Numbers like $50 Billion

Isabel reminds me to look at The Onion. Lo and behold, scientists are asking Congress to fund a $50 billion science thing! Apparently, the machine in question is both large and expensive, and it uses gamma rays.

“While expense is something to consider, I think it’s very important that we have this kind of scientific apparatus, because, in the end, I have always said that science is more important than it is unimportant,” Committee chairman Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN) said. “And it’s essential we stay ahead of China, Japan, and Germany in science. We are ahead in space, with the NASA rockets going to other planets, so we should be ahead in science too.”

Unfortunately, all was not rosy on Capitol Hill:

“These scientists could trim $10 million if they would just cut out some of the purple and blue spheres,” said Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD), explaining that he understood the need for an abundance of reds and greens. “With all of those molecules and atoms going in every direction, the whole thing looks a bit unorganized, especially for science.”

Isabel makes note of something else, a thought which should linger after the chuckles fade away.

Consider this paragraph from The Onion‘s stellar reportage:

Another diagram presented to lawmakers contained several important squiggly lines, numbers, and letters. Despite not being numbers, the letters were reportedly meant to represent mathematics too. The scientists seemed to believe that correct math was what would help make the science thing go.

Math isn’t just numbers? It can use letters too?

Both Isabel and I have seen many a chalkboard filled to its dusty brim with mathematics, yet with nary a number in sight. Reportedly, when the mathematician Stanislaw Ulam went to work at the Manhattan Project, he mourned that he was now forced to work with actual numbers — and to add insult to injury, they were numbers with decimal points! At some point in a student’s mathematical development, the subject becomes more about patterns, symbols and interrelationships than it is about the digits 0 through 9.

A while back, I wrote about math in the movies. It now occurs to me that you can also classify movies by how “numerical” their math appears. Aronofsky’s Pi (1998) is very numerical: Max is looking for a string of 216 digits. By contrast, Good Will Hunting (1997) uses math talent as a MacGuffin, and the math we see being done is algebraic and diagrammatical. We get lots of stick figures on blackboards, showing dots connected by lines. A Beautiful Mind (2001) is similar, in that Russell Crowe’s scribblings on bedroom and library windows (compare that to Will Hunting’s bathroom mirror!) have lots of arrows and letters, even Greek letters. The most digit-intensive “work” which we see the fictional John Nash doing is when he is most strongly medicated.

Proof (2005) may be the most unusual in this regard. We see Gwyneth Paltrow’s character working on a theorem (something to do with prime numbers, we’re told, which uses random matrix theory and other “hip” modern techniques). When the camera slips in for a close-up on the notebook, she’s writing words in between the equations.

All in all, the more realistic the movie’s portrayal of mathematics is, the less it uses straight-up strings of digits. This is an interesting pattern to consider when we’re trying to understand what people outside our ivy-colored walls think about mathematics, which is in turn something we have to know when trying to popularize science.

One thought on “Numbers like $50 Billion”

  1. “and to add insult to injury, they were numbers with decimal points!”

    That reminds me of something that I’m trying to drum into my students’ heads (without much success) — that it is much more preferable to give an answer of, say, (1+&sqrt;5)/2 than 1.618… With the answer which only involves integers, one can see “where the number came from”; with the decimal all that history is lost.

    and I hadn’t noticed that particular trend re: mathematicians in the movies. It’s an interesting one.

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