“You’ll get so preoccupied with equations that you forget to eat!” #BadWaysToPromoteScienceToYoungWomen

# Moderation In All Things

After attending the annual ScienceOnline meetings in North Carolina for many years, this time around, I won’t be going. The primary reason has nothing to do with the upsets in that community of late (oh, yes, I have thoughts, but they’re not for the sharing today). Oh, sure, not seeing the people I’d hoped to see because ongoing problems drove them away—that’s a fine secondary reason. Before and above all that, though, is the fact that I’m mid-PhD. I realized I could no longer justify the time, the stress and, indeed, the carbon footprint of traveling to attend #scio14.

What can one do? I revile air travel more every year. I don’t have time/energy to prepare for the conference beforehand, or to follow up on anything discussed there after. My proposal for the session I was to moderate was, to summarize only slightly, “hey let’s build this website”. Must I travel for that??
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# Momentary Thought on TwenCen Short Fiction

A thing which always surprises me: people who can read Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” nonparodically. The title character

• is seven feet (2.13 m) tall,
• carries three hundred pounds (136 kg) without effort,
• can easily tear straps meant to withstand 5000 pounds of force (the weight of over 2 tonnes),
• can sing beautifully whilst waving musicians like batons, and
• neutralizes gravity itself through the power of sheer awesomeballs.

But to a certain mindset, which fancies itself much put-upon and misunderstood, Harrison Bergeron could burst through the door waving a BFG9000 and riding a T-rex, all to nary a chuckle.

# One and One and One Make Three

Every once in a while, a bit of esoteric mathematics drifts into more popular view and leaves poor souls like me wondering, “Why?”

Why is this piece of gee-whizzery being waved about, when the popularized “explanation” of it is so warped as to be misleading? Is the goal of “popularizing mathematics” just to inflate the reader’s ego—the intended result being, “Look what I understand!,” or, worse, “Look at what those [snort] professional mathematicians are saying, and how obviously wrong it is.”

Today’s instalment (noticed by my friend Dr. SkySkull): the glib assertion going around that

$$1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + \cdots = -\frac{1}{12}.$$

Sigh.

It’s like an Upbuzzdomeworthy headline: These scientists added together all the counting numbers. You’ll never guess what happened next!

“This crazy calculation is actually used in physics,” we are solemnly assured.

Sigh.

The physics side of the story is, roughly, “Sometimes you’re doing a calculation and it looks like you’ll have to add up $$1+2+3+4+\cdots$$  and so on forever. Then you look more carefully and realize that you shouldn’t—something you neglected matters. It turns out that you can swap in $$-1/12$$ for the corrected calculation and get a good first stab at the answer. More specifically, swapping in $$-1/12$$ tells you the part of the answer which doesn’t depend on the particular details of the extra effect you originally neglected.”

For an example of this being done, see David Tong’s notes on quantum field theory, chapter 2, page 27. For the story as explained by a mathematician, see Terry Tao’s “The Euler-Maclaurin formula, Bernoulli numbers, the zeta function, and real-variable analytic continuation.” As that title might hint, these do presume a certain level of background knowledge, but that’s kind of the point. This is an instance where the result itself requires at least moderate expertise to understand, unlike, say, the four-colour theorem, where the premise and the result are pretty easy to set out, and it’s the stuff in between which is much harder to follow.

ADDENDUM (19 January 2014): I’ve heard the argument in favour of this gee-whizzery that it “gets people excited about mathematics.” So what? A large number of people are misinformed; a tiny fraction of that population goes on to learn more and realize that they were, essentially, lied to. Getting people interested in mathematics is a laudable goal, but you need to pick your teaser-trailer examples more carefully.

And I see Terry Tao has weighed in himself with a clear note and some charming terminology.

# Verily, Who Would Have Thunk?

Zack Kopplin describes an example of crackpot-idea synergy in a recent Slate piece about how “Texas Public Schools Are Teaching Creationism.”

Responsive Ed has a secular veneer and is funded by public money, but it has been connected from its inception to the creationist movement and to far-right fundamentalists who seek to undermine the separation of church and state.

Infiltrating and subverting the charter-school movement has allowed Responsive Ed to carry out its religious agenda—and it is succeeding. Operating more than 65 campuses in Texas, Arkansas, and Indiana, Responsive Ed receives more than \$82 million in taxpayer money annually, and it is expanding, with 20 more Texas campuses opening in 2014.

Along with the usual evolution-denialist drivel, those taxpayer funds are buying a threat to public health:

The only study linking vaccines to autism was exposed as a fraud and has been retracted, and the relationship has been studied exhaustively and found to be nonexistent. But a Responsive Ed workbook teaches, “We do not know for sure whether vaccines increase a child’s chance of getting autism, but we can conclude that more research needs to be done.”

Anti-vax lunacy from the religious right? Who would have thunk it?

Well, other than people who have looked at the data, that is.

# An Open Letter to Nature

Dear Gentlemen,

Betcha people at Science and PLOS are giggling fit to burst right about now.

Yours,
Blake

# Why I Gave Up On Elementary

This is probably as good an evening as any to ask if anyone I know actually watches Elementary. I gave up midway through season 1. Even at their best, the episodes read like House fanfiction with the serial numbers filed off. The mysteries were predictable, even if, like me, you didn’t watch enough contemporary TV to recognize actors (and guest starring: the guy who did it!).
Continue reading Why I Gave Up On Elementary

# Textual Fardels

Another thing which year-in-review pieces remind me about: Despair over the failure of news media does not belong under the same heading as idiosyncratic, essentially groundless usage peeves. “It’s terrible how ‘news’ is just giving blowhards unearned publicity instead of informing the citizenry! And how people use ‘impact’ as a verb.”