the Newtonian space described by geometry is in fact a field, like the electromagnetic field, and fields are nicely continuous and smooth only if measured at large scales. In reality, they're quantum entities that are discrete and fluctuating. Therefore, the physical space in which we're immersed is in reality a quantum-dynamical entity that has very little in common with what we call 'geometry.' It's a pullulating process of finite interacting quanta. We can still use expressions like 'quantum geometry' to describe it, but the reality is that a quantum geometry is not much of a geometry anymore."

[…If you have a favorite math-related passage that might make a nice Sunday morning reflection here let me know ( If I use one submitted by a reader, I'll cite the contributor.]

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Shuffling and Smooshing

There are so many fascinating individuals among mathematicians; sometimes fascinating in quirky, idiosyncratic, even neurotic ways; sometimes fascinating just as human individuals. Persi Diaconis falls into that latter category. A great teacher, great magician, great mathematician, with a somewhat storied background... a child-runaway who became a MacArthur Fellow. Erica Klarreich (who I just interviewed last Sunday) has posted a fine piece on him and his current work this week at Quanta:

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Questions... Answers

For this morning's 'Sunday reflection,' an oldie-but-goodie:
"A joke is told that Epimenides got interested in eastern philosophy and made a pilgrimage to meet Buddha. He said to Buddha: 'I have come to ask you what is the best question that can be asked and what is the best answer that can be given.' Buddha replied: 'The best question that can be asked is the question you are asking and the best answer that can be given is the answer I am giving.'"
-- Raymond Smullyan (in "A Spiritual Journey")

p.s.:  be sure to also catch my interview with Erica Klarreich, one of the finest math journalists around, new at MathTango this morning.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Raymond Smullyan's Balls... again

Every couple of years I re-run a favorite old Raymond Smullyan puzzle (that actually goes back to "Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences," 1979, Vol. 321, although my version is an adaptation from Martin Gardner's presentation in his Colossal Book of Mathematics). Apologies to those of you who hate this puzzle (or just tired of me re-running it), but it's my blog and I get to indulge! ;-) -- actually, am re-playing it now in honor of the individual I'm interviewing this coming Sunday morning at MathTango, who is also a Raymond Smullyan fan. Here goes...:

Imagine you have access to an infinite supply of ping pong balls, each of which bears a positive integer label on it, which is its 'rank.' And for EVERY integer there are an INFINITE number of such balls available; i.e. an infinite no. of "#1" balls, an infinite no. of "#523" balls, an infinite no. of "#1,356,729" balls, etc. etc. etc. You also have a box that contains some FINITE number of these very same-type balls. You have as a goal to empty out that box, given the following procedure:

You get to remove one ball at a time from the finite box, but once you remove it, you must replace it with any finite no. of your choice of balls of 'lesser' rank (from the infinite supply box). Thus you can take out a ball labelled (or ranked) #768, and you could replace it with 27 million balls labelled, say #563 or #767 or #5 if you so desired, just as a few examples. The sole exceptions are the #1 balls, because obviously there are no 'ranks' below one, so there are NO replacements for a #1 ball.

Is it possible to empty out the box in a finite no. of steps??? OR, posing the question in reverse, as Martin Gardner does: "Can you not prolong the emptying of the box forever?" And then his answer: "Incredible as it seems at first, there is NO WAY to avoid completing the task." [bold added]
Although completion of the task is "unbounded" (there is no way to predict the number of steps needed to complete it, and indeed it could be a VERRRY large number), the box MUST empty out within a finite number of steps!
This amazing result only requires logical induction to see the general reasoning involved:

Once there are only #1 balls left in the box you simply discard them one by one (no replacement allowed) until the box is empty -- that's a given. In the simplest case we can start with only #2 and #1 balls in the box. Every time you remove a #2 ball, you can ONLY replace it with a #1, thus at some point (it could take a long time, but it must come) ONLY #1 balls will remain, and then essentially the task is over.
S'pose we start with just #1, #2, and #3 balls in the box... Every time a #3 ball is tossed, it can only be replaced with  #1 or #2 balls. Eventually, inevitably, we will be back to the #1 and #2 only scenario (all #3 balls having been removed), and we already know that situation must then terminate.
The same logic applies no matter how high up you go (you will always at some point run out of the very 'highest-ranked' balls and then be working on the next rank until they run out, and then the next, and then the next...); eventually you will of necessity work your way back to the state of just #1 and #2 balls, which then convert to just #1 balls and game over (even if you remove ALL the #1 and #2 balls first, you will eventually work back and be using them as replacements).

Of course no human being could live long enough to actually carry out such a procedure, but the process must nonetheless, amazingly, conclude after some mathematically finite no. of steps. Incredible! (a pity Cantor isn't around to appreciate this intuition-defying problem).

Mind… blown….

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Die Statistics Die

There's been plenty of thrashing-about of late over the proper use of statistics in research and mathematical thinking, and interestingly toward the end of John Brockman's 2015 volume, "This Idea Must Die" (his yearly compendium of responses to an annual Edge question) several writers suggest statistical notions that are "ready for retirement":

Victoria Stodden on "Reproducibility":

Emanuel Derman on "The Power of Statistics":

Charles Seife on "Statistical Significance": 

Gerd Gigerenzer on "Scientific Inference via Statistical Rituals": 

and perhaps my favorite:
Bart Kosko on "Statistical Independence":

(For some reason Nassim Taleb's essay on "Standard Deviation" is missing from the online version of the volume, though included in the hard copy???)

The entire volume is an interesting read, with a wide range of opinions; most of which are included online below (including some other math-related essays as well):

Monday, April 6, 2015

Recognizing Langlands

H/T to Colm Mulcahy for pointing out this longish and wonderful piece on Robert Langlands:

And one blogger's attempt to explain briefly/simply what the Langland's Program is all about:

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Chaotic Math…

"The mathematics of chaotic systems produces the same effect at every scale. Tell me how precise you want to be, and I can introduce my little germ of instability one decimal place further along; it may take a few more repetitions before the whole system's state becomes unpredictable, but the inevitability of chaos remains. The conventional image has the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil causing a storm in China, but even this is a needlessly gross impetus. The physicist David Ruelle, a major figure in chaos theory, gives a convincing demonstration that suspending the gravitational effect on our atmosphere of one electron at the limit of the observable universe would take no more than two weeks to make a difference in Earth's weather equivalent to having rain rather than sun during a romantic picnic."

-- From Michael and Ellen Kaplan's book "Chances Are…"

[…If you have a favorite math-related passage that might make a nice Sunday morning reflection here let me know ( If I use one submitted by a reader, I'll cite the contributor.]

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Incomparable Conway

Fa-a-a-antastic post yesterday from Colm Mulcahy on John Conway, about whom, it turns out, there is a biography, "Genius At Play," coming out in July!... Wooo-hooo, 400+ delicious pages on one of the most interesting maths guys around. Anyway, short videos, lotsa good links, and 'tales' to be had below:

Also, a much older, longer (and very interesting) Charles Seife piece on Conway here:

Quoting Conway from the Seife piece:
"I'm not so much a mathematician as a teacher. In America, kids aren't supposed to like mathematics. It's so sad... Most people think that mathematics is cold. But it's not at all! For me, the whole damn thing is sensual and exciting. I like what it looks like, and I get a hell of a lot more pleasure out of math than most people do out of art!... I feel like an artist. I like beautiful things -- they're there already; man doesn't have to create it. I don't believe in God, but I believe that nature is unbelievably subtle and clever. In physics, for instance, the real answer to a problem is usually so subtle and surprising that it wasn't even considered in the first place. That the speed of light is a constant -- impossible! Nobody even thought about it. And quantum mechanics is even worse, but it's so beautiful, and it works!... I really do enjoy the beauty of nature -- and math is natural. Nobody could have invented the mathematical universe. It was there, waiting to be discovered, and it's crazy, it's bizarre."

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

"Everybody Loves Riemann" (new from BBC)

In conjunction with their long-running Horizon science broadcasts, the wonderful folks at the BBC begin a new 3-part series this evening, on the life and work of seminal German mathematician Bernhard Riemann, entitled, "Everybody Loves Riemann."  The first hour (Part One), narrated by Ray Romano, is a biographical profile of Riemann's brief 39-year lifetime, focusing on early mathematical work and achievements. Thursday evening's Part Two will be devoted entirely to the 150+ year-old, still-unproven Riemann Hypothesis for which he is most famous. And Part Three, we are told, will culminate on Friday with a special, and highly-anticipated, 1-hour live presentation of some sort from eminent British mathematician Sir Andrew Wiles.
Read more about it here:

Monday, March 30, 2015

Book Matters

Don't know if I'll get around to fully reviewing any of these volumes, but will make note of a few books today:

1)  First, happy to see that Matthew Watkins has a new publisher and new publicity for his delightfully wonderful trilogy on prime numbers (I loved the first volume, but haven't actually gotten around to the other two yet):

Volume 1 reviewed here:

2)  A h/t to Richard Elwes for pointing out this book review of Cédric Villani’s "Birth of a Theorem"... unlike almost any book review you've previously read:

...and a couple more reviews of the same volume below:

3)  Meanwhile, just became aware that one of my favorite writers, William Byers, was out with a new book at the end of last year, "Deep Thinking: What Mathematics Can Teach Us About the Mind." Here's one review:

Though a trained mathematician, Byers tends to be both philosophical and psychological, and if you enjoy exploring the cerebral foundations of mathematics, or thinking about mathematical thinking, I always recommend his work.

4)  Finally, the one book I am currently reading/enjoying is Ian Stewart's latest, "Professor Stewart's Incredible Numbers." With over 30 popular math books to his credit, any new offering falls prey to a certain amount of redundancy, but if by chance you don't have (m)any Stewart books this is a great one to start with. The Professor has pulled together a fantastic and wide range of topics to refresh the engaged mathematician or stir the mind of the younger person on their mathematical path. Both text and illustrations are excellent. While it certainly includes some recreational math (often a mainstay for Stewart), the book really is more of an instructive adjunct guide to a high school or basic college math text. And it's released in paperback so the price is right. My only small issue with it is that it lacks an index (is this a new trend, I've run across several books in the last year foregoing indexes???) which makes it impossible to find all instances of mention of a topic that one may be keenly interested in.

Anyway, it's not even quite April yet, and there are already so many good math books out there... 2015 appears to be another banner year for numbers fans.
I've already reviewed two books over at MathTango this year that will be among my year's favorites: