Hollywood space flicks typically feature one type of hero: astronauts who defy the odds to soar into space and back again. But now a group of behind-the-scenes heroes from the early days of the U.S. space program are getting their due. Black female mathematicians performed essential calculations to safely send astronauts to and from Earth’s surface — in defiance of flagrant...
When Christian Agrillo runs number-related experiments in his lab, he wishes his undergraduate subjects good luck. For certain tests, that’s about all he says. Giving instructions to the people would be unfair to the fish.
Agrillo, of the University of Padua in Italy, is finishing up several years of pitting humans against fish in trials of their abilities to compare quantities. He can’t...
If scientists had sacred objects, this would be one of them: a single, closely guarded 137-year-old cylinder of metal, housed in a vault outside of Paris. It is a prototype that precisely defines a kilogram of mass everywhere in the universe.
A kilogram of ground beef at the grocery store has the same mass as this one special hunk of metal, an alloy of platinum and iridium. A 60-kilogram...
Shayan Oveis Gharan, 30Theoretical computer scientistUniversity of Washington09/21/2016 - 11:04 Computing, Numbers
It’s a problem that sounds simple, but the best minds in mathematics have puzzled over it for generations: A salesman wants to hawk his wares in several cities and return home when he’s done. If he’s only visiting a handful of places, it’s easy for him to schedule his visits to create the shortest round-...
As the saying goes, “It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” The website Metaculus.com aims to make this challenging task easier by harnessing collective wisdom.
Metaculus solicits answers to questions about the future — on topics spanning science, politics and economics — and combines these predictions to infer the likely outcomes. Will 2016 be the hottest year...
The Rev. Thomas Bayes was, as the honorific the Rev. suggests, a clergyman. Too bad he wasn’t a lawyer. Maybe if he had been, lawyers today wouldn't be so reluctant to enlist his mathematical insights in the pursuit of justice.
In many sorts of court cases, from whether talcum powder causes ovarian cancer to The People v. O.J. Simpson, statistics play (or ought to play) a vital role in...
Ask a computer to pick a random number and you’ll probably get a response that isn’t completely unpredictable. Because they are deterministic automatons, computers struggle to generate numbers that are truly random. But a new advance on a method known as a randomness extractor makes it easier for machines to roll the dice, generating truly random numbers by harvesting randomness from the...
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The Seven Pillars of Statistical WisdomStephen M. StiglerHarvard Univ., $22.95
In many realms of science today, “statistical wisdom” seems to be in short supply. Misuse of statistics in scientific research has contributed substantially to the widespread “reproducibility crisis” afflicting many fields (SN: 4/2/16, p. 8; SN: 1/24/15, p. 20). Recently the American Statistical...
Before anybody even had a computer, Claude Shannon figured out how to make computers worth having.
As an electrical engineering graduate student at MIT, Shannon played around with a “differential analyzer,” a crude forerunner to computers. But for his master’s thesis, he was more concerned with relays and switches in electrical circuits, the sorts of things found in telephone exchange...
Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) use their internal clock and the sun to guide them 4,000 kilometers south on their annual fall migration from eastern North America to central Mexico. Scientists have struggled to determine how butterfly brains combine visual cues from the sun with molecular timekeeping in their antennae to make the epic journey.
A new mathematical model can...