Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

Numeri (Numbers) Plate, Laura de Santillana, 1977

Neither snow nor cold nor gloom of night shall stay this blogger from the swift completion of his appointed rounds. Braving the polar vortex, Anne and I first did our Gyrotonic workout and then continued on to Science on Tap. Liberty Vittert, a visiting professor from Glasgow in Mathematics and Statistics was the night’s speaker. Her talk was entitled, How to Win the Lottery and Get Away with Murder. Here she is via YouTube giving the TEDx version of this talk.

With our previous exercise, we arrived later than normal, but Joanie had our table ready and Pat just beat us there. The usual hosts were absent due to a family emergency and without their tutelage the venue’s flakey AV systems reared their awful heads and plagued Dr. Vittert’s talk. She straight off wrecked my planned question, “Which high school did you go to?” Growing up in Saint Louis, she knew that such a question would be code for who are you. Burroughs indicates that she was a local high flyer. 

The gist of her talk was that we can defend ourselves from the chronic misuse of statistics through common sense. The get away with murder portion of the title comes from the OJ Simpson trial. In it, one of the defense lawyers argued that only one in 1/2500 of women who are abused, were murdered by their abuser and you can’t convict on a 1/2500 chance. A more correct way of viewing it is that nine out of ten women who are murdered by a spouse had been abused. The police have always known this and that is why they always suspect the husband.

The how to win the lottery part of the title presents a strategy for dealing with incomprehensibly big numbers, by characterizing them using a real world situation. Imagine a bathtub, the biggest that you’ve ever seen and then imagine that that tub is filled to almost overflowing with kernels of dried rice. Take one of the kernels, paint it gold and then plunge it down into the rice. Then standing at the bathroom door, charge people two bucks to blindfold themselves and pick one grain of rice. This example illustrates both the futility of buying lottery tickets and why government loves them. As the saying goes, it’s a tax on people who can’t do math or more correctly can’t visualize the math.

Numeric Nonsense

Fraser’s Spiral

The Fraser’s spiral illusion is an optical illusion that was first described by the British psychologist Sir James Fraser. The illusion is also known as the false spiral or by its original name, the twisted cord illusion. The overlapping black arc segments appear to form a spiral, but the arcs are in fact concentric circles. The visual distortion is produced by combining a regular line pattern (the black circles) with misaligned parts (the differently colored strands). It is like many other visual effects, in which a sequence of tilted elements cause the eye to perceive phantom twists and deviations. The illusion is augmented by the spiral components in the checkered background. It is a unique illusion, where the observer can verify the concentric strands manually. When the strands are colored differently, it becomes obvious to the observer that no spiral is present. So class, take out your Sharpie and outline one of these circles on your screen.

Infinitely many mathematicians walk into a bar. The first says, “I’ll have a beer.” The second says, “I’ll have half a beer.” The third says, “I’ll have a quarter of a beer.” The barman pulls out just two beers. The mathematicians are all like, “That’s all you’re giving us? How drunk do you expect us to get on that?” The bartender says, “Come on guys. Know your limits.”

G.H. Hardy, an Oxford and Cambridge mathematics professor, professed to be an atheist, but in dealing with providence, he bore in mind the possibility that life’s operation might, after all, be manipulated by God, with an understandably low opinion of Hardy. He also considered air travel dangerous. Once, shortly after Hardy had left on an overseas flight, a colleague found a note lying on his desk that read, “I have proven Fermat’s last theorem.” The news spread and by the time Hardy returned home all the world was agog to learn the proof. Hardy had to explain that he had not proved it—the note had been insurance. God, he said, had been forced to bring him back alive to show him up as an imposter.

How many mathematicians does it take to change a light bulb? One: she gives it to three physicists, thus reducing it to a problem that has already been solved.

Find x

Why’d the chicken cross the road? The answer is trivial & is left as an exercise.

Finally, I’ll leave you with Mathgen, an Internet toy that allows you to generate fake scientific papers. It is a program to randomly generate professional-looking mathematics papers, including theorems, proofs, equations, discussion, and references. Try it for yourself! Here is one of mine: Fermat’s Last Theorem, M. Regenaxe, T. Maxwell and V. Fermat. The results look realistic enough. Just don’t hang around so long that you are asked to explain them. 

Vulgar Fractions

Distorted Circles, Jim Wilcox, 1982

Lord Tennyson, the poet, once received a letter and a fraction of shade from Charles Babbage, the mathematician, which read:

In your otherwise beautiful poem, Vision of Sin, there is a verse that reads:

Every moment dies a man,
Every moment one is born.

It must be manifest that were this true, the population of the world would be at a standstill. In truth the rate of birth is slightly in excess of death. I would suggest that the next edition of your poem you have it read:

Every moment dies a man,
Every moment 1 ⅙ is born.

Strictly speaking this is not correct. The actual figure is a decimal so long that I cannot get it in on one line, but I believe 1 ⅙ will be sufficiently accurate for poetry…

Vulgar fractions is a term used to designate common fractions. Unicode that!

Particle Mirror

Mark and Anne – The Video Game

The Particle Mirror is part virtual mirror and part interact computer simulation. Created in 2017 by Karl Sims, it is on display at the Boston Science Museum. This playful exhibit allows visitors to interact with virtual particles by moving. It creates a video image on a large wall, which is augmented with special effects to give the impression that you are in the same room as the particles. A sensor detects people in front of the display so they can push the particles around with their movements. The exhibit cycles through various modes with different visual effects. This display is naturally located in the Wicked Smart Gallery.

A physics simulation determines the behavior of each particle. Gravity, swirling motions, collision avoidance forces, and air friction are combined with people’s interactions. These forces allow your motions to push the particles. The results can resemble bouncing balls, fireflies, falling snowflakes, sparkling glitter, foamy bubbles, or even molecules. Pictured are bouncy balls that repel each other and tend to spread out so they are evenly spaced. We played with this exhibit as it cycled through its different modes until some kids showed up and we felt compelled to share.

Many Shocking Developments

Theater of Electricity

As we set out for the day, Curio, a coffee shop that Dave recommended was our first stop. Good coffee and Liege waffles wrapped in wax paper to help keep the fingers from getting too sticky. Seating was tight, but that probably doesn’t bother Dave much, since he usually hits the place on his way to the T and work.

We eschewed the T and walked the one-stop distance across the Charles to the Boston Science Center. I’m usually leery of science centers. They’re generally too kid friendly and science lite for my tastes. But I was pleasantly surprised with Boston’s. I visited it about thirty years ago, when I worked in town for a summer at MIT. I remembered the science center’s electricity show and it didn’t disappoint. The twin tower Van De Graf generator was built at MIT for atom splitting. Paired with Tesla coils that were pulsed to create the show’s music, it was as good as I remembered. Having learned a lot more about electromagnetics in the interim certainly didn’t hurt. 

After the museum, it was one o’clock and by this point and I was feeling a wee bit peckish. After a few false starts, we ended up lunching at the Red Hat. This 100+ year-old bar is way more authentic than that Cheers stand-in. We each ordered a bread bowl of chow-dah, as our Southie waitress would say.

We headed uphill to the Statehouse and toured the capitol building. Then it was downhill into the Boston Commons, which without hundreds of Red Sox fans is a rather pleasant park. Another sinking spell led me to Starbucks and Anne to an adjoining needlepoint store. The proprietor was a very kind woman. She gave us quite a few tips of things to see and do in Boston. We walked by Trinity Church and into the main branch of the public library, which has a nice reading room.

Our tour of the Back Bay would not be complete without window shopping on Newbury. When that became too intense, we dropped down to Commonwealth and strolled down the center of that boulevard. We crossed the Charles on the Massachusetts bridge. Fireflies from the MIT sailing classes were tilting at the wind, while Harvard crew boats raced up river. We did a walk-by of MIT and visited a yarn store for Anne, dinner with Dave and then called it a night. 

The Modern Prometheus

Creature Awakes and Victor Flees

This year is the 200th anniversary of the first publishing of Mary Shelley’s novel, “Frankenstein”. It was first published anonymously, but gave clues to her identity, with a preface written by her husband and her father’s dedication. In 1823, the second edition openly acknowledged Mary as the author. It has been in continuous publication ever since. The engraving to the right was the frontispiece of the 1831 edition. It depicts the moment when the creature awakens and Victor flees in horror.

The frontispiece is part of a rare books exhibit at Washington University, called “Making a Monster” and serves as preamble to this month’s Science on Tap lecture, “Medical Ethics and Frankenstein’s Monster” by Ira Kodner, MD. Dr. Kodner explained that the origin of the “Frankenstein” novel dates from a visit to Lord Byron’s Italian castle that Shelley made. On this visit a thunderstorm (It was a dark and stormy night…) led Byron to propose a writing contest to his guests. The first draft of “Frankenstein” was Mary’s submission.

The creature began life as an adult. He had no family, had no memories, he was all alone. This terrible loneliness soon turned to anger and a desire to seek revenge and commit murder. Shelley’s novel explores serious themes, such as the danger of exercising science on life, but most people are only familiar with the popular caricature of this story. The 1931 Universal movie by the same name and starring Boris Karloff is the prototype for this cartoonish view and not the modern Prometheus that Shelley had created.