Math Convention

Stanford professor Keith Devlin tells Linda Wertheimer about this year's annual Joint Mathematics Meeting and the difference between math and science.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

This week, our math guy, Keith Devlin, is at the joint mathematics meeting in New Orleans. And he joins us now from radio station WWNO. Keith, hi.

KEITH DEVLIN: Hi, good morning, Linda. Nice to be here.

WERTHEIMER: So what happens at a mathematics convention? Do your colleagues pull down the chalkboard and quip out a few giant equations like that numbers guy on TV?

DEVLIN: Yeah. Actually, this is one of the few times where we don't have chalkboards. We have to use overhead projectors or PowerPoint. This is the big annual North American meeting of mathematicians. About 5,000 of us roughly gather every January...

WERTHEIMER: That's terrifying. A terrifying thought.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DEVLIN: It's almost always in a warm climate. And this year, it's warm and sunny - at least today, at New Orleans. It's a four-day meeting. And during that four days, about 1,800 mathematicians will present papers.

WERTHEIMER: Oh, good Lord. Could you give us some details about the big items on the agenda?

DEVLIN: Yeah. I've got the program in front of me, and I thought I'd just read off at random a couple of the talks that are going on. One is called - and this maybe is not such a surprise - called Hurricane Modeling and Katrina. There's actually a lot of talks this year on climate modeling, how we might predict hurricanes, how we might deal with them.

WERTHEIMER: And a wonderful thing if it could be done.

DEVLIN: You know, we're getting better at doing those things, but Mother Nature always has the last laugh. And it's sometimes a rather cynical laugh, I'm afraid. Another talk that I'm looking up is - and brace yourself, because this is not typical of the kind of titles we have -Acceleration of an Iterative Method for the Evaluation of High Frequency Multiples Scattering Effects.

WERTHEIMER: I'm fascinated.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DEVLIN: I have to say, I have a vague sense of what that one's about. But sometimes the audience is maybe five or six people, sometimes as many as a few hundred. There's a little bit of focus on math education. The (unintelligible) government state and federal policy setting. There is some people here from industry and from various unnamed government organizations, like the NSA and CIA...

WERTHEIMER: Mysterious agencies.

DEVLIN: In fact, it's generally believed that the National Security Agency is the largest single employer of Ph.D.'s in mathematics in the world. We don't know for sure, because that's actually a classified piece of information. But it's almost certainly correct.

And the reason the NSA needs so many mathematicians is because what they do primarily is code breaking, and, ever since the days of the Second World War, code breaking has been 99.9 percent mathematics and .1 percent inspiration.

WERTHEIMER: There must be quite a lot of buzz around there that "Science" magazine gave its breakthrough of the year award to a mathematician this year.

DEVLIN: Yeah. That was a conjecture that went back to 1904 by a French mathematician called Henri Poincaré. That was the first time ever that a proof a theorem in pure mathematics has been declared the most significant scientific breakthrough of the year.

The Poincaré Conjecture, in a sense, is a question of physics.

WERTHEIMER: Does that mean that math is a science in the view of this magazine?

DEVLIN: You know, that's one of these eternal questions that people debate - usually not in the coffee bar, but in the alcohol bar in the evenings - as to whether mathematics is an art or a science, whether it's the master of science or the subject of science. The standard definition of science - it makes predictions. You can then test those predictions by performing some kind of an experiment or by measuring something.

If you can't make a prediction that can be tested by looking at the world, the definition goes, then it ain't science. Well, for most mathematics that's not the case. The test for truth in mathematics is whether something has been proved from the basic assumptions you start with. Why then did "Science" declare this scientific breakthrough of the year?

I think, in part, it is about a fundamental question in physics: what is the shape of the universe we live in? Unfortunately, that's the kind of question that physics itself can't answer because we can't perform experiments to determine the answer of that kind of question.

WERTHEIMER: So, Keith, it sounds like you're having a high old time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DEVLIN: We're having a ball here. I don't know if you can tell the excitement in my voice, but this is one of those times in the year where I'm surrounded by 5,000 people who don't think I'm unusual.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: Well, Keith, thanks very much.

DEVLIN: Okay. My pleasure.

WERTHEIMER: Keith Devlin is executive director of the Center for Study of Language and Information at Stanford University. His most recent book is called "The Math Instinct: Why You're a Mathematical Genius Along with Lobsters, Birds, Cats and Dogs."

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