Announcing the Shtetl-Optimized Math Journalism Award!

To those of us who can’t tell a hypotenuse from a rhombus, the phrase “math journalism” sounds like an oxymoron. It brings to mind boring pedants like Martin Gardner, Sara Robinson, and Brian Hayes, who make everything seem confusing and complicated, and who won’t even write a single word without consulting two dozen “experts.” But today, a new breed of journalist is bringing math directly to the people — and they’re doing it with flair, pizzazz, and an eye for the all-too-neglected human side.

That’s why I’m proud to announce Shtetl-Optimized‘s semiregular Math Journalism Award, intended to recognize those journalists who make fractions, long division, and other topics of current research seem “as easy as pi” even to those of us who can’t balance our checkbooks and never did get algebra. The inaugural award goes to Ben Moore of the BBC, for his fascinating report about a maverick professor who’s solved a problem that befuddled Newton and Pythagoras over 1,200 years ago — not to mention millions of students since! The problem: what happens when you divide by zero?

Feel free to nominate other journalists for this prestigious award. (Hat tip for this one goes to my brother David.)

28 Responses to “Announcing the Shtetl-Optimized Math Journalism Award!”

  1. elias Says:

    Scott,

    Don’t you do any research? (If so, you would have found the far more interesting parts of the dividing-by-zero story.)

    In particular, this is hardly a failure of math journalism, but a failure of the mathematical establishment to prevent crackpots from obtaining jobs teaching at the university level. A quick look reveals that this particular “scientist” invented “nullity” (the result of dividing by 0) for the purpose of his perspex machine (standing, of course, for “perspective simplex”):
    http://www.cs.reading.ac.uk/people/J.Anderson.htm

    This machine is “a particular kind of matrix; concretely, it is simultaneously a physical shape, a physical motion, an artificial neuron, and an instruction for a machine that is more powerful than the Turing machine.”

    Don’t be angry just because you’re jealous. Quantum computing does have its competitors.

  2. elias Says:

    Wait, I didn’t quote enough

    “This site contains mathematical formulas for the perspex machine and for properties such as feeling, consciousness, and free will. These things are described in scientific papers, books, and software that you can download and run. The site also contains news items that explain the perspex machine in a non-technical way. It also has links to old research on the perspex machine.”

  3. Anon Says:

    So basically, he created floating points:

    infinity = Inf
    -infinity = -Inf
    nullity = NaN

    C’mon, anybody can take R union {infinity, -infinity, nullity} and prove some wacky things with it…

  4. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    In particular, this is hardly a failure of math journalism, but a failure of the mathematical establishment to prevent crackpots from obtaining jobs teaching at the university level.

    This is off the mark in two ways. First, it isn’t the mathematics establishment, it’s the computer science establishment. Anderson has an appointment in computer science. Second, they aren’t necessarily crackpot when they are hired. Some of these people were competent when they were hired, then turned crackpot because of a medical or psychological condition. Journalists ought to understand that there are always a few such people floating around in the academic system, either with tenure or with adjunct or technical appointments. It should not be hard for journalists to devote their attention to the scientific and mathematical consensus.

    But some journalists just don’t get it. They find crackpot proposals much more interesting than boring, legitimate science and mathematics. This journalist, Ben Moore, didn’t bother to quote any researcher of any kind other than James Anderson. What’s worse, the teachers at Highdown School didn’t double-check either, and instead subjected their schoolchildren to Anderson’s nonsense.

  5. Scott Says:

    In other words, the existential quantifier is all but useless when it ranges over tenured professors.

  6. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    In other words, the existential quantifier is all but useless when it ranges over tenured professors.

    Yes, it is. However, the random quantifier is very reasonable, if the domain is tenured or even untenured research faculty. The Ben Moores of the world do much worse than random.

    Sometimes the Ben Moores also get bored with the tenured-faculty existential quantifier. They expand the quantifier domain to include university staff with non-research appointments. Emeriti can be another antidote to the boring truth. Or they get bored with universities altogether and find science renegades elsewhere.

  7. Scott Says:

    The truth is sometimes boring; on the other hand, deciding that capital Φ should stand for “undefined” isn’t exactly interesting…

  8. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    The truth is sometimes boring; on the other hand, deciding that capital Φ should stand for “undefined” isn’t exactly interesting…

    I personally agree with you of course, but De gustibus non est disputandum.

    Although I can think of a science news clip that’s both completely crackpot and (briefly) interesting in its own way. Some 15 years ago the AP carried a story about a tenured mathematician at Iowa State named Alexander Abian — a logician. Abian reasoned that (1) dynamical instability contributes to bad weather, and (2) lunar tidal forces helps make the weather unstable, so therefore (3) we should demolish the moon with nuclear weapons to improve the weather.

    Ironically, the same AP article quoted a response from meteorologists and astronomers, who called Abian’s theory “lunacy”. Just not lunatic enough to skip the story. A “controversy” and a good pun made it worthwhile. And I will admit to some deadpan humor value.

    The same Abian later extensively discussed his theory of physics, captured by the slogan TIME HAS INERTIA (his caps), on Usenet. Newspapers unaccountably lost interest. He died in 1999.

  9. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    In other news, I see synchronicity between the present popular math story and popular accounts of quantum computation. George Johnson is a New York Times reporter who wrote a book on quantum computation, “A Shortcut Through Time”. He used exactly the same crappy notation, a 1 superimposed on a 0, to denote a quantum superposition of |0> and |1>. His notation, and some of his words too, more accurately described a 50-50 classical superposition (i.e., a probabilistic mixture) of 0 and 1 states. Of course, unbiased quantum superpositions aren’t unique, and quantum computation crucially depends on this fact. Students of QC have to unlearn the widely shared lay impression that Johnson repeated.

    (Okay, they don’t have to, but they certainly should!)

  10. paraphrene Says:

    They have to if they want to be thoroughly competent. (I would ignore the petty nuances, on account of they’re annoying and distracting.)

  11. rrtucci Says:

    I think the journalist Ben Moore deserves this prestigious award. I think he reported the story accurately. Didn’t make anything up. Just the right tone for such a story.

    The Perspex sounds vaguely familiar. Is it a quantum computer operating on a multi-verse?

  12. Amory Says:

    Another hundreds-of-years old problem that he solved earlier:

    http://www.cs.reading.ac.uk/news.htm?viewnews&ID=00121

  13. Anonymous Says:

    This reminds me that Reading is closing their physics department (which sounds to me like a ridiculous decision):
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/5399346.stm

    Perhaps they should be closing CS instead?

  14. rrtucci Says:

    “This reminds me that Reading is closing their physics department”
    Ahh. That explains it. Without the guidance of us physicists, computer scientists quickly go astray.

  15. Johan Richter Says:

    On the positive side, this really settles the argument, in your favor Scott, about whether theoretical computer scientists are a form of mathematicians.

  16. Scott Says:

    theoretical computer scientist, n. A person who has published in STOC, FOCS, CCC, SODA, SoCG, or ICALP, or who is Alan Turing, Kurt Gödel, Claude Shannon, or John von Neumann.

    So far as I know, Anderson is not a theoretical computer scientist.

  17. rrtucci Says:

    Aw, common on. You can’t claim von Neumann as yours. He belongs to the chemical engineers.

  18. rrtucci Says:

    physicists are sloopy.
    common->come

  19. rrtucci Says:

    sloopy->sloppy

  20. Kurt Says:

    The last time I visited Amazon.com, they presented me with a blurb for the book, Automata Theory with Modern Applications by James A. Anderson (which, for what it’s worth, looks like an interesting treatment of that material).

    It could be just a coincidence, but I can’t help thinking that Amazon is picking up on the fact that lots of people have been searching for books by the other James Anderson.

  21. Andris Says:

    Non-math/CS friend e-mailed this article to me a few days away and I still have to write back and tell that this is a complete nonsense… aaaagh. I used to have better opinion of BBC science section.

    Did anyone figure out why he called it 1200 year old problem instead of, say, 3000 year old one?

  22. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Andris has a good point. I would argue that the “problem” of division by zero is as old as human language, conjecturally then 50,000 years old.

  23. Richard Says:

    Note that the web article now has this update:

    UPDATED: 11:50 GMT, 8 December 2006
    Given the, er, light-hearted mathematical debate Dr Anderson’s theory has generated, we’re delighted to announce he will join us on Tuesday 12 December to answer questions and discuss some of the criticisms levelled against his theory of ‘nullity’.
    You will be able to hear in more detail from Dr Anderson on this page later on Tuesday.

  24. Andris Says:

    I googled for other writings by Ben Moore and it turns out he is a regional reporter for Berkshire (that part of Britain) who covers everything that happens in Berkshire (music festivals, locals getting scammed for World Cup tickets, etc.). So, he probably lacks any science background which explains the story. (But shouldn’t science stories be checked by someone who actually understands science?)

  25. rrtucci Says:

    Andris, I’m sure Ben Moore was fully aware, when he wrote this piece, that Dr. Anderson’s nullity theory is ridiculous. Look at the picture of the innocent students and read their comments. It’s a brilliant piece of writing. It’s no coincidence that it sounds like it was taken out of The Onion. That was the intent of the author. You can’t fault the guy. The story is true, and it certainly is newsworthy, judging from the response it has received. And Moore did report it fairly accurately.

  26. Anonymous Says:

    Students of the distinction between science and pseudoscience will find it instructive to compare Anderson’s papers with this legitimate mathematical article which makes very similar points. Needless to say, the context and tone are rather different!

    I think this supports the idea that the difference between a crackpot and a legitimate scientist is not, in any literal sense, the intellectual content of their ideas. It is, rather, the fact that the legitimate scientist always has an interest in and understanding of mainstream work in the subject (whether or not he or she accepts all of its implications), whereas the crackpot is obsessed with his or her own “originality” to the point of disregarding the existing body of knowledge.

  27. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    But shouldn’t science stories be checked by someone who actually understands science?

    In all fairness, print media has been a tremendous intellectual success lately and our standards have risen substantially. The BBC certainly should have specialist science editors, but this is a fairly recent trend. 40 years ago, an article as inane as this one could easily have been in the New York Times; now it is unlikely.

    I think this supports the idea that the difference between a crackpot and a legitimate scientist is not, in any literal sense, the intellectual content of their ideas.

    On the contrary, the entire difference is in the intellectual content of their ideas. There are plenty of legitimate scientists who are as narcissistic as any crackpot, but they get away with it because they have something useful to say. On the other side, a fair fraction of crackpots were once competent scientists or students, until they were hit with mental illness, or even in some cases suffered head injuries. It is reassurring to suppose that errors of free will distinguish crackpots from ordinary Joes, but the truth is that any of us can fall into the nightmare.

  28. Ars Mathematica » Blog Archive » Says:

    [...] I take a few days vacation, and I see (via Scott Aaronson) and things promptly spin out of control. Now people are publicly dividing by zero. I shudder to think what would have happened if I’d been gone for a full week. [...]