Author: Jenni

Is mathematics truly a language?

Is mathematics truly a language?

Mathematics is called the language of science. Italian astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei is attributed with the quote, “Mathematics is the language in which God has written the universe.” Most likely this quote is a summary of his statement in Opere Il Saggiatore: [The universe] cannot be read until we have learnt the language and become familiar with the characters in which it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and the letters are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without which means it is humanly impossible to comprehend a single word. Yet, is mathematics truly a language, like English or Chinese? To answer the question, it helps to know what language is and how the vocabulary and grammar of mathematics is used to construct sentences. What Is a Language? There are multiple definitions of “language.” A language may be a system of words or codes used within a discipline. Language may refer to a system of communication using symbols or sounds. Linguist Noam Chomsky defines language as a set of sentences constructed using a …

Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

The Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is quickly becoming an international concern. With 489 people diagnosed with the disease and 280 deaths, it is already the second largest Ebola outbreak in history (although still dwarfed by the 2014 West Africa outbreak). While the DRC has a good track record of responding to these outbreaks, the ongoing military conflict in the country is making the response much more difficult. Healthcare workers have been attacked, vaccination campaigns halted and, most recently, experts from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were recalled from an outbreak zone due to security fears. This is all despite the DRC hosting the UN’s largest peacekeeping force, MONUSCO (Mission de l’Organisation des Nations unies pour la stabilisation en République démocratique du Congo). The United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the body responsible for maintaining international peace and security, acknowledged the situation in the DRC by issuing a resolution (resolution 2439) that calls for an end to the violence so that humanitarian groups can have better access to …

I Am Cait, reigniting the internet debate

I Am Cait, reigniting the internet debate

On July 26, Caitlyn Jenner premiered her new reality show I Am Cait, reigniting the internet debate on the validity of the transgender identity. Which side of the debate one falls on correlates highly with one’s political position. Liberal politicians like President Barack Obama tend to support Jenner and commend her on her courage. On the other hand, conservative politicians like Mike Huckabee have mocked Jenner’s transition, some of them referring to her as mentally ill. Of course, there are exceptions. Some conservatives support transgender individuals – indeed, Jenner herself identifies as a Republican – and some liberals deny that Jenner is a woman. But we think the conservative–liberal divide is prevalent enough to be worthy of attention. Getting the facts straight Those on the left and right seem to believe that they are motivated by a desire to get to the fact of the matter about what constitutes being a man or a woman. That is, they think that they are arguing for an unbiased account about what gender is. One way they do …

A Short Guide to Hard Problems

How fundamentally difficult is a problem? That’s the basic task of computer scientists who hope to sort problems into what are called complexity classes. These are groups that contain all the computational problems that require less than some fixed amount of a computational resource — something like time or memory. Take a toy example featuring a large number such as 123,456,789,001. One might ask: Is this number prime, divisible only by 1 and itself? Computer scientists can solve this using fast algorithms — algorithms that don’t bog down as the number gets arbitrarily large. In our case, 123,456,789,001 is not a prime number. Then we might ask: What are its prime factors? Here no such fast algorithm exists — not unless you use a quantum computer. Therefore computer scientists believe that the two problems are in different complexity classes. Many different complexity classes exist, though in most cases researchers haven’t been able to prove one class is categorically distinct from the others. Proving those types of categorical distinctions is among the hardest and most important …

Americans are deeply religious people—and atheists are no exception

Americans are deeply religious people—and atheists are no exception

Americans are deeply religious people—and atheists are no exception. Western Europeans are deeply secular people—and Christians are no exception. These twin statements are generalizations, but they capture the essence of a fascinating finding in a new study about Christian identity in Western Europe. By surveying almost 25,000 people in 15 countries in the region, and comparing the results with data previously gathered in the U.S., the Pew Research Center discovered three things. First, researchers confirmed the widely known fact that, overall, Americans are much more religious than Western Europeans. They gauged religious commitment using standard questions, including “Do you believe in God with absolute certainty?” and “Do you pray daily?” Second, the researchers found that American “nones”—those who identify as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular—are more religious than European nones. The notion that religiously unaffiliated people can be religious at all may seem contradictory, but if you disaffiliate from organized religion it does not necessarily mean you’ve sworn off belief in God, say, or prayer. The third finding reported in the study is by …

China Rebalancing?

China Rebalancing?

I increasingly suspect my view on Chinese “rebalancing” is at odds with the current consensus (or perhaps just with a plurality of the investment bank analysts and financial journalists who watch China). In two significant ways. One. I think China’s balance of payments position is fairly robust. In both a “flow” and a “stock” sense. The current account isn’t that close to falling into a deficit (and it wouldn’t be that big a deal if China did have a modest deficit). And China’s state is back to adding to its foreign assets in a significant way. The days of “China selling reserves” are long past. And two, I think the rebalancing that has lowered the measured current account surplus is more fragile than most think. It is a function of policies—call it a large off-budget “augmented” fiscal deficit or excessive credit growth—that some believe to be unsustainable, and many think are unwise. The IMF, for example, wants China to bring down its fiscal deficit and slow the pace of credit growth, policies that directionally would …

Atomic clocks are helping physicists search for New Laws of Physics

Atomic clocks are helping physicists search for New Laws of Physics

In the late 1990s, Jun Ye, a young physicist at the research institute JILA in Boulder, Colorado, decided to dedicate much of his career to making the world’s best atomic clock. He spent some time getting to know different atoms — magnesium, calcium and barium. Eventually he settled on strontium for its internal stability. He then set to work building a laser that would tickle strontium atoms at just the right frequency. What Ye didn’t know is that he was also designing a dark matter detector. That realization came only in April 2015, when he got an email from Victor Flambaum, a physicist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Flambaum told Ye that according to certain theories, dark matter could subtly tweak the fundamental constants of nature, ever so slightly changing how fast clocks tick. Ye’s latest device — improved 20,000 times over his first version — was one of the few in the world sensitive enough to have a chance of picking up this faint signal. Ye is now carrying …

Social media can be used used as an evidence against you

Social media can be used used as an evidence against you

As we increasingly use social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp to communicate with each other, many of us are unaware of the ways in which our posts might later resurface – and get us into trouble with the law. There are numerous examples of social media being used as evidence in the criminal justice system, leading to convictions and sometimes prison sentences. Peter Nunn from Bristol, England, was imprisoned in 2014 after MP Stella Creasy and feminist Caroline Criado-Perez were subjected to a string of abuse on Twitter. And after the London riots of 2011, two men were imprisoned for incitement after posting messages on Facebook inviting those who read them to meet the next day and wreak havoc in their local town. Police were able to trace the messages back to the defendants, leading to successful prosecutions. Messages and media on WhatsApp, Snapchat and the like, have been used in evidence to show that defendants have committed offences, such as selling drugs, possession of firearms(as in the case of R v Noble and Johnson, where WhatsApp messages …

Antidepressants Cause Weight Gain?

Antidepressant medications can be hugely helpful—even life-saving—for those who suffer from certain types of mood disorders. But they can also sometimes cause people to gain a significant amount of weight. Not so helpful. Studies indicate that about 25% of the people who take antidepressant medications report significant weight gain. This is seen more commonly in those who take these drugs for six months or more, but it’s not uncommon for people to report gaining 8-10 pounds within just a few weeks of starting drug therapy. Either way, it’s a bummer. You can easily imagine that frustration and negative feelings about weight gain could cancel out whatever mood elevating benefits the drugs are delivering! Are Antidepressants Worth it? There’s also some controversy over how much these drugs are really helping the millions of people who are taking them. My friend Dr. Ellen Hendricksen of the Savvy Psychologist podcast reviewed some of the research on this in a recent episode of the Savvy Psychologist. According to Ellen, studies suggest that a lot of people get little to …

Can you weigh Cloud?

Have you ever wondered how much a cloud weighs? Even though a cloud seems to float in air, both the air and the cloud have mass and weight. Clouds float in the sky because they are less dense than air, yet it turns out they weigh a lot. How much? About a million pounds! Here’s how the calculation works: Finding the Weight of a Cloud Clouds form when the temperature becomes too cold for the air to hold water vapor. The vapor condenses into tiny droplets. Scientists have measured the density of a cumulus cloud at about 0.5 grams per cubic meter. Cumulus clouds are fluffy white clouds, but the density of clouds depends on their type. Lacy cirrus clouds may have a lower density, while rain-bearing cumulonimbus clouds may be more dense. A cumulus cloud is a good starting point for a calculation, though, because these clouds have a fairly easy-to-measure shape and size. How do you measure a cloud? One way is to drive straight across its shadow when the sun is overhead at …