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Fall 2006 - Column

A Mathematician's View of a AAAS Meeting
David L. Finn

I recently had the opportunity to attend the Annual AAAS meeting in St. Louis during February 2006. For those who have never heard of AAAS, it is the American Association for the Advancement of Science. From their web site (http://www.aaas.org) , "AAAS is an international non-profit organization dedicated to advancing science around the world by serving as an educator, leader, spokesperson and professional association". This includes the mathematical sciences, though membership in AAAS by mathematicians is low (less than 1000) compared to the memberships of AMS (about 31000), MAA (about 27000), and SIAM (about 10000).

The annual meeting of AAAS, at least this past year, was mathematically interesting as the program centered around "Grand Challenges and Great Opportunities". Each annual meeting is centered around a theme. The mathematical part of the meeting covered two days with symposia entitled "Paradise Lost: The Changing Nature of Mathematical Proof", "Million Dollar Mathematics: Challenge Problems in the 21st Century", "How Insects Fly", "Astrodynamics, Space Missions and Chaos", "Tsunamis: Their Hydrodynamics and Impact on People" ,"NUMB3RS and the Challenge of Changing Public Perception of Mathematics", and "Arches: Gateways from Science to Culture".

The mathematical symposia were well attended throughout the meeting. To give a flavor of the symposia and the interest in mathematics at the meeting, let me describe some of my reactions to the symposia on "Paradise Lost" and the questions asked by the audience. Many of the questions asked were from scientists curious about the developments in mathematics and the changes in mathematics especially changes in mathematical proof and how mathematical progress seems to be becoming more similar to scientific progress and how proofs of some mathematical theorems have become more like a research program in science. The symposia started with a description by Keith Devlin on what is usually meant by a proof. Then moved towards the modern research programs and how they differ from the classical view of proof generated by most from Euclidean geometry. Michael Aschbacher described the classification of finite simple groups was described currently estimated at more than 10000 pages in 500 journals by over 100 authors, but may be there are some gaps in the proof. One serious gap has been filled, but are there others? (see http://www.ams.org/notices/200407/fea-aschbacher.pdf) Other interest was generated by Steven Krantz's description of the status of the "Poincare Conjecture" as unclear, at least before the recent papers were published and posted on the Mathematics ArXiv (search on Poincare Conjecture, Perelman or Ricci Flow). Also in this symposia, Tom Hales described the status of the Flyspeck Project, and rigorous computer proofs generated by the unsatisfactory status of his proof of Kepler's Conjecture (cf. http://www.math.pitt.edu/~thales/kepler98/ and http://www.math.pitt.edu/~thales/flyspeck/index.html) and was asked about how computers are used in theoretical mathematics as opposed to scientific investigations. As a mathematician who is aware of some of the particulars in these proofs, it was great to hear the experts explaining them to non-mathematicans instead of mathematicians, I feel I learned more of the big picture than I ever got at a mathematics conference, partly because there were not many mathematicians in the audience.

Most of other symposia drew similar types of questions from the audience who were mostly non-mathematicians. However, the other symposia were more applied in nature (Insect Flight, Tsunamis, Astrodynamics) and drew more technical questions from the audience concerning the scientific part of the mathematical investigations.

The symposia on NUMB3RS drew a large audience, standing room only, partly due scheduling (late afternoon) and to the appearance of both the creative team (producers and writers Nicholas Fallaci and Cheryl Heuton), mathematics advisors (Gary Lorden, Tony Chan and others), and the actor David Krumholtz, who plays Charlie Eppes the mathematical genius helping his brother the FBI agent Don Eppes. During the symposia, besides describing the show, pitching the show, and trying to show mathematics in a positive light on TV, the symposia described the connections between the show NUMB3RS and high school education sponsored by Texas Instruments, more information on this can be found in the article by Martin Golubitsky "Partners in Crime: Math and Prime-Time TV". Questions from the audience covered the spectrum, with questions to David Krumholtz about his mathematical background and how he tries to portray mathematics, to questions about the connection between NUMB3RS and High School Mathematics Education, to questions about the mathematics involved in the show, and how the mathematics is chosen for the show. My best memory of this symposia was hearing David Krumholtz remark that he used to hate mathematics but he nows likes it because it makes sense and is explained passionately and with enthusiasm with practical and commonplace applications. He made particular reference to his explanation of math applicable to everyday in an early episode which connected Fibonacci numbers to flowers and nature. This made higher mathematics make sense to him.

All in all, the meeting was very interesting and joining AAAS was a worthwhile adventure. I originally joined because it was cheaper to attend by becoming a member and there was a special rate for joining and attending. As a member, besides a cheaper registration fee at the meeting, you get the weekly magazine/journal Science that contains besides research articles, information on science policy, and information on science education. This includes trends in research and government funding in a more general science. At the moment, one will not find much direct mathematics in Science but there are many applications of mathematics and some ramifications for mathematics education that do appear in science. For instance, this year there were several news items related to President Bush's National Mathematics Advisory Panel.

At the meeting I talked to Ed Aboufadel the new secretary of Section A of AAAS, the mathematics section, of AAAS who has been a member of AAAS for almost twenty years. His reason for joining AAAS is that he has "broader interests in science other than just mathematics". From his involvement in AAAS, he has gotten ideas for classes in particular for statistics classes for non-majors and misuse of statistics and at least one research paper. His article in the Monthly, " A mathematician catches a baseball " Amer. Math. Monthly 103 (1996), no. 10, 870-878 (the link goes to JSTOR archives for those with access) was motivated by an article in Science by two psychologists. As a bizarre coincidence, I used this article while teaching a mathematical modeling course based around modeling sports and games to great raves by the students.

My conversation with Ed focused for a while on why mathematics seems underrepresented in AAAS. The meeting from the program in St. Louis seemed dominated by the life sciences. This just reflects that AAAS is dominated by the life sciences. Ed said that Section A "needs more mathematical involvement and more ambassadors for math" in AAAS, specifically "if mathematics does not have a loud voice, it does not a have a voice" in AAAS and science in general.

From my experiences at the meeting and being a member for the past six months, I would encourage more mathematicians to join AAAS especially if they are interested in applications of mathematics to science, and if they are more generally interested in science and mathematics as a science.

 

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