Links: Number Theory, Mel Brooks, Garden Hermits, Gay Marriage, Passwords, etc

I promise to have some real posts soon—an announcement describing my freshman writing course about math, and a two-part series on the late economist Albert Hirschman, including a discussion of how his theories apply to the tech world—but for now a few links:

  • There’s big news in math with Yitang Zhang’s proof of a big result in number theory. What struck me most was the beautiful story behind the work: Zhang didn’t find a tenure-track job, and toiled for years in obscurity, working at a Subway (sic!) and as an accountant before finding a non-tenure-track job at New Hampshire. For more, see this article from the Simons Foundation, which did the best job giving a sense of his story. (I hope some publication—the New Yorker?, or does the new New Republic want to give it a try?1—can do a good longform profile on Zhang.) An interesting tidbit is this reflection from Zhang’s advisor at Purdue, Tzuong-Tsieng Moh.

    For more about Zhang’s result, see Jordan Ellenberg’s excellent article on Slate. What’s particularly important about Ellenberg’s article is his emphasis on heuristics and non-rigourous arguments in mathematical thinking. Yes, pure math requires formal proof in the end, but the process relies on a much wider variety of epistemological processes. (Note that Ellenberg’s article, though written for a popular audience, struck me as more demanding on the reader than most popular expositions. For non-math people, if there are parts that are confusing, don’t feel bad, and forge onward.)

  • On a lighter note, do watch this video of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft singing Sweet Georgia Brown in Polish. (If you insist on skipping their banter—don’t!—the singing starts around 1:45 in.) They did this for the 1983 film To Be or Not To Be, which is a fun time if you’re looking for something not too serious. (The youtube clip here isn’t from the movie, it’s from a television show, but it’s as good as the clip in the movie, indeed arguably better because it isn’t lip-synched as in the movie.) (h/t to this Fresh Air interview of Brooks)

  • Ezekiel Emanuel with an interesting piece in the Times on how to reduce suicides.

  • Leon Wieseltier on the humanities in The New Republic. I don’t fully agree, in the following sense: I think people need to understand both the humanities and the sciences.2 But given that the intellectual tug-of-war has pushed so strongly to the side of science—although too often in a problematic TEDified discourse that ignores methodological issues3—Wieseltier provides an important counterweight.

  • An interesting article in Ars Technica on password security.

  • Did you know that in 18th century England real humans were hired to serve as garden hermits? Alice Gregory has a great article on this in the Boston Globe.

  • I’m going to tread very delicately here. I strongly support gay marriage,4 and abhor homophobia. So I want to be explicit in saying I don’t agree with him here,5 but Michael Kinsley has an interesting article in The New Republic on gay marriage and the controversy surrounding the promiment conservative surgeon Benjamin Carson. I haven’t followed the details—it sounds like Carson has said some pretty bad things—but I think it’s important that we take a moment to listen to Kinsley, especially because of the danger that comes from stifling free speech at universities. A key fact is that this was about a commencement speech. Put aside that commencement speeches are usually dull.6 The more important thing is that commencements are about the graduates. I’d be uncomfortable with something overly political either way.

    See also The Observer, Andrew Sullivan, Gawker, and Evan Wolfson.


  1. If I didn’t have a thesis to write, a course to design, and a job to find this summer, and if I didn’t lack the necessary clips and connections with the journalism world to get the assignment, I would be tempted to try‚Ķ (If anyone from the New Yorker is reading, choose me, not Sylvia Nasar, my thesis can wait!) 

  2. Here I’m including economic and probabilistic thinking, among the things, in the “sciences”. Indeed, those are far more important than knowledge of physics, I would argue. Perhaps we need to change C.P. Snow’s example from the laws of thermodynamics to those of economics and probability. 
  3. Yet another reason why humanists need to understand science is the overabundance of journalism that fails to understand correlation vs causation, etc. 
  4. Although, for an amusing take, see this New Yorker cartoon by Michael Shaw. 
  5. A word to the Griceans out there—for those who don’t know who Grice is, I promise to say much more about him this summer and fall in the context of my writing course—let me make clear that that proviso applies to every link. I just wanted to articulate that more explicitly here. 
  6. A singular exception is the speech the late Reverend Peter Gomes gave at Stanford’s Baccalaureate in 2008. It’s available to watch online on youtube starting around 23:45 in. (Sadly, this video has received less than 1% of the views that Oprah received for her commencement speech the next day.) A full transcript is also available, but you should watch the speech, since it’s not the same on paper without Rev. Gomes’ eloquent oration.