Archive for May 2012
Ah, the joys of editing Wikipedia.
Two days ago, I stumbled over interesting news on the web that a German high schooler, Shouryya Ray, had solved a physics problems posed by Newton that had baffled scientists for centuries. These things interest me, so I read the largely uninformative article and began hunting for more information in the amazingly chaotic font of wisdom that is the internet. What was the problem? Why had it been difficult? What was the solution?
The Wikipedia entry, normally the trusted source for that kind of question, repeated the rather vague descriptions found on the media articles. Mostly human interest stuff about Shouryya Ray’s background, early life, ambitions, and views on mathematics. All nicely sourced to the same media articles, which were all obviously copied from each other, with slight increases in hyperbole. By now, (Monday 29 May) the story has reached the so-called Science and Technology web section of Danish tabloid Ekstrabladet. It has not improved.
What did he do?
A thread at Reddit/mathmatics and a thread at StackExchange mathematics seem to have mostly deduced what Shouryya Ray’s result is over the past few days. A pretty neat (implicit) solution to a differential equation for calculating the trajectory of a particle under certain conditions. Follow the links if you’re interested. This is awesome for a 16-year old high school student, far above what I could have done at that age. Clearly university-level calculus.
He submitted this solution to the annual German youth science contest Jugend forscht, won his regional finals for Saxony, and placed 2nd in the national finals for the category Mathematics and Computer Science. Well done.
What the media got out of it
The source of the rampant media story that followed, as far as my Google skills get me, is an article in the online version of Welt (a normally reputable German paper): 16-jähriges Mathegenie löst uraltes Zahlenrätsel. This appears under Vermischtes, the Misc/Human Interest section of the paper. This article is actually still modest on the hyperbole, only using the formulation that the original problem was formulated by Newton (which, as far as I understand, is true) and “seither ungezählte Mathematiker zur Verzweiflung gebracht haben dürfte”. This translates to “should have brought untold numbers of mathematicians to despair”. Note the conjunctive case dürfte. This is carefully expressed and factually correct: the numbers of mathematicians confounded by the resulting differential equations are indeed ungezählt (uncounted, or untold).
The headline, probably set by somebody else than the journalist Céline Lauer is “16 year old mathematical genius solves ancient maths problem.” This is where the story goes off into lala-land and probably where the excitement starts.
Next stop: the story hits the anglosphere, possibly in the Daily Mail online. Schoolboy ‘genius’ solves puzzles posed by Sir Isaac Newton that have baffled mathematicians for 350 years. The conjunctive case, together with any restraint has gone the way of the Dodo. This is a good story, and nobody cares about the original project, it spreads like wildfire between nonmathematical people. Many of the online sources, those that permit comments, contain isolated genuine questions from interested readers about what the result actually was, but nobody gets any wiser.
What to do? After some soul searching I did the Right Thing and put the Wikipedia article for Shouryya Ray (created three days ago, 27 May) on my watch list, whittling it down to correct, verifiable information. Wikipedia has very well thought out policies about these kinds of things, such as guidelines for Notability of Academics and People notable for only one event.
Of course, once you start doing that, you need to see it through. I’ve been reverting edits from decent, intelligent, friendly, well-intended contributors ever since. All they want is to tell the world about this young genius. And I revert them. It puts me in a foul mood.
At least currently, the page is correct. (Who knows what happened while I typed this.) The comment thread at the Ekstrabladet article, Teenager løste 350 år gammel Newton-gåde, gives me some consolation:
Commenter: that [newspaper] article didn’t tell me much….
Commenter: and why does it say on wikipedia that he got 2nd place???
Commenter: Wikipedia knows EVERYTHING!
Commenter: Wikipedia does know a bit more than Ekstra-bladet, wouldn’t you agree on that?
We’ll see where this ends. What I’m worried about is how this may taint the reputation of Shouryya Ray. He did absolutely nothing wrong. He’s clearly very bright and has a valuable career as an academic in front of him. (We can still hope he switches to Theoretical Computer Science, can’t we?)
He fell victim to wanton publicity, to scientifically illiterate journalists, and people who decide what’s newsworthy with their heart instead of their brain. I dearly wish this does not hurt or discourage him.
We need more people like him. And we need fewer bad journalists. And we need more people like the nerds at Reddit. Another good day for internet forums, another bad day for online versions of old media.
Now back to the life-killing task of reverting Wikipedia edits.
Update (29 May, 19:16)
A journalist worth his salt actually wrote a good description of this: 16-year-old’s equations set off buzz over 325-year-old physics puzzler. Alan Boyle at MSNBC. He actually contacted physicists, all of which are naturally reluctant to comment on this. He cites the Reddit thread, too! Good job, Alan. More of that.
Alas, my fears for Shouryya Ray and Jugend forscht are quite valid:
But a falling body with air resistance (however modeled) is hardly a ‘fundamental unsolved problem,’ as [Ray] seems to think.
These comments, and similar ones pop up all over the net now. As if Ray, or his teachers, or the jurors of Jugend forscht made any such hyperbolic claims. As if they were deluded and didn’t do their job right.
But I can’t find any questionable claims from Ray or his teachers or jurors anywhere, on the contrary. In the interviews, Ray is consistently described as very modest. The rot sets in with the Welt article described above, with the dürfte and the sensationalist headline.
This is a story about journalists. Not about Ray, and not about trajectories.
Except for the downward trajectory of the Daily Mail, maybe. Cheap shot, I know.
Why didn’t anybody tell me?
I remember staring at the first drafts of the MathML definition almost two decades ago and obsessively clicking “reload” for checking the next browser version to implement it. After the web had facilated communication around the globe in various human languages and alphabets, I eagerly awaited support for that single, universal language that made it all work: mathematics.
Alas, it didn’t happen. Since then, I’ve revisited current standards and adoption states for maths on the web every few years. The situation was dismal.
For years, everybody has been able to read, write, and communicate “square root of two” with all kinds of funny squiggles: “roten ur två”, “квадратный корень из двух”, “השורש הריבועי שלשְׁתַּ֫יִם”, “二的平方根”. But try to put the symbol “2” under the radical √ on the web? No way. As the information age progressed, we became unable to communicate in its underlying language, because the web suddenly became the playground of nonmathematical people.
Turns out: instead of bitching about it, somebody solved it. Just like that.
Since recently, it works on Wikipedia! As of May 2012, log in, go to “my preferences”, choose the “appearance” tab, and select MathJax as your default rendering engine for maths at the bottom. Then, go to some page like Tutte Polynomial; and feast your eyes. Increase the font size just because you can!
On the MathJax page you can see which other websites support it. This looks like a very healthy system.
I am an eager public speaker and have several crowd-pleasing talks that I can take off the shelf, say about how Google works. In March, I had the opportunity to record a lecture for Swedish TV’s educational channel Utbildningsradion. That audience is as “general” as it gets, so I wanted it to be broad and accessible. Something everybody immediately relates to. Something concrete and tangible.
What better choice than separation results for nonderministic polynomial-time computation? That’s right! In a fit of misguided ambition I decided to make a 20 minutes talks about honest-to-Karp theory of computation. P versus NP. Also, I did it in my fourth language: Swedish.
Here it is:
I haven’t had the guts to watch it yet, maybe I never will. But as far as I remember, it came out well.
- P and NP are the worst complexity class names ever invented, maybe the worst named concepts in all of science. I found it much easier to talk about Impagliazzo’s five worlds and focus on the dichotomy between Cryptomania and Algorithmica. These are meaty, sexy, fuzzy concepts rich with association and meaning. This is what we should talk about to the public. P and NP are just very cold, different, specific, nerdy instantiations of the same basic question.
- Puzzles are good when explaining algorithms and their absence. I have a bunch of these talks, using paper folding, sudoku, or (as in this case) tiling puzzles. It gives you something tangible in a talk, and when you talk about something as abstract as computational complexity, you need all the tangibility you can get.
- Science Fiction is our friend. I used various tropes from SF to ground the talk in a shared cultural space, and as an underlying theme. Here: the existence of hard artificial intelligence and the Singularity!. (I always say Singularity! in a booming voice. Hence the italics and exclamation point.)
- The Singularity focus (sorry, Singularity! focus) was largely inspired by some transhumanistic alarmism on the blogs of Chalmers maths professor Olle Häggström (Okunnigt om artificiell intelligens och mänsklighetens framtid) and fantasy author R. Scott Bakker (The Posthuman Paradox). For some reason, the Singularity! exerts a strange attraction (ha!) on brilliant people like Olle and Scott. I simply can’t get myself worked up about it, and assume it’s simply the result of nonalgorithmic thinking that assails people who work in formal, possibly even quantitative, but nonalgorithmic settings. (Scott is a philosopher, Olle a statistician.) Alternatively, they could be right and I could be wrong. Still, it’s certainly fun to think about, and a great conduit for evangelising about algorithms to the public. The point of the talk is that the Singularity! is morally equivalent to P = NP. I think I manage to convey this point pretty well, given the constraints of the setting. In some sense, this is the maximally ambitious core of the talk. Neither Olle or Scott will be convinced by the argument, but the production values sure outshine their puny blog entries! Proof by intimidation.
- I think I made the rhetorically correct decision of leaving the talk by moving the dystopias down to Earth in the end, with a bit of “algorithms are everywhere” internet evangelism.
In summary, the Singularity! is far. But then, the time-travelling nanobots paid me to say that, promising me a simulated eternity filled with cybervixens and Nutella.
Edit to add: I have been informed that I shouldn’t say “NP-hårt” in Swedish, but “NP-svårt.” Thanks, these things are beyond my linguistic intuition.
Related: Views of Impagliazzo’s Five Worlds.
In fact, the epithet comes from a poster for a panel debate about the blessings of the Internet arranged by the Social Sciences at Lund University, Debatt i Lund. I was really happy to be invited and had a good time; I hope this sets a precedent for more involvement of academics from the technical and natural sciences. The nerds.
In preparing for the debate, I spent some time reading or re-reading a few general-audience books about various societal aspects of the Internet, including the relatively recent The Filter Bubble and Program or be Programmed. I remain impressed by Blown to Bits, which combines a minimal amount of alarmism with an honest ambition to actually explain what is going on. It’s written by nerds, so the facts are correct. For nonspecialists, this should be the one book to read.
I also refreshed some sociological aspects. As a newly minted public intellectual I feel it behooves me to drop Foucault into conversation at regular intervals, instead of my usual spiel of an intertextual hodgepodge of Star Trek, Monty Python, and fantasy novels.
Foucault is topical because of his treatise on discipline and punishment that includes a famous description of modern society in terms of prison architecture. This design goes back to the English utilitarianist Jeremy Bentham and is called the Panopticon: the prison is circular, with a centrally placed warden able to inspect all the cells on the perimeter. This is clever not so much for the actual surveillance, but for the inmate’s constant knowledge of being potentially watched. It’s a correction facilty by design.
Foucault uses this design to make some point about modern society, with several institutions (such as schools) playing the role of the warden. This is good stuff; I had a chance to reacquaint myself with these notions recently when reading the spectacular The Judging Eye by R. Scott Bakker. (Fantasy novel reference duly dropped.)
As with all dystopias, Foucault’s Panopticon is of course an old hat by now. We’re living it, just as the London of Orwell’s 1984 is in fact the London of today. Some media theorists have taken Foucault’s Panopticon to the next level and speak of a Panspectron to describe our society: instead of us surrounding a centrally placed warden who sees us, we’re now surrounded by countless sensors that measure us in many other ways than just optically. I think Branden Hookway is the one to read about this. (Which I haven’t done.)
While I think this is a valid concept, I’m not too fond of the name. Panspectron. It’s basically the same word as Panopticon, with Latin replacing the Greek.
Thus, wearing my “public intellectual” mantle (which is, in fact, just a well-poured glass of Scotch) I will release a new word into memetic space that I find superior to Panspectron. Here it comes:
Panmnemonicon n. 1. A device or set of devices that records and stores everything. 2. A society operating under the influence of such a device.
Panmnemonicon translates to something like “all-remembering”, which I think is the point of our brave new world. After all, nobody actually watches you or me; mostly because nobody cares about you or me. Instead, everything is stored with the possibility of later being retrieved and mined, should you or I suddenly become interesting. That’s the worrying point, and the one that has potential impact on behaviour.
So there it is. A new word minted. Remember it, as it surely will remember you.
At the time of writing, Panmnemonicon has a total of 0 hits on Google. Panspectron does have some hits, but not enough for me to Google Trend it. We’ll see how it goes. It’s so on, Panspectron.