We DO Use Math… Kinda

A recently published survey looks at how often Americans use math in their jobs. And after looking at the data, I think Andrew Hacker (of “Is Algebra Necessary?” fame) should look at it. Although The Atlantic piece seems to be spinning it as “Look how little math we use”, I honestly think it goes against the grain of the argument algebra-skeptics were making last year.


Look at the graph. Nearly 20% of Americans use algebra in their jobs. True, that’s definitely short of a majority. But it’s not some rarified, elite stratum of the population. In a typical math class of around 30 students, 6 of them are going to use algebra regularly in their work. That’s probably a lot higher than the number of students having job tasks related to doing explications of text in English or learning gas laws in chemistry. Also notable is the breakdown by job category. Blue collar jobs aren’t much lower in their algebra usage than in white collar jobs, and blue collar trades actually surpass white collar management in algebra usage.

So what does it mean? Lots of stories seem to be running with “clearly not many people use algebra”. But I’d say trying to make a subject that 1 in 5 people regularly use just an elective sounds like a bad move. If algebra were just an elective, it seems likely that lots of kids who aren’t doing college preparatory work in high school may never take it, not realizing that it could be relevant to a decent number of jobs they’re interested in (especially if algebra becomes depicted as something only scientists need).

Does that mean everyone should learn algebra before high school or everyone should take four years of math, a policy proposal that is commonly criticized? No, but that’s a different discussion than just ripping algebra out of the core curriculum. I think it’s perfectly fine if student waits until high school to take algebra if they have more difficulty with math. And I don’t think students should be required to take 4 years of math in high school, but that’s still an uncommon policy. But for now, I’d just like everyone to acknowledge that someone using algebra on the job is a person in your neighborhood.

New Page at the Top!

So there’s been something I’ve been wanting to start for a while, but waited until I learned more about how WordPress works (I am clearly not a web designer yet). You’ll notice a new link at the top titled “Trivial Explanations” (and also a new blog category with that name). In addition to posts where I look at science or its applications in the news, I also want to start giving some explanations of the concepts that are commonly referred to in science/tech journalism stories without much explanation. For instance, in the post on masers, many of the articles I linked to mentioned that masers could be good amplifiers for cell phones but didn’t explain why, while I briefly mentioned the relevant property was stimulated emission (the SE in LASER or MASER). I also plan on explaining things that might not be relevant to further off applications, but just appear in lots of papers anyway, to build up your background in seeing how things might be related (for example many materials are “doped”, but that is almost never explained in news pieces because it’s a basic step in the process). If you follow XKCD, think of it as a more practical (or less awesome) version of What If?

With that in mind, I need things to explain! So if you can think of anything you hear about in the news or in your life that you don’t understand, please send me your requests for desired explanations. For now, leave a comment on this post. I’ll try to come up with a better system in the future. (I’m a bit paranoid about linking my email)

Revising the Universe

This week, scientists affiliated with the European Space Agency’s Planck observatory announced several discoveries from the first 15 months of Planck observations. Planck observes the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation. The CMB is the oldest light we can observe in the universe (from about 380,000 years after the Big Bang), because it comes from the time when neutral atoms finally formed and stabilized and photons were no longer constantly absorbed by free electrons and protons. Because of it’s age, studying the CMB enables astronomers and cosmologists to look at the early structure of the universe.

The newly released Planck data contains a few surprises, some vindications of previous work, and many things that are a mix of both. One of the things I found most interesting was the newly calculated age of the universe. Based on the Planck observations alone, the team predicts the age of the universe to be about 13.82 billion years. What’s great about this is that it falls exactly within the resolution of the previously predicted age of the universe by NASA’s WMAP data, 13.73 billion years +/- 0.12 billion. The error bars on the WMAP data mean that anything within 0.12 billion (120 million) years of each other is pretty much indistinguishable from each other. That the Planck data falls within in it means our observations and models seem to be very good at describing the universe.

What’s even more interesting (at least to me), is the stuff that doesn’t entirely jibe with our understanding of the universe. Sure, the age is a bit different because of a change in when dark energy is believed to kick in (the force that is causing the accelerating expansion of the universe that was discovered in the late 90s), but the slight change is practically bookkeeping compared to the other things. When discussing fundamental physics, I mentioned one major kink in our theories is that there seem to “preferred” directions for giant globs of stuff to clump together in the universe. The Planck data shows many deviations from randomness that WMAP found still hold and weren’t just caused by limits in WMAP’s data.

So what do we have?  The big deal is that the universe seems to be off-balance. If you look at the image below, comparing Planck’s data to the model, the left and right side seem to have different brightness. Since the brightness of the CMB is related to where mass would accumulate, this would also mean there’s more stuff in one half of the universe than the other, based on what we can see. It’s also worth noting that Plait says the distribution of hot and cold spots still seems random; it’s just the intensity that isn’t.

Image of deviations of Planck’s data from the standard cosmological model. Credit: ESA and the Planck Collaboration

Another quirk is the so-called CMB cold spot, a region initially found in WMAP data that was both larger and colder than expected for a random distribution. In recent years, some people challenged its existence and said its uniqueness might be due to how WMAP’s data was analyzed, but it still holds up in the Planck data release (although I can’t find out if the Planck team used the same statistical analysis as WMAP, so the Michigan scientists might still have a point).

So what do these mean? Well, a popular theory for each of these that these are “imprints” from another universe. If you’ve heard anything about string theory, you probably know that it requires the existence of many other dimensions (10 or 11, typically, depending on the exact form). In some versions of string theory, our 4D (3D-space + 1D time) universe can move around in this higher-dimensional space called the bulk and it could also potentially interact with other universes.

This’ll be an exciting time for cosmologists and physicists as they try to reconcile their theories with the new observations.

PS: I can’t find if Planck shows anything about the “axis of evil” alignment or dark flow, which are other interesting structural observations. But both of them depend on large scale surveys like Planck (and dark flow was specifically based on CMB data), so I could see these being looked as people have more time to process the released data.