The Once and Future Feature Column

We’re going to look back at the Column’s history, revisit some of our favorite columns, and talk about what comes next. Spoiler alert: We’re recruiting new columnists!

Ursula Whitcher
AMS | Mathematical Reviews, Ann Arbor, Michigan

The number 24 has many charming properties. For instance, it can be written as $4!$ (that is, $24 = 4 \times 3 \times 2 \times 1$), and it is one of the first nonagonal numbers (the number of dots that can be evenly arranged on the sides of a regular nine-sided polygon). This year, 24 has an even more charming feature: the Feature Column is celebrating its 24th birthday (or, if you prefer, the Feature Column is 4!)

nested nonagons with 1 9 and 24 points

The first three nonagonal numbers. From Eric W. Weisstein, “Nonagonal Number.” (MathWorld–A Wolfram Web Resource.)

Loyal readers of the Column may have noticed some recent changes: a new address (https://blogs.ams.org/featurecolumn/), a shiny new banner incorporating artwork by Levi Qışın, and new navigational tools. This month, we’re going to look back at the Column’s history, revisit some of our favorite columns, and talk about what comes next. Spoiler alert: We’re recruiting new columnists! Check out the last section for information about how to get involved.

The First Feature Columns

The Feature Column was founded in 1997. Its goals were to increase public awareness of the impact of mathematics and take advantage of the functionality the then-new World Wide Web offered for sharing pictures through the internet. The Column appeared was before blogs were invented: indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary dates the very first use of the long form “weblog” for a blog-like enterprise to December 1997. By that time, the Column had been running for months.

a brightly colored web of interconnected line segments

A visualization of the 1997 internet, from opte.org. (CC BY-NC 4.0.)

Steven H. Weintraub wrote the first Feature Columns. The early columns were focused on images, including intertwined knots and pictures taken by the Pathfinder Mars rover. Weintraub also took advantage of the internet’s capability to spread news quickly: Feature Columns could be posted right away, rather than adhering to the publication schedule of the AMS Notices or the Bulletin.

photo of a white man with glasses and a beard

Steven H. Weintraub.)

Some of the early columns had an element of adventure. Steven Weintraub recalls:

One that I remember in particular was the September 1988 Feature Column “Prize Winners at the 1998 International Congress of Mathematicians“. The column itself was a listing of the winners of the various prizes, with links to further information about them and their work. But there is a more interesting back story. In 1998 email and the internet were far less widespread than they are today. I attended the 1998 ICM in Berlin, and, feeling like an old-time reporter, as soon as the prize ceremony was over, I rushed out to a phone booth, called up Sherry O’Brien, the AMS staff member with whom I worked with on WNIM (“What’s New in Mathematics”), and told her who the winners were. She promptly posted the information on the AMS website, and that was how many people first found out the news.

Over the course of the next few years, Tony Phillips, Bill Casselman, and Joe Malkevitch took on roles as regular Feature Columnists. They explored the web’s potential for longer columns, serializing some explorations over multiple months. They were later joined by Dave Austin, and eventually by me. For much of the Column’s existence, it was ably edited by Michael Breen, the longtime AMS Public Affairs expert. I took over the editorial role in 2020.

Some Favorite Columns

The Feature Column has always been curiosity-driven. Though individual columns may riff on current events, the underlying mathematics is enduring. Thus, individual columns have enduring popularity: some have been read and re-read for decades. Here are some of our most popular Feature Columns.

  • In 2009, David Austin made a stirring case for a key concept in applied linear algebra: We Recommend a Singular Value Decomposition. Austin illustrates the Singular Value Decomposition with clear diagrams and inviting applications, from data compression to the $\$1$ million Netflix prize.
  • In 2016, Bill Casselman investigated The Legend of Abraham Wald. We’ve all seen the meme: a diagram of a fighter plane, with red marks for bullet holes on the wings and tail, but not the engine. The legend says that Abraham Wald identified this phenomenon as an example of survivorship bias: airplanes with damage in other places did not survive to be measured. Casselman explores what we do and do not know about the real, historical Abraham Wald.
  • diagram of an airplane with red dots concentrated on wings and tail

    Image by Martin Grandjean, McGeddon, and Cameron Moll. (CC 4.0.)

  • In 2004, Joe Malkevitch wrote about Euler’s Polyhedral Formula, describing it as one of his all-time favorite mathematical theorems and also one of the all-time most influential mathematical theorems. Joe Malkevitch’s research focuses on graph theory and discrete geometry, including the properties of polyhedra. His description showcases his expertise, enthusiasm, and long-standing interest in the history of mathematics.
  • In 2008, Tony Phillips described The Mathematics of Surveying. His discussion offers practical, tangible applications for key concepts in school mathematics, from similar triangles to estimated volumes.
  • In the summer of 2020, I (Ursula Whitcher) wrote Quantifying Injustice, describing statistical strategies for assessing predictive policing algorithms. These algorithms can both obscure and magnify police injustices: new research provides tools to identify problems and measure their impact.

New Columnists

We’re looking for mathematicians who are enthusiastic about communicating mathematics in written and visual form to join the Feature Column! The typical commitment is two columns per year, though we occasionally welcome guest columnists. We are particularly excited about involving columnists with a variety of backgrounds and experiences. Please send questions and letters of interest to uaw@ams.org. If you’re ready to apply, include a CV and a writing sample!

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