The adventures of Terry Tao in the 21st century

Great New York Times profile of Terry Tao by Gareth Cook, an old friend of mine from Boston Phoenix days.

I’ve got a quote in there:

‘‘Terry is what a great 21st-­century mathematician looks like,’’ Jordan Ellenberg, a mathematician at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who has collaborated with Tao, told me. He is ‘‘part of a network, always communicating, always connecting what he is doing with what other people are doing.’’

I thought it would be good to say something about the context in which I told Gareth this.  I was explaining how happy I was he was profiling Terry, because Terry is at the same time extraordinary and quite typical as a mathematician.  Outlier stories, like those of Nash, and Perelman, and more recently Mochizuki, get a lot of space in the general press.  And they’re important stories.  But they’re stories because they’re so unrepresentative of the main stream of mathematical work.  Lone bearded men working in secret, pitched battles over correctness and priority, madness, etc.  Not a big part of our actual lives.

Terry’s story, on the other hand, is what new, deep, amazing math actually usually looks like.  Many minds cooperating, enabled by new technology.  Blogging, traveling, talking, sharing.  That’s the math world I know.  I’m happy as hell to see it in the New York Times.

 

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I can’t even tell when I’m on the Internet anymore

I asked the barista in the Starbucks in Target to settle an argument between CJ and me — should it be referred to as “Tarbucks” or “Starget?”

Barista:  I don’t know, I think both.

Other barista:  No, it’s Tarbucks.

Barista:  It’s Tarbucks?

Other barista:  That’s what they call it on Reddit.

It’s true!

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The dime of America

I take it as a near-certainty that, assuming we’re still using physical currency throughout my life, some denomination of that currency will eventually feature Ronald Reagan.  But where will he go?  You can’t really evict Jefferson or Washington or Lincoln.  Alexander Hamilton and Andrew Jackson seem more vulnerable, but somehow it’s the coins that really read as “inner-circle President” — would Reagan’s boosters really settle for grubby green pieces of linen, that get filthy and torn?

But here’s what would work.  Put Reagan on the dime.  Instead of Roosevelt?  No — in addition to Roosevelt.  Nobody cares about the shrubbery on the back of the dime.  Roosevelt on the obverse, Reagan on the reverse.  The two radical revisions of the American idea that shaped the 20th century, separated only by a thin disc of copper.  A government big enough to crush Hitler versus a government small enough to drown in a bathtub.  Now that’s a coin.  Flipping that coin has stakes.

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Dane County Fair: Flippin’

1.  I realized today that the Dane County Fair might be the only place my kids ever go which is reasonably representative of the socioeconomic and demographic mix of Madison.

2.  The usual:  funnel cake, Ferris wheel, etc.  But something special this year was Flippin’, a steampunk-themed acrobatics show.  Boy does that sound unpromising.  But it was actually kind of amazing.  Especially the Wheel of Death.

I didn’t think the Wallendas, who we saw at the fair a couple of years ago, could be beat.  But these guys might have done it.  There’s a bizarre optical illusion when one of the wheelers leaps as the wheel reaches its crest; his motion is almost in sync with that of the wheel, so it feels to the eye like you’re watching something happening in slow motion.  I was floored.

Three of the four members of Flippin’ are Españas, members of a family that’s been in the circus for five generations.  The dad, Ivan, is in the video above with his brother.  His two kids were in the show we just saw.  The mom, in 2004, fell 30 feet doing a routine and was killed.  I think that’s kind of how it is in these families.

 

 

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Rolling the dice on Iran

David Sanger in today’s NYT on the Iran deal:

Mr. Obama will be long out of office before any reasonable assessment can be made as to whether that roll of the dice paid off.

Which is true!  But something else that’s true: not having a deal would also be a roll of the dice.  We’re naturally biased to think of the status quo as the safest course.  But why?  There’s no course of political action that leads to a certain outcome.  We’re rolling the dice no matter what; all we get to do is choose which dice.

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The soundness of the Wisconsin Retirement System

A while back I was talking to some hedge fund dudes with tangential involvement with institutional pensions, and I asked them, “hedge fund dudes, how come the Wisconsin Retirement System has done so well through the crisis while other state pension systems are colossally FUBAR?” and they said “the real reason is that decisions about the pension aren’t made by a bunch of legislators with political commitment, there’s a non-political board and most of the important decisions are made by financial professionals.”

This week the state legislature tried to replace that board with one composed solely of legislators.  The change, after public outcry, has now been rolled back.  Yay for my retirement, I guess?

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Those other parents

You know those other parents?  The ones who drive their kid the four blocks to school in their SUV?  The ones who sued the school district because their kid wasn’t labeled gifted?  The ones whose children are scheduled every minute of every day?  The ones who don’t let their kids watch Star Wars because they might find the violence upsetting?  The ones who insist that school snacks are free of gluten, genetically modified organisms, and genetically modified gluten?

How are their kids going to turn out?

As emotionally able, as complex, as kind, as outgoing, as open to experience as our kids.  That’s how.

 

HNTBW paperback publicity roundup

Gonna put all this stuff in one post:

I was at the Aspen Ideas Festival last week, talking about various aspects of outward-facing math.  We taped an episode of Science Friday with Jo Boaler and Steve Strogatz, mostly about K-12 teaching, but I did get to drop Russell’s paradox on the audience.  I also did a discussion with David Leonhardt, editor of the New York Times Upshot section, about the future of quantitative journalism, and sat on a big panel that debated the question:  “Is Math Important?”

The big news from England was that Waterstone’s chose HNTBW as their nonfiction book of the month for June.  That was a big factor in the book riding the Times bestseller list for a month (it’s the #5 nonfiction paperback as I write this.) I went to London and did some events, like this talk at the Royal Institution.  I also got to meet Matt Parker, “the stand-up mathematician,” and record a spirited discussion of whether 0.9999… = 1 (extra director’s cut footage here.) And I wrote a piece for the Waterstone’s blog about the notorious “Hannah and her sweets problem.” from this year’s GCSE.

I was on Bloomberg News, very briefly, to talk about my love for dot plot charts and to tell a couple of stories from the book.  (Rare chance to see me in a blazer.) On the same trip to New York, I sat in on the Slate Money podcast.  I also wrote a couple of op-eds, some already linked here:  In the New York Times, I wrote about states replacing Common Core math standards with renamed versions of the same thing, and in the Wall Street Journal, I talked about the need for a new kind of fact-checking for data journalism, where truth is not enough.

The book just came out in Brazil this month; good luck for me, I was already invited to a conference at IMPA, so while I was there I gave a talk at Casa do Saber in Rio, talking through a translator like I was at the UN.

I think that’s about it!

 

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Alexandra Florea on the average central value of hyperelliptic L-functions

Alexandra Florea, a student of Soundararajan, has a nice new paper up, which I heard about in a talk by Michael Rubinstein.  She computes the average of

L(1/2, \chi_f)

as f ranges over squarefree polynomials of large degree.  If this were the value at 1 instead of the value at 1/2, this would be asking for the average number of points on the Jacobian of a hyperelliptic curve, and I could at least have some idea of where to start (probably with this paper of Erman and Wood.)  And I guess you could probably get a good grasp on moments by imitating Granville-Soundararajan?

But I came here to talk about Florea’s result.  What’s cool about it is that it has the a main term that matches existing conjectures in the number field case, but there is a second main term, whose size is about the cube root of the main term, before you get to fluctuations!

The only similar case I know is Roberts’ conjecture, now a theorem of Bhargava-Shankar-Tsimerman and Thorne-Taniguchi, which finds a similar secondary main term in the asymptotic for counting cubic fields.  And when I say similar I really mean similar — e.g. in both cases the coefficient of the secondary term is some messy thing involving zeta functions evaluated at third-integers.

My student Yongqiang Zhao found a lovely geometric interpretation for the secondary term the Roberts conjecture.  Is there some way to see what Florea’s secondary term “means” geometrically?  Of course I’m stymied here by the fact that I don’t really know how to think about her counting problem geometrically in the first place.

 

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Sure as roses

I learned when I was writing this piece a few months ago that the New York Times styleguide doesn’t permit “fun as hell.”  So I had a problem while writing yesterday’s article about Common Core, and its ongoing replacement by an identical set of standards with a different name.  I wanted to say I was “sure as hell” not going to use the traditional addition algorithm for a problem better served by another method.  So instead I wrote “sure as roses.”  Doesn’t that sound like an actual folksy “sure as hell” substitute?  But actually I made it up.  I think it works, though.  Maybe it’ll catch on.

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