Math by the Minute on Capitol Hill
If you think it’s hard to distill research results into a 15-minute conference presentation, try this: Choose a subject like matrix factorizations or recent progress on the twin prime conjecture. Figure out how to make a nonexpert audience—members of Congress, say—if not fully understand the chosen topic, at least appreciate its significance. Do this in a minute. The clock is ticking.
Jerry McNerney of California’s ninth congressional district has risen to such a challenge more than 10 times in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he has served since 2007. The only current member of the House or Senate to hold a doctorate in mathematics (University of New Mexico, 1981), McNerney has read into the congressional record one-minute expositions of such abstruse subjects as vector bundles, synesthesia, and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope.
Representatives often use time at the lectern to honor noteworthy constituents—a heroic veteran, perhaps, or an extraordinary educator. Indeed, when Stockton, California, mathematics teacher Andrew Walter was a state finalist for the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching in 2013, McNerney commended Walter on the House floor. He noted that Walter had led his Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) team to many state championships and one national one, where their student-built wind turbine took the top prize.
“It’s this type of dedication and commitment that will lead to innovation, the creation of good-paying jobs, and keep America as a world leader in these areas,” McNerney said.
A topic such as the Boltzmann equation or matrix factorizations has no California (or legislative) connection, though, and still McNerney has seen fit to speak about these subjects on the Hill. Sometimes he’s inspired to share with his colleagues—and perhaps attentive constituents—news of a mathematical or scientific insight or advance.
McNerney returned from the 2014 Joint Mathematics Meetings in Baltimore, for example, jazzed about headway mathematicians had made in settling a long-open question. Less than a month later, on February 11, McNerney took to the microphone in the House chamber.
“Madam Speaker,” he said. “I would like to talk about twin prime numbers.”
McNerney puts his one-minute math and science spots together with the help of legislative assistant Shilpa Rajan. He and Rajan occasionally receive suggestions for subjects to spotlight.
Boiling down complex material into a minute of talking is tricky, McNerney concedes, but he has been pleased with the results. As a member of the Public Face of Mathematics panel at the 2014 Joint Mathematics Meetings, McNerney told listeners that being coaxed into thinking about math has a positive effect on his congressional fellows.
“Instead of all the usual bickering that you get on the House floor, everyone smiles,” he reported. “They say, ‘This is really fun.’”
Math is fun, yes, but hard, too, and McNerney hopes that getting kids excited about math and science will help them muster the discipline to buckle down and engage with the nittier-grittier aspects of these quantitative fields.
“If you can just inspire kids, not only in my district but across the country to be more interested in these subjects,” McNerney said when asked what he hopes to accomplish by bringing the likes of the twin prime conjecture to the House floor, “I think we’ll be better off as a country.” —Katharine Merow
An Algorithmic Solution to the Boltzmann Equation
Mr. MCNERNEY: Madam Speaker, I rise to announce a new advancement in mathematics: an algorithmic solution to the full Boltzmann equation that has taken 140 years to solve.
The full seven-dimensional Boltzmann equation provides a crucial link between the microscopic, or quantum, behavior of atomic particles on the one hand and the behavior of matter that we humans observe on the other hand. It does this by predicting how gaseous material responds to external influences, such as changes in temperature and pressure, quickly settling to a stable equilibrium.
The solution of this equation gives us an understanding of grazing collisions, when molecules glance off one another, which is the dominant type of collision. The algorithm uses a range of geometric fractional derivatives from kinetic theory.
I congratulate the authors, Philip Gressman and Robert Strain, from the University of Pennsylvania on this advancement; and I commend the National Science Foundation for supporting these scientists in their work.
Twin Prime Numbers
Mr. MCNERNEY: Madam Speaker, I would like to talk about twin prime numbers. Twin primes are two prime numbers separated by a single number, like 11 and 13, or 17 and 19. The question is, Are there an infinite number of twin primes? It was the general consensus of the mathematical community until just recently that that question was beyond the capability of our current mathematical community.
However, there have been some stunning advances on this problem in the last few years. In particular, last May, with the help of an online collaborative project, mathematicians pioneered new methods for addressing this problem with a huge breakthrough from Tom Zhang at the University of New Hampshire. We now know that there are an infinite number of prime number pairs separated by amounts smaller than 270.
While the twin prime problem itself is still unsolved, mathematicians are hopeful that this year they can reduce the separation from 270 to less than 100.