Monday, October 31, 2016

Vote Like the Future... and That of Science, Depends On It

"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."  -- Edmund Burke

No math today, just blather about this craziest election of my lifetime….

Months ago, I surmised that if by some deranged alignment of planetary forces Donald Trump actually won the Republican nomination I expected a response from STEM people as never before seen in a presidential campaign: 100s or 1000s of scientists signing open letters from various organizations/societies and independent groups to denounce a Trump candidacy.  There have been a trickle of such efforts and certainly individual STEM folks have voiced their concern via Twitter, Facebook, Google, etc… but the large-scale outpouring I envisioned hasn’t materialized.

Many feel uncomfortable or even constrained (sometimes contractually) from involving themselves publicly in politics; it is not a customary activity for the science crowd, and perhaps many conclude they’d only be preaching to the choir anyway (…and, as unfathomable as it seems, some scientists even support the absurdity that is Donald Trump). 

But something is seriously wrong when folks who call themselves patriotic, or religious, or God-fearing, or simply concerned about the future, say they are voting for Donald Trump, as if wearing blinders. Gullibility and timidity of citizenry during the rise of German Fascism led of course to unprecedented human tragedy. I’m a bit ashamed by the lack of concerted, organized response from the STEM community to a narcissistic authoritarian in our midst — with demagogic speeches and political rallies reminiscent of Jim Jones’ assemblies. And please spare me your objections to the German Fascist analogies (they ARE apt, and I don't doubt for a second that if Hitler rose from the dead to campaign across America today, 30%+ of current voters would back him).

Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it’… Trump will most likely lose this election… but there are more like him coming down the pike. That his antics and laughably-shallow “policies” appeal to so many doesn’t bode well for the future. And science is in their crosshairs. Those who dare ‘preach’ evolution or vaccination or climate mitigation or brain science or particle physics or space travel or… or… are all vulnerable (no doubt Jews, gypsies, and trade-unionists, are as well). 
Perhaps America’s 200+ year-old experiment in democracy and slow liberal progressivism is simply running out of steam to continue against the regressive, anti-science, anti-rational sentiment and thuggery that is creeping across the globe. Make no mistake about it though, silence is not golden; it is complicit. Admittedly, whatever the outcome of this election the Trump cult will remain, potentially sabotaging the next four years, even worse than Republicans sabotaged the last eight.

"We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men — not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular. This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn't create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.' Good night, and good luck."
-- Edward R. Murrow (1954)
Good luck... Indeed! 

(...and if you have the option, vote EARLY!)


ADDENDUM (11/11/16):  When you turn voters against their government, as Reagan did, and against the press as Trump did, and against science, as the GOP has done, don't be surprised if democracy withers and dies.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Science Is Provisional... And Mathematics a Luxury

Sunday reflection:
That’s how real science advances… Three steps forward, two steps back. Mathematicians have the luxury of living in a logical bubble, where once something is proved true, it remains true. Interpretations and proofs may change, but the theorems don’t get unproved by later discoveries. Though they may become obsolete or irrelevant to current concerns. Science is always provisional, only as good as the current evidence. In response to such evidence, scientists reserve the right to change their minds.

— Ian Stewart in Epilogue to “Calculating the Cosmos

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Games With Facebook (...and Ramsey Theory)

As Seinfeld fans know, one of the things that made that show so enjoyable was a style they developed of weaving two (or more) disparate plots together, in a single 30-min. episode, that somehow resolved or came together at the end.

I suddenly realized that, to some degree, this is also what makes many of Evelyn Lamb’s posts for her “Roots of Unity” blog so wonderful. She’s developed a knack for bringing up multi-subjects or ideas and showing how a mathematical thread draws them together.  In her newest post she weaves Ramsey Theory and birthdays into Facebook with her own little fun daily game (also, includes several excellent links):

Of course math is EVERYwhere, and so too 'interesting configurations.' Always fun to be reminded of it. Lamb writes that she wants to "share a little way in which a little bit of math enhances my life a little" ...and in so doing she enhances her readers.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Real vs. Imaginary...

Sunday reflection:
…the terminology is misleading, for it suggests that there is some greater ‘reality’ to these so-called real numbers than there is to the so-called imaginary numbers. This impression comes about, I suppose, because there is the feeling that distance measures are, in some sense ‘really’ such real-number quantities. But we do not know this. We know that these real numbers are indeed very good for describing distances and times, but we do not know that this description holds good at absolutely all scales of distance or time."We have no actual understanding of the nature of a physical continuum at a scale of, say, one googolith of a metre or of a second, for example. The so-called real numbers are mathematical constructions, which are, nevertheless immensely valuable for the formulation of the physical laws of classical physics.
— Sir Roger Penrose in Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Blog Changes...

A number of recent changes in the math blogosphere, perhaps worth mentioning:

1)  Math Drudge blog is shutting down following the death of one of its founders, Jonathan Borwein:

…but (at a very similar URL) the new Math Scholar blog will carry on from David Bailey (the other co-founder of Math Drudge):

2)  Antonio Cangiano announced that Math Blog would be going on hiatus following a devastating fire interrupting his life:

…although that was quickly followed by John McGowan saying he would take over administration of the blog for the interim (honestly, I had always thought McGowan was the principal administrator of this blog, which is among my favorites, so I’m not clear how big a change this is, or how mistaken I was?):

3)  Jason Rosenhouse covered a lot more than just math at his long-running Evolution Blog, and I always found him to be one of the clearest (and perhaps under-appreciated) explicators of math and science out there. So, quite sad to see him calling it quits after more than 10 years of elucidation:

(hoping he’ll change his mind after some rest-and-relaxation)

Jason's “The Monty Hall Problem” volume is MUST-reading, by the way, for anyone interested in that classic puzzle.
And his “Four Lives” is MUST-reading for any Raymond Smullyan fans out there.
(just to mention two of his books)
Luckily Jason has more books on the way, but will still miss his succinct, well-reasoned blog-post musings.
There may well be some other blog changes worth mentioning that I’ve missed. Feel free to mention in the comments any you think worth passing along.

Sunday, October 16, 2016


For this Sunday, just a little arithmetic humor:

Husband:  Dear, I’m calling you from the freeway on my new cell phone.

Wife:  Well Honey, please be careful out there; the radio says some nut is driving the wrong way on the freeway.

Husband: Hell, one nut? There are 100s of them!

Friday, October 14, 2016

"On With the Song, I Don't Give a Damn"

No math, just music (re: "jingoistic" politics) to finish the week with:


This isn't for the ones who blindly follow
Jingoistic bumper stickers telling you
To love it or leave it and you'd better love Jesus
And get out of the way of the Red, White and Blue

This isn't for the ones who buy their six-packs
At the 7-Eleven where the clerk makes change
Whose accent makes clear he sure ain't from here
They call him a camel jockey instead of his name

No, this is for the ones who stand their ground
When the lines in the sand get deeper
When the whole world seems to be upside down
And the shots being taken get cheaper, cheaper

This isn't for the ones who would gladly swallow
Everything their leader would have them know
Bowing and kissing while the truth goes missing
"Bring it on," he crows, puttin' on his big show

This isn't for the man who can't count the bodies
Can't comfort the families, can't say when he's wrong
Playing 'I'm the decider' like some sort of Messiah
While another day passes and a hundred souls gone

No, this is for the ones who stand their ground
When the lines in the sand get deeper
When the whole world seems to be upside down
And the shots being taken get cheaper, cheaper

This is for the ones that I see above me
Three little stars in a great big sky
Light for the world and hope for the weary, they try
This isn't for the ones with their radio signal
Calling for bonfires and boycotts, they rave
Exhorting their listeners to spit on the sinners
While counting the bucks of advertising, they'll say

This isn't for you and you know who you are
So just do what you want 'cause I know that you can
But I gotta be true to myself and to you
So on with the song, I don't give a damn

-- Mary Chapin Carpenter (2007)

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Put On Your Thinking Cap

ICYMI, I enjoyed this little logic brain-twister from Alex Bellos in The Guardian yesterday. So as not to copy it verbatim, I’ll entirely re-word it below if you want to try it out, but then you can go here to see his original statement of it, with the neat solution:

Alan, Bob, and Carl play checkers among themselves, with the rule that the winner of each game keeps playing, while the loser awaits for another turn to play after each game. When they are done for the day they have each played the following numbers of games: 
Alan played 10
Bob played 15
Carl played 17
Question: Who lost the 2nd game?

Sunday, October 9, 2016

'struck with the power...'

Sunday reflection:
"So I would say that like Turing, I am absolutely struck with the power of mathematics, and that's why I'm a theoretical physicist. If I want to answer questions, I love that we can all share the mathematical answers.  It's not about me trying to convince you of what I believe or of my perspective or of my assumptions. We can all agree that one plus one is two, and we can all make calculations that come out to be the same, whether you're from India or Pakistan or Oklahoma, we all have that in common.  There's something about that that's deeply moving to me and that makes mathematics pure and special."
          -- Janna Levin (interviewed in Krista Tippett's "Einstein's God")

Friday, October 7, 2016

Truth and Stereotype...

Just a fun read leading into the weekend, from the widow of a mathematician who misses “the crazy good times” with her absent-minded husband:

Fondly she writes:
I miss mathematicians! They have such a good time with each other. They are like eager children swarming into the same old playground and creating ever-new uses for the same old equipment.“

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

"the manipulation of noise" (quantitatively speaking)

Andrew Gelman, interesting as always, on psychology's replication crisis:

Specifically mentioning work by Bargh, Cuddy, Bem, Lacour, and others, but applicable to a wider throng.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Mathematics... Powerful Medicine

This morning's 'Sunday reflection' comes from Morris Kline (in "Mathematics and the Search For Knowledge"):
"Mathematicians had given up God; so it behooved them to accept man, and this is what they have done. They have continued the development of mathematics and the search for laws of nature, knowing that what they produced was not the design of God but the work of man. Their past successes helped them to retain confidence in what they were doing, and fortunately, hosts of new successes greeted their efforts. What has preserved the life of mathematics was the powerful medicine humans had themselves concocted -- the enormous achievements in celestial mechanics, acoustics, hydrodynamics, optics, electromagnetic theory, and engineering, and the incredible accuracy of its predictions. Thus, mathematical creation and application to science have continued at an even faster pace."