Return of the Statistics Blogs

When I shared a few of my favorite statistics blogs over a year ago, Thomas Lumley self-promoted his blogs in the comments, and I’m so glad he did! He is the ringleader and a contributor to the University of Auckland statistics department blog StatsChat, and his personal blog, Biased and Inefficient, has some not-quite-Stats-Chattable posts that can be a lot of fun. Last time I wrote about statistics blogs, I found a great one to follow. Will lightning strike twice?

Image: xkcd.

Image: xkcd.

Lumley is particularly interested in the way the media reports medical statistics. Recently, he wrote about the cancer study that has been going around with headlines like “Most Cancers May Simply Be Due to Bad Luck.” He also expands on some of the data in a supplemental post on Biased and Inefficient. Overall, he is critical of the hype but says that the study itself was important.

In contrast, some of the articles he discusses are quite silly: using lipstick during pregnancy, charging your cellphone in your bedroom (if you are a rat and the cell phone is the absence of melatonin), and eating chocolate to help your memory. It’s a bit depressing to see the same errors over and over, but the critiques can be enlightening and funny. I also appreciate his interesting comments about data visualization. Caution: last link includes objects that look like 3-d pie charts (but aren’t) adorning a tree for no apparent reason. Click at your own risk.

Another statistics blog I’ve been reading lately is A Little Stats, written by statistics teacher Amy Hogan. I particularly enjoyed her recent post about a few of the words she thinks can be stumbling blocks to people who are trying to “translate” statistics back into their normal vocabulary. She highlighted percent, which was timely for me, having just been annoyed by someone using “percent” for numbers smaller than 100, a practice I find unhelpful and somewhat deceptive. Hogan doesn’t mention that issue specifically, but I think her comments about some of the other potential pitfalls of percentages are helpful. In the wrong hands, percentages can be very misleading.

It never would have occurred to me to include age on a list of tricky statistics concepts. Age is pretty straightforward, right? Hogan writes, “If someone is 19 years old, for example, it can be confusing as to whether that means the person has finished their 19th year of life or is starting it. Sometimes people round ages, often if asked about the age of a relative. This is further complicated because in different languages how one says his/her age varies. While I don’t think that the true definition of age varies too greatly, good surveys avoid this issue by asking people for their birth date.” It’s such an easy fix, but it’s one I wouldn’t have thought to do.

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In Memoriam

Last week, I was shocked to learn of the unexpected death of Tim Cochran, a topologist from my grad school alma mater, Rice University. In addition to being a well-respected mathematician, he was an advocate for women and other underrepresented groups in mathematics and a beloved advisor to his many students. Since hearing the news, many of my friends have posted their remembrances of Tim, and it is clear that he cared about helping his students and colleagues find their way not only mathematically but also personally. Daniel Moskovich wrote a post about knot concordance in memory of Tim on the Low Dimensional Topology blog. It’s hard for me to imagine the Rice math department without him.

In the rest of this article, I am collecting posts about some of the other mathematicians who passed away this year.

Alexander Grothendieck, who passed away on November 13 at the age of 86, was the most famous mathematician who died this year. The combination of his profound mathematical brilliance and his political activism and eventual withdrawal from society made him a legendary figure in mathematics. David Bruce and Peter Woit were two of the first English-language bloggers to write about Grothendieck’s passing, with short posts containing links to other information about him. Steve Landsburg also wrote two posts about Grothendieck and his mathematics shortly after his death, and Ken Regan’s tribute is a blend of biography, philosophy, and mathematics. Grothendieck was known for making the mathematics he worked on as general and abstract as possible, and his work is quite difficult for even other mathematicians to understand. Recently, David Mumford posted an obituary he and John Tate wrote for Nature that attempted to describe not only the man but also some of his math; however, the article was deemed too technical for Nature, and it was rejected.

Lee Lorch passed away this February at 98. Like Grothendieck a politically active mathematician, he remained in society and worked for desegregation in several different communities where he lived. He taught many of the first African Americans to earn PhDs in math. Unfortunately, some of the institutions where he worked—and the House Committee on Un-American Activities—did not appreciate his activism, and he was pushed out of several jobs in the US before getting a post at the University of Alberta and eventually settling at York University in Toronto. York science librarian John Dupuis has a remembrance of Lorcho that includes links to other information about the remarkable man. JoAnne Growney also wrote a post on her math poetry blog in memory of Lorch. It concludes with “The Locus of a Point,” a lovely poem by Lillian Morrison.

Italian math educator Emma Castelnuovo passed away in April at age 100. I have only been able to find posts about her in Italian, but the IMU recently named an award for “outstanding achievements in the practice of mathematics education” after her.

Ken Regan and Dick Lipton wrote touching remembrances of mathematician Ann Yasuhara and computer scientist Susan Horowitz, both of whom died on June 11th. Like all their posts, these articles do an excellent job of telling us about both the people and their work.

I learned about Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw, mathematician and politician, in 2012, the year she turned 100. Sadly, she passed away in August at 101. I found her story very moving. She dealt with some very difficult circumstances but seemed to be resilient and optimistic through it all. Her autobiography, written at age 93, describes someone who never stopped being curious.

UCLA mathematician Geoff Mess also passed away in August. Danny Calegari remembered him with a post about groups quasi-isometric to planes, the subject of one of Mess’s most important papers.

If you have written or know of a blog post about a mathematician I have neglected to include, please share it. If you would like to learn more about mathematicians who have passed away recently, the AMS maintains an “in memory of…” page.

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Can Specifications Grading Cure What Ails My Syllabus?

An alternative grading system. Image: Sage Ross, via Flickr.

An alternative grading system. Image: Sage Ross, via Flickr, h/t Robert Talbert.

I love teaching, and I hate grading. I know I’m not the only one. This semester, my math history course posed new grading challenges to me. Grading writing assignments is much more subjective than grading traditional math homework and tests, and the wide range of prior experience (some students’ most advanced math class was calculus 1, and some have taken abstract algebra or topology) proved a challenge for the math-heavy assignments. I have never been completely satisfied with my grading systems, but this semester convinced me that I really need to rethink my approach.

As Robert Talbert wrote in a recent post about grading, “Traditional grading systems work against my goals as a teacher.” Because this was a writing course, editing and revision were important parts of the process. I felt good about the way my feedback helped students improve their work, but I felt like assigning points was petty and antithetical to the collaborative atmosphere I wanted to create.

Enter specifications grading. Last month, specifications grading started popping up in my blog feed. Specifications grading is based on a recent book by Linda Nilson, founding director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University. Talbert interviewed Nilson on his blog, Casting Out Nines. The basic idea of specifications grading is that the syllabus for a class will outline exactly what students need to do to get a desired grade, be it a D or an A, and all assignments are graded pass/fail. Students who want to get a higher grade will have to do more and possibly better work, but all students will have to do acceptable work on some assignments in order to pass the class. Nilson also advocates giving students “tokens” at the beginning of the semester that can be exchanged for an extension or a second chance on an assignment.

Talbert and T.J. Hitchman had a Google hangout on the subject of specifications grading that is now available on YouTube. One thing Talbert said that stood out to me was, “You have students basically opting in to the grade and the work load that they want to take on.” That opting in is what appeals most to me about specifications grading. Some students just want to pass a class, and some want to get an A. In practice, at least for classes I’ve taught using traditional grading schemes, this means that the students who just want to pass do a mediocre job on all the assignments. Wouldn’t it be better if students had to do acceptable or even good work on the assignments they chose to do but could choose which assignments to do? Then I wouldn’t waste my time pushing and prodding students who aren’t interested in putting forth the effort necessary to get a high grade.

I have been thinking about using standards-based grading for a while, but the endless cycles of reassessment that Hitchman mentions in the hangout have been deterring me. I’m sure this is about my struggles to think creatively about standards-based grading, but specifications grading just feels more straightforward to implement. Bret Benesh wrote an interesting post comparing specifications grading as he understands it to the system he currently uses, which he calls accumulation grading, and I think his experience will help guide me as I start to think about reassessing my assessment method. I’ve checked Nilson’s book out of the library, and I hope to incorporate specifications grading into my courses next semester. I know that it will not be a magic bullet, but I think the ideas will help me create a syllabus that better serves both me and my students.

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Not-So-Confident Intervals

Here is a test for you. Let’s say 300 mathematicians were polled concerning how many hours of TV they watch per week. What does it mean to say that a 95% confidence interval for the average number of hours of television watched by a mathematician per week is the interval from 1 to 3 hours? Here are some reasonable sounding answers…

  • 95% of mathematicians watch from 1 to 3 hours of TV per week
  • There is a 95% probability that the average number of hours of TV watched by all mathematicians is between 1 to 3 hours
  • If 100 similar polls were conducted, the average number of hours of TV watched by a mathematician will lie within the interval from 1 to 3 approximately 95 times.

Whatever your answer to the question above, think about whether it is equivalent to the following correct answer: the PROCESS used to create the confidence interval has a 95% chance of success—that is, there is a 95% probability that whatever interval is created through this process will contain the true average. While it is conceivable (but unlikely) that I could find enough mathematicians to replicate my experiment 100 times, I’m still not sure what this tells me since I may get (possibly very) different upper and lower bounds for the confidence interval each time I perform the experiment.

I probably sound kind of like a really annoying Sophomore by now, but here is my honest question: what is the most reasonable way to practically use confidence intervals? Along these lines, it seems that psychologists are strongly considering using alternative methods (to the currently accepted significance level) for reporting the results of their experiments. Under consideration is the reporting of confidence intervals, which do not rely on null hypothesis testing.

I guess one question is – is this mainly a problem with education in that people don’t know what a confidence interval is, or is it that the measurement itself is not serving the purpose that most people have come to use it for

So hopefully you have some ideas for me, and maybe now someone will be inspired to conduct a survey on TV-watching habits of mathematicians at the next JMM’s.

These reflections are all inspired by:

1) Alex Etz, a UT graduate student at The Etz-Files: Blogging About Science, Statistics, and Brains — Nov. 16th and Nov. 20th posts entitled Can Confidence Intervals Save Pyschology? http://nicebrain.wordpress.com/2014/11/16/can-confidence-intervals-save-psychology-part-1/

2) From my friend Suz Ward at AIR — July post entitled Confident or Credible? Two Metrics of Uncertainty for Decision Making  http://www.air-worldwide.com/Blog/Confident-or-Credible–Two-Metrics-of-Uncertainty-for-Decision-Making/

3) Christian Jarrett at the BPS Research Digest– Nov. 14th post entitled Reformers say psychologists should change how they report their results, but does anyone understand the alternative? http://digest.bps.org.uk/2012/08/phew-made-it-how-uncanny-proportion-of.html

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You Were on the Moon: Astropoetry from Tychogirl

After my last post about one-syllable math, I tried my hand at a proof of the math fact of Rolle in short words. The constraints and focus on words themselves got me thinking about mathematics in a way I usually don’t: is “length” or “range” a better one-syllable description of a bounded interval? One thing led to another, and soon friends were sharing not only their monosyllabic proofs but also their sonnets about the Bolzano-Weierstrass theorem and Euclid’s definition of same ratio. My love for mathematical poetry is well documented, but today I want to share one of my favorite poetry blogs that isn’t about math.

Christine Rueters: "Spectators on a Florida beach await the launch of Apollo 11."

Christine Rueter: “Spectators on a Florida beach await the launch of Apollo 11.”

Don’t get too worried: it’s about astronomy, and the two disciplines have a long history together. Mathematics is certainly necessary for astronomy, and astronomy motivated the development of much mathematics. With that justification, I’d like to introduce you to tychogirl by Christine Rueter. Her poetry combines images from space with spare, arresting text.

"Text from an old Sir Walter Scott novel redacted into a poem. Photo at right is a sunset on Mars taken by the Mars rover Spirit in 2005. Image credit: Mars Exploration Rover Mission, Texas A&M, Cornell, JPL, NASA."-Christine Rueters.

Christine Rueter: “Text from an old Sir Walter Scott novel redacted into a poem. Photo at right is a sunset on Mars taken by the Mars rover Spirit in 2005. Image credit: Mars Exploration Rover Mission, Texas A&M, Cornell, JPL, NASA.”

Rueter often make scenes from the history of space exploration visceral. This one, written in honor of the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission that landed on the moon, just grabbed me.

Poem typed onto an Apollo 11 image gallery. (Photos credit: NASA). Image: Christine Rueters.

Christine Rueter: “Poem typed onto an Apollo 11 image gallery. (Photos credit: NASA)”

Rueter has posted recently about Philae’s landing on a comet and the spacecraft and rovers that are exploring the solar system where we can’t.

Christine Rueter: “Spacecraft and rovers from Earth to upper right: Hubble Space Telescope (image credit: NASA), lunar rover Yutu (image credit: China space), Mars rover Curiosity (image credit: NASA/JPL), Cassini (image credit: NASA/JPL), Rosetta (image credit: ESA, image by AOES Medialab), New Horizons (image credit: NASA), Voyager (image credit: NASA), and Pioneer (image credit: NASA).”

As with all poetry, I can’t explain what I love about Rueter’s work, but it sometimes gives me goosebumps. So I hope you’ll pardon the digression from mathematics and take a look at tychogirl.

Christine Rueter: "A poem for the European Space Agency’s lander, Philae, that landed successfully on Comet 67P on November 12, 2014. Background image credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA."

Christine Rueter: “A poem for the European Space Agency’s lander, Philae, that landed successfully on Comet 67P on November 12, 2014. Background image credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA.”

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Simple Words, Complicated Math

Part of the up-goer five. Image: Randall Munroe, xkcd.com. Click for full comic.

Part of the up-goer five. Image: Randall Munroe, xkcd.com. Click for full comic.

A couple years ago, xkcd described the Saturn V rocket (Up Goer 5) using only the thousand ten hundred most common English words. Of course, xkcd readers were eager to try it themselves, and geneticist Theo Sanderson created an online text editor for it. Thus tenhundredwordsofscience and upgoeryourphd were born. Both sites feature attempts by people from all sorts of branches of science to describe their work using only those thousand words.

Last month, David Roberts posted a proof of multiple cardinalities of infinity using only one-syllable words to the n-Category Café. Like the up-goer five challenge, the one-syllable exercise is part Oulipo and part math/science communication. The requirements are strictly enforced, leading to circumlocutions that would be clearer with a little more flexibility. (“The small round thing that passes through the sky every night as it moves around us” is not clearer than “moon,” but “moon” is 1809 on the list of most common words, so it doesn’t pass the up-goer 5 test.) You can get away with a little more with the one-syllable challenge, but it’s still tough.

The comments on the post and the related Google+ post have some good examples of mathematics written in one-syllable words or with other constraints: cartoon proofs, proofs in verse, proofs without the letter ‘e,’ and so on. I am also reminded of the (sadly dormant) @ProofinaTweet and @TinyProof Twitter accounts.

The constraints are fun to play with, and they’ve helped me think about the difference between using simple or short words and actually making a concept easier to understand. The Simple English Wikipedia is designed to have articles that are more accessible to children and adults who are learning English than the regular English Wikipedia articles are. There are guidelines, not rules, that help authors make their ideas easier for English learners. Authors are encouraged to use the 850 words on the Basic English list, but they shouldn’t adhere to that limitation if doing so results in more confusion. Flexibility is important for clarity.

When writing about math and science, people with technical backgrounds are often encouraged to avoid jargon, and in general, that’s sound advice. But sometimes, it’s better to explain the word homotopy and then use it in an article than to say “deformation of one thing into another thing without cutting it” twelve times. (By the way, that’s the Simple English Wikipedia explanation of homotopy, and it’s pretty good, isn’t it?) Jargon has a place not only in communication between experts in the same field but also in popular science writing. But it is a hurdle for readers, and I think it’s a good idea to approach it with caution. The up-goer five and one-syllable challenges feel like extreme versions of a no-jargon challenge. (OK, maybe not if you study stacks, sheaves, or schemes.)

After my recent post on higher homotopy groups, a jargon diet is probably a good idea. I didn’t participate in the up-goer 5 challenge, but the one-syllable just short words math challenge task sounds more interesting to me. I haven’t decided what proof I’m going to monosyllable-ize yet, but I will be participating. I’m interested to see what other people do with it as well. Feel free to share your contributions in the comments here, at the n-category Café, or on your own blog.

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Highly Unlikely Triangles and Other Beaded Mathematics

I first encountered Gwen Fisher’s work at the fiber arts exhibit at the 2014 Joint Mathematics Meetings in Baltimore. Fisher has a Ph.D. in math education and is an accomplished mathematical artist who specializes in beading. I featured one of her pieces (a beaded group of order 18) in an article I wrote about the fiber arts show. Since then, I’ve been following her blog at her website gwenbeads. She posts about her mathematically inspired beadwork and often includes explanations of the underlying mathematics.

A beaded "highly unlikely triangle." Image copyright Gwen Fisher. Used with permission.

A beaded “highly unlikely triangle.” Image copyright Gwen Fisher. Used with permission.

The bead that caught my eye most recently is the “highly unlikely triangle,” based on the “impossible triangle,” or “Penrose triangle,” that shows up in many M.C. Escher works. Fisher’s triangles are not actually impossible, but they do seem to twist around in an unlikely way. A link from that post led me to Borromean linked beaded beads and a highly unlikely hexagon! She’s also made beaded beads named in honor of mathematicians Harold Coxeter and John Conway.

A beaded snub tetrapentagonal tiling of the hyperbolic plane. Image copyright Gwen Fisher. Used with permission.

A beaded snub tetrapentagonal tiling of the hyperbolic plane. Image copyright Gwen Fisher. Used with permission.

Hyperbolic geometry enthusiasts (like me!) will probably enjoy Fisher’s post about beaded tilings of the hyperbolic plane. Like crochet, it seems that beading can allow for a slight increase in area around vertices that distributes the negative curvature of the hyperbolic plane in an even—and very visually appealing—way. Fisher has beaded several different tilings of the hyperbolic plane: the {4,5} tiling (5 squares around every vertex) and the rhombitetrahexagonal and snub tetrapentagonal tilings, both of which use multiple shapes. I think the prettiest one is the snub tetrapentagonal tiling made of pink pentagons, yellow squares, and green triangles shown above.

The Genie Bottle at Burning Man. Image copyright Gwen Fisher. Used with permission.

The Genie Bottle at Burning Man. Image copyright Gwen Fisher. Used with permission.

I’ve just finished helping out with a level 2 Menger sponge build as part of MegaMenger, so I’ve also been interested in Fisher’s posts about the Genie Bottle she and her group Struggletent built at Burning Man this year. It was a giant, furnished, climbable sculpture. It was also ephemeral, spectacularly going up in flames at the end of the event. I’m tired from just a few days spent folding business cards for our Menger sponge. I’m in awe of how much effort went into the Genie Bottle!

The Genie Bottle goes up in flames at Burning Man. Image copyright Gwen Fisher. Used with permission.

The Genie Bottle goes up in flames. Image copyright Gwen Fisher. Used with permission.

In addition to the blog, Fisher has an etsy shop where she sells tutorials for many of her designs as well as beads, hats, jewelry, and other items she makes. She also runs a business called beAd Infinitum with fellow mathematician Florence Turnour. All of her sites are interesting if you’re into math, art, and making things!

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Blogging in Math (History) Class

Plimpton 322, the Babylonian mathematical text that started off our math history class. Image: public domain, via wikimedia commons.

Plimpton 322, the Babylonian mathematical text that started off our math history class. Image: public domain, via wikimedia commons.

I am teaching a math history class this semester, and in addition to trying to teach my students math and history, the course satisfies an upper-level writing credit. It’s a lot to try to cram into one three-hour course! With 40 students enrolled at the beginning of the semester (enrollment has dropped a bit since then, but it’s still large), I wasn’t sure how to get my students doing a significant amount of writing, give them meaningful feedback, and let them revise their work without burying myself in a mound of paper every time an assignment was due.

In part because of that concern and in part because I like blogging, I decided to start a class blog. I have a rolling deadline system that keeps the flow of new writing somewhat manageable, and doing everything online means I can easily email comments and suggestions to my students. Now that the semester is about a third of the way through, almost all of my students have written at least one post for the blog, and I think it’s time to share it with you.

The blog is called 3010tangents because the course number for our class is math 3010, and the posts on the blog should be at least tangentially related to topics we cover in class. We started the course talking about how we write numbers, so we have some posts up there about different base systems, including an impassioned plea to switch to dozenal and an exploration of a binary monetary system in the Book of Mormon. (The religious text, not the musical.) Subsequent classes have touched on a lot of different topics, and my students’ posts reflect that. They have written about Euler, Ramanujan, Noether, al-Khwarizmi, and Zhao Shuang. They have also written about art, religion, limits, and women in math. And of course, the perennial question of whether math is invented or discovered has gotten some treatment.

One of the reasons I started the blog was to get students who are interested in math teaching and communication involved in the wider online mathematics community, so I hope some of you will stop by and give them (kind, helpful) comments on their posts or read and share them. You might even learn a little something about math history!

This is my first time running a class blog, and I am keeping track of what goes well and not so well about the experience. I’m sure I’ll write more about blogging in a math class when all is said and done.

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e is for Ebola

A recent NPR blog features a few quotes emphasizing a math word that is lamentably absent from many readers’ vocabularies: “It’s spreading and growing exponentially,” President Obama said Tuesday. “This is a disease outbreak that is advancing in an exponential fashion,” said Dr. David Nabarro, who is heading the U.N.’s effort against Ebola. I can’t help but feel sad that the occasion for someone to learn about the term “exponential” might be directly linked to Ebola. I would hope instead that it would pertain to the growth of their earnings in a bank account, or the growth curve of some formerly endangered species as it recovers.

However, it is exciting to see some coverage of the “basic reproduction ratio”, R_0 , and a plethora of graphs aimed at showing the variety of scenarios that might unfold in West Africa. Amy Greer at Math.Epi.Lab is one of the researchers using the IDEA (incidence decay and exponential adjustment) model to regularly update predictions as to when this outbreak will reach its peak.

Evolution of the basic reproduction ratio and the control parameter d in the IDEA model for incidence

Evolution of the basic reproduction ratio R_0 and the control parameter d in the IDEA model for incidence

Currently, the IDEA estimate is that in December of this year, the number of cases will peak at around 13,000. Dr. Greer sees the total number of cases due to this outbreak as easily reaching 20,000. In one of her posts, she posts the evolving value of R_0, a nice reminder that this is a dynamic parameter that is estimated using Estimation Theory. In this graphic, the control parameter d “controls” the weight of the mitigating measures in reducing incidence.

Data on Ebola has been provided by the World Health Organization to the general public, and Caitlin Rivers, a computational epidemiologist at Virginia Tech, is making this data more accessible. Ms. Rivers titles her Ebola-related posts #HackEbola, and a quick twitter search shows others using the hashtag as well. World Health Organization more accessible. And her most recent post looks at the data concerning follow-ups with those who have come in contact with someone infected with Ebola.

My favorite math and epidemiology blog so far has been Musings on Infection, in which computational epidemiologist David Hartley ponders various infectious diseases, but especially focuses, in his last half a dozen posts and on his twitter feed, on Ebola. In his post “Epidemiology and behavior in the time of Ebola”, Hartley points us at some great articles, and gives some food for thought, including the possibility that Ebola could become endemic due to the distrust between healthcare workers and the local population. It is interesting to see how different estimates are holding up. Looking back, one of the earlier studies that Hartley references on a September 02 post entitled “Why Model Infectious Disease”, the graphic from physicist Alessandro Vespignani’s paper predicted the number of cases today to be between about four and eleven thousand. Indeed, the current number of cases is 6,500 according to the CDC, which is well within Vespignani’s range.

Alessandro Vespignani's research as featured in Science Insider on August 31st

Alessandro Vespignani’s research as featured in Science Insider on August 31st

The ability to isolate currently infected individuals and follow up with those who have been exposed will play a huge role in determining the evolution of the “effective reproductive number” – the number of individuals that are actually infected by each currently infected person. So I leave you with a tool that you might consider using with your students or just play with for your own edification. The game VAX, developed by Phd candidate Ellsworth Campbell, is a great way to get a feel for how disease can spread through a network depending on the connectivity of the network and the ability to vaccinate those who are healthy (not yet a possibility for Ebola) and quarantine those who are infected.

VAX game screenshot

VAX game screenshot

Hope all of this helps to better inform you as to some of the mathematics involved in helping to analyze the current situation in West Africa. Please let me know if you have a favorite blog that discusses mathematics and epidemiology.

Posted in Applied Math, Biomath, Math Education, Mathematics and Computing, people in math, Statistics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

First Impressions of the Second Heidelberg Laureate Forum

Last year, I wrote with some envy about the first annual Heidelberg Laureate Forum. This year, I’m there! I mean, here! Yes, after several flights and a few train delays, I’m finally in Heidelberg, and if the fog clears and drizzle dissipates, the surroundings will be beautiful!

A panorama photograph of Heidelberg. Image: Coolgarriv, via Flickr.

A panorama photograph of Heidelberg. Image: Coolgarriv, via Flickr.

The Heidelberg Laureate Forum is a chance for stodgy old Turing, Abel, Nevalinna, and Fields laureates to get an infusion of fresh ideas from the 200 young math and computer science researchers who graciously agreed to attend. Or maybe it’s a chance for 200 fresh-faced, eager young mathematicians and computer scientists to take in some of the wisdom of the laureates who graciously agreed to attend. Either way, it will be a chance for mathematicians and computer scientists to network not only within their respective groups but across the aisle, as it were.

The opening ceremony for the meeting was Sunday night. I don’t know whether the highlight was the reappearance of the odds-defying saxophone quartet that John Cook wrote about last year or International Mathematical Union president Ingrid Daubechies’ joke that mathematics is a very old profession, but of course not the oldest profession. Two themes of the opening comments by organizers were about speaking slowly to communicate well and about using our powers for good, especially in the case of computer science, where as we have seen recently (hi NSA, what’s up? Nothing to see here…), computer security can have very serious consequences. As Alexander Wolf, president of the Association of Computing Machinery, which awards the Turing Prize, pointed out, these cautions about computer science represent something of a victory: the benefits of computing are so widespread and obvious that they are just taken for granted. It is hard to imagine a world without them.

From the look of the program, we are in for a lot of outstanding talks this week. Personally, I hope to get a better feel for some of the big ideas in computer science from some of the speakers. But we all know that a lot of the real benefit of a meeting is what happens between talks and on excursions. I’m looking forward to making connections during those in-between times!

This year, the meeting has both a German and an Engligh blog. I’ll be blogging (in English) while I’m at the meeting, so you can find me over there. I might even livetweet a few of the talks, so you can also follow me on Twitter if you’re not already. The hashtag for the meeting is #hlf14. Tschüss!

This blog post originates from the official blog of the 2nd Heidelberg Laureate Forum (HLF) which takes place in Heidelberg, Germany, September 21 – 26, 2013. 24 Abel, Fields, and Turing Laureates will gather to meet a select group of 200 young researchers.

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