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Do You Know....

In the January/February (2014) issue of the magazine Discover, the headlines were clear: "100 Top Stories of 2013." My curiosity was captured.

Out of the 100 "top stories," how many of them were about mathematics? Feel free to make a guess....

And now, what significant mathematics discoveries do you think were being reported on as "top stories"? Again, feel free to take a guess (though a guess at this stage is much harder than coming up with a number between 1 and 100).

The reality of the situation is disappointing, and says something about the stautus of mathematical news amongst the general public. The views of the latter are shaped by magazines such as Discover.

Two articles were about mathematics...that's right, 2 out of 100:

  • Number 7 on the List: The combined efforts of Yitang Zhang (University of New Hampshire) and Harald Helfgott (Ecole Normale Superieure) to resolve long-standing problems involving prime numbers, the Twin Prime Conjecture and Goldbach's Conjecture respectively....neither was resolved, just partial steps forward....
  • Number 39 on the List: Research by Elizabeth Brannon etal (Duke University) suggested that one's "in born" number sense is linked to his/her subsequent symbolic mathematical ability, so improvement via instruction in one area directly impacts the other.
That's all of the significant work that they could find in mathematics? How disappointing! No wonder few care....

The situation becomes more discouraging when you read about the other 98 "top stories." Admittedly, some are significant and/or news-worthy...#1 is reports on signs of life on Mars, #5 is new success with stem cell generations, #69 is the creation of Google Glass, etc.

But, some are rather trivial in comparison, yet made the list. For example, #74 is the creation of the new radiocative element Ununpentium (Number 115 on Atomic Charts)...it existed only once and for only a fraction of a second, then decayed.

And even worse, #98 was the reporting of the falling drop of tar pitch at Trinity College. With a viscosity 2 million times greater than honey, a drop occurs only once every decade.

The positive thought...is that another drop of tar pitch will not occur for the next nine years, so maybe mathematics can be part of three "top stories" next year!