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Published: Monday, 2/4/2013

Nerd Power: Math flexes its muscles in pop culture

BY KIRK BAIRD
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Penny (Kaley Cuoco, left) is surprised when she finds Leonard (Johnny Galecki, right) and Sheldon (Jim Parsons, center) competing for the attention of a famous female physicist, on The Big Bang Theory. Penny (Kaley Cuoco, left) is surprised when she finds Leonard (Johnny Galecki, right) and Sheldon (Jim Parsons, center) competing for the attention of a famous female physicist, on The Big Bang Theory.
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It’s not often that a statistician and his blog attract the kind of national attention that Nate Silver and his political numbers site fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com received late last year.

But that’s what comes with being exceptionally correct when predicting an election.

Using a mixture of aggregated polling data and his own methodology, Mr. Silver accurately forecast the presidential popular vote state by state and missed the final electoral college total for President Obama by only 19 votes, 313 to 332. He also correctly divined the results of 31 of 33 Senate elections.

This feat of prognostication left political pundits and at least one critic shaking heads in amazement, and made Mr. Silver, also known for his use of statistics in determining the hidden value of baseball players, a hero to mathematicians and statisticians not accustomed to seeing one of their own in the national discourse.

“Nate Silver has been the subject of multiple conversations with my friends regarding what he’s done with statistics and how he can make his predictions in baseball and elections,” said Joe Neyhart, a 17-year-old junior at Toledo Technology Academy with an interest in engineering. “It shows ... the people who don’t necessarily like math, just a normal person can do these mathematics and be correct ... that look, he’s right.”

The short-term impact of Mr. Silver’s fame, however brief, is to act as antidote to the belief that arithmetic has no practical application outside of a classroom. “They’re realizing that mathematics will get you further in life and knowing it will greatly help you out in the future,” Mr. Neyhart said.

Look beyond the immediacy of his popularity, though, and Mr. Silver is simply another example — statistical data, if you will — in a quiet trend that suggests math is kinda-sorta-maybe cool in popular culture.

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything is a 2005 New York Times bestseller-turned documentary that applies math and statistics, economic theories, and sociology to a wide range of subjects, while CBS’ popular The Big Bang Theory, a sitcom written about nerds and nerd culture, doesn’t shy away from name dropping advanced mathematical equations and theories on the masses.

Freshman Brandon Coykendall, math teacher Dale Price and junior Joe Neyhart look over last year's robot during a robot club meeting at Toledo Technology Academy in Toledo, Ohio. Freshman Brandon Coykendall, math teacher Dale Price and junior Joe Neyhart look over last year's robot during a robot club meeting at Toledo Technology Academy in Toledo, Ohio.
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British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has made appearances on The Simpsons, Futurama, and The Big Bang Theory, while U.S. astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is this generation’s Carl Sagan — he’s even helming the sequel to Mr. Sagan’s Cosmos to launch sometime late this year or next — and done his part to make science cool and entertaining.

On a smaller scale, a Maryland high school math teacher known as 2Pi gained popularity by rapping about abstract mathematical equations such as the quadratic formula and posting his videos on YouTube. And a touring production of Calculus: The Musical!, which uses songs such as the Beatles’ In my Life and the Who’s The Kids are Alright to teach the basic concepts of calculus, has been a hit at colleges and high schools, including a packed show in April, 2011, at the University of Toledo.

For a subject often disparaged as having no relevance outside of academic halls and laboratories, math’s increasing acceptance represents significant progress, said Paul Hewitt, associate professor and chair of mathematics and statistics at UT.

“Even in popular culture it’s hard to escape references to mathematics. It’s amazing the amount of this stuff that is out there right now and people love it,” he said. “This is good for our subject. It shows others the value and more widespread use of mathematics and statistics.”

Perhaps the biggest embodiment of this notion is the movie Moneyball.

Based on Michael Lewis’ 2003 book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, the 2011 film is the true story of the 2002 Oakland Athletics and its then-radical approach to building a baseball squad through undervalued player statistics, a process called sabermetrics, which helped the mid-size market team compete with major-market franchises and their high payrolls such as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. The movie earned $75 million — an impressive feat for an inside-sports film about the value of numbers over traditional scouting, even if some of that success can be attributed to the star power of actor Brad Pitt and co-screenwriter Aaron Sorkin.

For many moviegoers, Moneyball was an introduction to sabermetrics, a form of analytics, said Christopher Rump, associate professor in applied statistics at Bowling Green State University.

“Moneyball was the tipping point” in raising awareness to what was once mostly a background research tool, he said. And now “[analytics is] becoming more popular and more influential.”

A seven-person team, for example, employed analytics to improve Netflix’s ability to accurately predict how much a subscriber will enjoy a movie based on preferences as part of a nearly three-year contest. For their efforts the team won a million-dollar prize from the DVD rental and film-steaming service.

And whether fantasy sports participants realize it or not, they’re using analytics in determining a player’s worth to a team.

These real-world math examples could and should be used as gateways to reach students, said Dale Price, math teacher at Toledo Technology Academy.

“You need math to be relevant and interesting and we don’t do that,” he said. “We teach math in a very boring way; too much of math is abstract. Imagination Station does a lot of really cool things and kids don’t know they’re doing science. We don’t do that with math.”

To help demonstrate these outside-the-classroom applications, Mr. Price leads FIRST Robotics Team 279, Tech Fusion, a group of 20 Toledo Technology Academy students who design and build robots to compete in robotics tournaments against more than 2,000 teams worldwide. He’s also employed sabermetrics in a statistics lesson, asking the class to research second basemen and then rank them.

“I would compare their research to what I did,” he said. “They would understand what they were doing and it made the mathematics relevant.”

While mathematical concepts and formulas may be part of our popular culture, Mr. Price is reluctant to equate this trend as a warm embrace by the masses. Math still isn’t cool, he said.

“Personally, I don’t think it ever will [be]. You’re not going to see Kim Kardashian pull out a calculator and do numbers. She’s not going to.”

Contact Kirk Baird at: kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.



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