Make your opinion known

By Daniel Holz | September 8, 2011 8:49 am

Risa already blogged about James’ Op-Ed piece in the LA Times. We should also mention another excellent Op-Ed piece by an astronomer in the past week: Priya Natarajan discussing math education in the Huffington Post. She starts:

This has been the summer of our numerical discontent.
As a nation, we’ve been riveted by the debates over the debt-ceiling crisis, the credit downgrade, the dizzying ascents and descents of the stock market. But how many people actually understand the numbers they’re watching?

Priya decries the general innumeracy we see everyday, writ large and small. She argues persuasively for an increased focus on math education, especially in light of the current fiscal troubles.

It is critical that the science community reach out to the general public, and opinion pieces in newspapers are an incredibly effective way to do this (blogs aren’t too shabby, either). Op-Eds allow individuals from all walks of life to communicate directly with the public, without being mediated by reporters, radio hosts, or TV producers. And they reach literally millions of people. These two terrific examples from Priya and James will hopefully help encourage other scientists to get involved, and make their opinions known.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and the Media
  • ObsessiveMathsFreak

    I have long been of the opinion that at this point, national debt, income and expenditure figures should be reported using scientific notation. It’s needed at this point.

    For example, instead of $14.7 trillion, the US national debt is written as $1.47 x 10^13.
    And the Irish national debt (est by end of 2011) would be written as ~€1.7 x 10^11 or about $2.3 x 10^11

    Now there are about 3 x 10^8 people in the US and about 4.5 x 10^6 people in Ireland. So you can divide the debts by the populations to get

    approx US debt per captia : $4.9 x 10^4 per person
    approx IRE debt per capita : $5.1 x 10^4 per person

    So you can see that Ireland and the US have about the same indebtedness per capita.

    The is the way that debt figures should now be presented. I say this because words like million, billion, and trillion are all effectively synonymous with “bajillion” for most people. In fact, the business editor of a major national newspaper in Ireland actually still thinks that “billion” 10^9 means a “million millions” or 10^12, a trillion. This is the kind of mistake which can be avoided by writing down the numbers in full, using notations designed for the purpose.

  • Gail Marie

    Please change “everyday” in the second paragraph (“Priya decries the general innumeracy we see everyday…”) to “every day.”

    Everyday = ordinary

    Every day = every single day

  • Chanda

    As a regular LAT reader, I was pleased to see James’ editorial yesterday during my daily read. My only wish is that he had gotten his history of science right — it was Lemaitre, not Hubble, who first discovered the expansion of the universe. My hope is that the US will not forever be remembered for this contribution, at least as it is currently remembered, because it would just mean that we never managed to get our facts straight in the end. Lemaitre deserves credit for being a talented theorist who showed a genuine interest in phenomenology.

  • Doug

    Lemaitre published the principle of the expanding universe and derived the equations, but didn’t have the data to demonstrate that the idea of expansion was correct. Hubble acquired the data to demonstrate the relation (with a pretty large systematic error). I don’t think it’s correct in this manner to say that Lemaitre “discovered” the expansion of the universe.

  • Chanda

    He actually did compare his results with the data, including data that had already been published by Hubble. Unfortunately, for whatever asinine reason, Eddington didn’t include all of the results when he translated Lemaitre’s paper, so it was a while before it was understood that Lemaitre had seen it in the data as well as the theory. This blog entry summarizes it neatly:

    It’s fair to say that Hubble *might* not have known about Lemaitre’s result, since it wasn’t published in English until 1931 and Eddington paraphrased a rather relevant part in his translation.

    Eddington doesn’t come out looking great here — and I already thought he was bad enough for his treatment of Chandra.

  • rgb

    Sorry, I cannot resist deviating from the topic of the post a bit:

    Lemaitre using data to estimate the Hubble constant is indeed an interesting piece of history. So thanks for sharing that.

    On the other hand, I still have a question about this. Did Lemaitre assume his expansion law and estimate the value of what we call the Hubble constant? Or did he actually show that what we call “Hubble’s law” holds for a reasonable data set? I don’t know what he exactly did and it would be interesting to know.

    The latter is what Hubble did, and while coming up with the expanding universe model (and estimating H_0) obviously deserves a lot of credit (people might have personal views on whether it is more or less than discovering the law), it probably would not count as discovering that the universe is expanding.

    Actually, the business editor is not exactly wrong. There are two uses of the word billion (the one used in the US, which you referred to) and another (the US trillion) which is used, I believe, in England (probably Ireland as well). It has to do with what one needs to multiply the million to go to the next number that is named.

    Of course, having different meanings of the word million further underscores your original point about using scientific notation, which I completely agree with.

  • Dirk

    The UK and Ireland are both on short scales for powers of 10, the UK since 1974. See .

  • David Park

    When I read articles like this I feel it is all about obtaining money from Washington D.C. and of course the ideas must also be pleasing to Washington. When it comes to mathematics and physics I find it difficult to believe that no child will be left behind. Do you people actually believe that is a meaningful or realistic goal? Wouldn’t it be better to be honest and think of what might help the upper half or quarter of students, those who might be interested in technical careers. I fail to see how a student can learn mathematics by watching hundreds of short videos. What does that have to do with actually DOING mathematics? I’m not so hot about rote learning either. An educational proposal is probably inversely proportional to the number of times the word “innovate” appears in it.

    I would like to suggest two approaches that I believe have merit, but perhaps not for every student. The first is the Math Circle concept as described in “Out of the Labyrinth: Setting Mathematics Free” by Robert Kaplan and Ellen Kaplan. These people actually get kids thinking about and doing mathematics. But I’ve never had any direct contact with the Math Circles and only know the book description.

    The second is my little pet project. There is a wonderful instrument for teaching mathematics, physics and almost any technical subject in the Mathematica application. It is wonderful because it has a notebook interface that allows the writing of literate documents and it has powerful built-in symbolic, numerical, graphical and dynamic capabilities. Yet I believe that in teaching and education users presently obtain only a tiny fraction of its possible benefits. Most users look upon Mathematica as a “super programmable graphical calculator” or as a “programming language”. I prefer to see Mathematica as a “piece of paper” upon which I am developing and writing my mathematical ideas. It’s a rather magical piece of paper because of its ability to organize and preserve active knowledge. It is also nice because if you follow a strategy of “calculate everything” then you will have a document with a large degree of self-proofing. The mathematician V.I. Arnold in his piece “On teaching mathematics” says: “Every working mathematician knows that if one does not control oneself (best of all by examples), then after some ten pages half of all the signs in formulae will be wrong and twos will find their way from denominators into numerators.” What better instrument is there for “controlling ourselves” than writing in Mathematica?

    Mathematica is such a new medium, 24 years is not a long time and the application has undergone tremendous evolution in recent years, that we have not yet come to grips with it. It is not directly good at teaching a lot of basic mathematics. It has many powerful routines such as Integrate that will do most integrals but will not teach integration techniques. In teaching and in study it is often necessary to bypass these routines and write more basic routines for performing various manipulations used in integrations, and say used in development of physical theories. But Mathematica also provides the capabilities to do this – it just means that someone other than the Wolfram people has to do it.

    If mathematical education was changed to put more emphasis on writing literate documents that do mathematics, then even young students, instead of being left with a test containing some numbers and a grade, would have a piece of work they could be proud of, keep and show to their friends and family.

    It takes considerable time and practice to reach the point that Mathematica (or any comparable medium) is second nature. Students should start learning the basics in secondary school. Think of what an effort it is to learn good writing style, even without mathematics. To just tack Mathematica onto a college course is like teaching literature completely orally for 12 years, then suddenly giving students a computer application containing a dictionary and grammar, and asking them to write an essay on Jane Austen.

    Nor is it at all obvious how best to incorporate the active and dynamic features of Mathematica into tutorials and teaching methods. One can’t just copy static textbook or lecture techniques. Nor are the first obvious ideas likely to be productive. It takes a lot of work and thought. When Edison first invented movies they just went around and photographed anything that moved. It took some time for people to realize they could use this medium to tell a story.

    Well, that’s my say. I feel certain that these ideas will never be developed out of Washington, or supported by Intel. Slogans, bromides and cute “innovation” too much rule the day.

    David Park

  • Chanda

    @rgb, My understanding after surveying the various lit about this a couple of months ago, was that Lemaitre derived the law (H = adot/a) and then decided to check the data to see if it was consistent with the law, found that it was, and published as much. I don’t know whether the data set he used would qualify as a “reasonable” data set, but it included data published by Hubble and Slipher (and someone else whose name is escaping me).

    Anyway, my original point in bringing this up is that I hope that one day we’ll bother to get the story straight (whatever the story is), and that story probably includes Lemaitre. I know it sort of ruins the patriotic narrative, but hopefully scientists can all agree that truth is more important than myth, however convenient the myth may be.

  • rgb

    @Dirk, Thanks … I was unaware of the change. I have heard British people (though now that I think about it, these people all happened to be more than 50 in age) use the other version of billion, and had encountered this usage in books (which were likely published earlier). I therefore tend to get careful about who is saying Billion … one of the reasons why I enthusiastically supported OMF’s original proposal.

    @chanda: Thanks for sharing the fact. I don’t think about it in terms of countries, but we can agree that each person should be credited appropriately.

  • http://telescoper.wordpress.c0m Peter Coles

    In point of fact, the word “billion” actually does mean “a million million”, at least on this side of the Atlantic. That’s why it has the prefix “bi”, actually: a “trillion” was likewise “a million million million”, etc. British dictionaries (e.g. Chambers) still give this meaning of billion first, before mentioning the inferior American billion. A billion always meant a million million when I was a kid. It’s now generally been replaced by the American billion, which I think is a shame, as I rather liked the good old British billion. I do sometimes get asked in popular talks to older audiences whether I mean a thousand million or a million million. I usually reply “10^9”.

    The historical name for “a thousand million” is in fact a “milliard”, not to be confused with a “billiard” which is something completely different.

    I think it was Richard Feynman who complained that people always call huge numbers “astronomical”. In fact astronomers are usually sensible enough to use units in which numbers are never bigger than about a billion (US) or so. It’s only in economics where you get trillions. These should really be called “economical” numbers. But then economists don’t actually want people to understand numbers – that would deprive them of their power.

    P.S. Perhaps the problem in the USA is that people only study “math”? Here in the UK we have “maths”, which is clearly more comprehensive. I don’t see how you can ever hope to understand mathematics if you can’t cope with the idea of a plural.

  • table lamp tiffany

    You know the drill. Pls charge cellphones, lappys, rechargable lamps, and have water and snacks ready.


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