Mathematics Can Never Lie To You

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From WIRED magazine (via Quanta) comes a nice profile of mathematician Sylvia Serfaty, noted mathematician and winner of the Poincare Prize.

Check out the article (and brief video interview) above.


Read the article and watch the video linked above.  Answer the following questions, with at least a complete sentence for each answer.

  1.  Explain her allusion to mathematics as “weaving one’s own rug”
  2. Explain how she first found her love for mathematics.
  3.  What are Dr. Serfaty’s concerns with how Hollywood and the media portray mathematicians?  Why does she think it harms children’s views of themselves as mathematicians?
  4. How does Dr. Serfaty go about tackling a difficult problem?
  5. Why does Dr. Serfaty think more women in math and science would be a good thing?

How Big is 52 Factorial?

52 factorial (or 52! in math notation) represents the number of ways a deck of cards can be shuffled.  It’s equal to 52 x 51 x 50 x 49 x 48 x … 3 x 2 x 1.  (Basically multiply all the whole numbers between 52 and 1 together.  The video above (from 14:20 to about 18:30) explains how large 52 factorial is.


BEFORE YOU WATCH THE VIDEO make a hypothesis about how long 52! is in seconds.  Is it an hour?  A day?  A week?  A year?  A lifetime?   A number of lifetimes?  Explain your reasoning in your hypothesis.  Make this a paragraph.

Then watch the video above (from 14:20 to 18:30 at least — watch the whole thing if you want to see some cool card tricks) and write a second paragraph that compares the actual length of 52! seconds to your hypothesis.


Major in Math If You Want A Career in Medicine


A new article in the BBC suggests that mathematicians may be leading the fight when it comes to cancer research and discovering new things in the field of health and medicine.

Check out the article here:


Read the article linked above.  Explain in a paragraph why mathematicians are so important in modern medical research.  In a second paragraph, explain the term “Datageddon” and why mathematicians need to be careful of it when conducting research.

The Math Behind IKEA


So besides the fact that IKEA refuses to bring a store to Nashville (but there’s one opening in MEMPHIS this year?!?  Seriously?!) …

…there is some pretty interesting mathematics behind the way they go about their pricing and purchasing options.

FiveThirtyEight wrote about it here:


Read the article linked above.

Answer the following questions:

  1.  If IKEA uses 1% of the world’s lumber every year as they claim, how much lumber is produced on the planet each year?
  2. Explain briefly why you think the price of the Poäng chair has dropped so much in the years since it was first introduced.
  3. Look at the graph they provided comparing prices of the Antilop high chair.  Give three hypotheses about why the chair had a drastic price change in certain areas during certain years.  Why might it have both drastic increases and decreases included on that graph??
  4. The author claims that IKEA is sui generis in the furniture world.  Explain what that phrase means and give an example of another company that is sui generis in a different field.


The Mathematics of Forest Fires


Mathematicians are finding new ways to model the spread of forest fires (“bush fires”) using mathematical analysis.

Read more here:


Read the article linked above.  Write a paragraph that explains the data used in formulas for “simple fires” and how the mathematical formulas have evolved to encompass more “extreme bush fires”.  What new variables can be accounted for in these new formulas?

Then, below your paragraph, draw a sketch that shows how flames in an extreme fire can “explode uphill”.  Feel free to label your drawing with words from the article.

Turn in the paragraph and the drawing together to earn a badge!


The Mathematics of Coincidence


Ever seen something happen in your life that is just too random and unlikely to be anything but a coincidence?

NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast recently did a piece on the mathematics behind coincidence.  And can you believe that somebody shared it with me and now I’m sharing it with you?  What are the odds?

Listen here:


Listen to the podcast above.  Explain in a paragraph the mathematics behind the woman who won the lottery four times.  How did the mathematician explain how the odds went from “incomprehensible” to simply “exceedingly unlikely”?  In a second paragraph explain an event in your own life that appeared “coincidental”;  come up with a mathematical explanation/hypothesis of why it might not be such an unlikely occurrence after all.


John Urschel’s Problem Sets


Our footballing friend, Baltimore Raven’s Offensive Lineman John Urschel (who we’ve seen before here and here), is now publishing a weekly problem set for The Player’s Tribune.

Take a look at them here:


Each Wednesday, Mr. Urschel publishes a set of three problems to solve.  Spend approximately 15 minutes per problem working on a solution.  NOTE:  It’s OK if you don’t find a full solution to each problem.  But you need to turn in what looks like approximately 15 minutes worth of work on each problem.  Write out either your solution or your thoughts about this problem (Why was it hard?  Are you close to a solution?  What could you have done differently/better? etc.)

To earn a badge you must turn in your work before the solutions to the problems are published the following Wednesday.  This means you must pick the most current/recent problem set in order to earn a badge for this article.  You are of course welcome to work on these problems just for fun.  Bring them to Mr. Bezaire and he’ll help you!!