Majority of mathematicians hail from just 24 scientific ‘families’

Majority of mathematicians hail from just 24 scientific ‘families’
Evolution of mathematics traced using unusually comprehensive genealogy database.
By Davide Castelvecchi
Aug 26 2016

Most of the world’s mathematicians fall into just 24 scientific ‘families’, one of which dates back to the fifteenth century. The insight comes from an analysis of the Mathematics Genealogy Project (MGP), which aims to connect all mathematicians, living and dead, into family trees on the basis of teacher–pupil lineages, in particular who an individual’s doctoral adviser was.

The analysis also uses the MGP — the most complete such project — to trace trends in the history of science, including the emergence of the United States as a scientific power in the 1920s and when different mathematical subfields rose to dominance.

“You can see how mathematics has evolved in time,” says Floriana Gargiulo, who studies networks dynamics at the University of Namur, Belgium and who led the analysis.

The MGP is hosted by North Dakota State University in Fargo and co-sponsored by the American Mathematical Society. Since the early 1990s, its organizers have mined information from university departments and from individuals who make submissions regarding themselves or people they know about. As of 25 August, the MGP contained 201,618 entries. As well as doctoral advisers (PhD advisers in recent times) and pupils of academic mathematicians, the organizers record details such as the university that awarded the doctorate.

Distinct families

Previously, researchers had used the MGP to reconstruct their own PhD-family trees, or to see how many ‘descendants’ a researcher has (readers can do their own search here). Gargiulo’s team wanted to make a comprehensive analysis of the entire database and divide it into distinct families, rather than just looking at how many descendants any one person has.

After downloading the database, Gargiulo and her colleagues wrote machine-learning algorithms that cross-checked and complemented the MGP data with information from Wikipedia and from scientists’ profiles in the Scopus bibliographic database.

This revealed 84 distinct family trees with two-thirds of the world’s mathematicians concentrated in just 24 of them. The high degree of clustering arises in part because the algorithms assigned each mathematician just one academic parent: when an individual had more than one adviser, they were assigned the one with the bigger network. But the phenomenon chimes with anecdotal reports from those who research their own mathematical ancestry, says MGP director Mitchel Keller, a mathematician at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. “Most of them run into Euler, or Gauss or some other big name,” he says.

Although the MGP is still somewhat US centric, the goal is for it to become as international as possible, Keller says.

Peculiarly, the progenitor of the largest family tree is not a mathematician but a physician: Sigismondo Polcastro, who taught medicine at the University of Padua in Italy in the early fifteenth century. He has 56,387 descendants according to the analysis. The second-largest tree is one started by a Russian called Ivan Dolbnya in the late nineteenth century.


John Ellenby, Visionary Who Helped Create Early Laptop, Dies at 75

John Ellenby, Visionary Who Helped Create Early Laptop, Dies at 75
Aug 26 2016

John Ellenby, a British-born computer engineer who played a critical role in paving the way for the laptop computer, died on Aug. 17 in San Francisco. He was 75.

His son Thomas confirmed the death but said the cause had not been determined.

Mr. Ellenby’s pioneering work came to fruition in the early 1980s, after he founded Grid Systems, a company in Mountain View, Calif. As chief executive, he assembled an engineering and design team that included the noted British-born industrial designer William Moggridge.

The team produced a clamshell computer with an orange electroluminescent flat-panel display that was introduced as the Compass. It went to market in 1982. The Compass is now widely acknowledged to have been far ahead of its time.

“The Grid Compass was the first successful clamshell laptop computer,” said Marc Weber, a historian at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.

It went on to become a valuable tool for big corporations, government spies, White House and Pentagon officials, and even astronauts, surviving the midair explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in which seven people died.

The Compass came with advanced, and expensive, data storage capacity called bubble memory and was accordingly pricey, originally selling for $8,150 ($20,325 today). As a result, it found an enthusiastic market not with consumers but rather in Washington.

One version, intended for United States special-operations forces, was said to have come with a red dot on its black magnesium case, placed there as an aiming guide for any commando who might have to shoot the device to destroy its data quickly.

Intelligence agencies were also eager buyers; the Compass was marketed as a kind of sexy, high-tech device that might appeal to James Bond.

Another user was Vice Adm. John Poindexter, President Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser in the mid-1980s. Admiral Poindexter, a computer hobbyist, would take the laptop with him when Mr. Reagan traveled.

He would also spend his free time using the Compass to reprogram the IBM electronic mail system that the White House employed, according to James Opfer, who was director of the White House Communications Agency then and who arranged the first White House purchase of the machines, for $2 million.

Mr. Opfer said in an interview that he was “90 percent certain” that for a time, a Compass accompanied the president’s ever-present “nuclear football” — the device, carried by a military aide, that makes it possible to launch nuclear weapons. “It was quite heavy,” he recalled.

Admiral Poindexter, also in an interview this week, remembered the Grid computers as “really nice machines” that had been “built like an armored tank.” He said that he and Robert C. McFarlane, who preceded him as Mr. Reagan’s national security adviser, had each kept Mr. Reagan’s Compass locked in a home safe.

NASA also used one as a backup navigational device in its space shuttle program. One was aboard the Challenger on the morning of Jan. 28, 1986, when a rocket-booster failure destroyed the craft shortly after liftoff from Cape Canaveral in Florida. The Compass, which had been attached to a dashboard with Velcro, was recovered from the debris and found to be still working.


Rising Nationalism Will Change The Politics Of Space

Rising Nationalism Will Change The Politics Of Space
By James O’Malley
Aug 23 2016

There are currently six people living in space. Two Americans, three Russians, and one Japanese.

The six are working together aboard the International Space Station (ISS) — almost literally enclosed in a bubble, distant from everything below on Earth, including the politics. Makes you a little envious, doesn’t it?

The International Space Station is a chimeric symbol of global optimism (and more cynically, financial pragmatism). Its birth was the result of combining two separate sets of plans by NASA and Roscosmos, its Russian counterpart. In the aftermath of the Cold War, agreements for cooperation in space were forged to express unity and peace. But time passes — and the political situation in 2016 looks very different than it did in 1991, or even at the turn of the millennium when the first parts of the ISS launched.

All over the world, nationalism is resurgent. Russia, under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, is once again asserting its power on the global stage, putting it in direct conflict with Western interests. In the United States, Donald Trump’s brand of isolationist nativism has put him just a handful of electoral-college votes away from the White House. In Europe, practically every country has a nationalist party of its own to worry about, and Britain has voted to leave the European Union.

Since the Ukraine crisis, there’s even been a persistent background hum of stories about Russia’s intent to pull out of the ISS project, including one report of a plan to literally separate the station in two—with Russia taking its half and using it to build an independent space station.

In short, it feels like we’re drifting further from the future we were promised by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. He saw space exploration as an expression of human optimism — that together humans can achieve incredible things.

But recent events make me incredibly pessimistic that Roddenberry’s vision could ever come to fruition. With the rise of nationalism around the world, is international cooperation in space doomed?

Mind meld

To my surprise, many of the experts I spoke to are surprisingly optimistic about an internationalist future in space — though perhaps not for the traditional utopian reasons you might expect.

I started by asking the European Space Agency if the Ukraine crisis had hurt relations with Russia. Spokesperson Franco Bonacina told me it wasn’t a problem — that astronauts continue to work in “good harmony and in true spirit of cooperation and friendship.” But he would say that, wouldn’t he? The real picture, surely, is slightly more complicated.

Karl Leib, an expert in the politics of space exploration and a contributor to the journal Astropolitics, isn’t too worried either. He thinks the continued functioning of the ISS, despite Russia’s recent posturing, is itself a good sign.

“The crisis in Ukraine shows how terrestrial politics can threaten space cooperation, but fortunately, the ISS partnership weathered that storm,” he told me, noting that so far Russian threats to cut off access to Soyuz haven’t yet materialized. Leib added: “I think that shows that governments are able to compartmentalize policies if they think it is in their interest.”

The alignment of interests is much broader than the ISS, too. Mariel Borowitz studies international cooperation on climate data, which is collected by satellites. She said there are political barriers to cooperation in her field — but the advantages are evident: “The value of data is in its use — the more widely you make data available, the greater the return the government gets on its investment,” she argued.

Another example of international cooperation is the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee — which counts 12 different space agencies as 
members. Given that low Earth orbit is increasingly crowded, debris is clearly an issue that impacts everyone — so cooperation, even among potential adversaries, is important.


The Internet of Poorly Working Things

The Internet of Poorly Working Things
By Jean-Louis Gassée
Aug 21 2016

In the mythical Land of Theory, where everything ‘just works’, we can connect all the objects in our lives. We have the sensors, the wireless networks, and the computing power, but progress is slow if not comically wrong. Why?

It was twenty years ago this month that the cover of the adorably geeky Boardwatch Magazine, a journal dedicated to the world of Bulletin Board Systems (BBS, remember them?), featured bearded professor Vint Cerf, the grandfather of the Internet:


Re: An alarming number of scientific papers contain Excel errors

[Note:  This comment comes from friend Bob Frankston.  DLH]

From: “Bob Frankston” <>
Subject: RE: [Dewayne-Net] An alarming number of scientific papers contain Excel errors
Date: August 26, 2016 at 10:34:39 AM EDT

This is the tip of a far larger issues and goes back long ago. In
programming we’ve had DWIM — where the computer attempts to Do What I Mean
or what it infers you mean. This isn’t too bad as long as you get feedback
about what it is assuming.

Some of the problem is intrinsic. Even when we speak and write we are
dependent upon shared context. I often point out how words like
“communications” and “information” are often used in lieu of shared

The Excel problem of “March1” become 42430 is amusing and is indeed a trap
for the unwary. The smarter the program gets in “knowing” what you mean the
more it is likely you are to run afoul of the lack of a shared context and
assumptions. More so when exploring new frontiers.

But think of how much more difficult it gets to detect such problems when we
have machine learning without introspection. The most difficult problems
occur when the machine gives the right answers but for the “wrong” reasons.
Again, this is not new. In math we might get the right answers within a test
range not recognizing that second-order effects come to the fore outside
that range. But with machine learning the issues can become far more
perverse – like speaking an alien who seems human until you discover that
“serving man” is a cookbook. (

In the case of Excel at least some of the problem can attributed to kludges
of the past. There is no longer an excuse for not having a native date data
type. OK, there is one, the same compatibility that makes it difficult to
deal with 2000 as a leap year. But that’s not a sufficient excuse for not
providing a way to move ahead.

That said, these problems are going to get worse with the new animism as we
increasingly see machines as self-aware while their “intelligence” (another
problematic word) is beyond our ability to scrutinize. But is it much worse
than trust the wisdom of other people and a lack of critical thinking about
our own assumptions?

An alarming number of scientific papers contain Excel errors


By Christopher Ingraham


Aug 26 2016





The Earth Next Door

[Note:  I’ve already posted one article on this discovery. This one is much longer and more detailed.  Worth reading if you’re at all interested in this topic.  DLH]

The Earth Next Door
Astronomers find an exoplanet that could be habitable—and it’s as close to us as it could possibly be
By Lee Billings
Aug 24 2016

t was just over 20 years ago—a blink of a cosmic eye—that astronomers found the first planets orbiting stars other than our sun. All these new worlds were gas-shrouded giants like Jupiter or Saturn and utterly inhospitable to life as we know it. But for years each discovery was dutifully reported as front-page news, while scientists and the public alike dreamed of a day when we would find a habitable world. An Earth-like place with plentiful surface water, neither frozen nor vaporized but in the liquid state so essential to life. Back then the safe bet was to guess that the discovery of such a planet would only come after many decades, and that when a promising new world’s misty shores materialized on the other side of our telescopes, it would prove too faraway and faint to study in any detail.

Evidently the safe bet was wrong. On Wednesday astronomers made the kind of announcement that can only occur once in human history: the discovery of the nearest potentially habitable world beyond our solar system. This world may be rocky like ours and whirls in a temperate orbit around the sun’s closest stellar neighbor, the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri just over four light-years away. Their findings are reported in a study in Nature.

Although technically still considered a “candidate” planet awaiting verification, most astronomers consulted for this story believe the world to be there. Scarcely more than the planet’s orbital period and approximate mass are known, but that is enough to send shivers down spines. Proxima Centauri shines with only about a thousandth of our sun’s luminosity, meaning any life-friendly planets would have to huddle close. The newfound world, christened “Proxima b” by scientists, resides in an 11.2-day orbit where water—and thus the kind of life we understand—could conceivably exist. And it is likely to be little more than one third heavier than Earth, suggesting it offers a solid surface on which seas and oceans could pool. In a feat of discovery that could reshape the history of science and human dreams of interstellar futures, our species has uncovered a potentially habitable planet right next door.

“Succeeding in the search for the nearest terrestrial planet beyond the solar system has been an experience of a lifetime, and has drawn on the dedication and passion of a number of international researchers,” says the study’s lead author Guillem Anglada-Escude, an astronomer at Queen Mary University of London who spearheaded the observations. “We hope these findings inspire future generations to look beyond the stars. The search for life on Proxima b comes next.”

The exoplanet next door

Astronomers have discovered evidence of a small, rocky planet orbiting our nearest star – and it may even be a bit like Earth. 

For some, Proxima b is a fitting capstone to the astronomical revolution that began when the first exoplanets were found. “For more than 20 years the history of exoplanets has been defined by studying stars tens to hundreds of light-years away, when the Holy Grail—a small, rocky, potentially habitable planet—was just waiting to be discovered around our closest neighbor,” says astronomer Debra Fischer, a veteran planet hunter at Yale University who has led independent surveys of the Alpha Centauri system. “When we launch our first robotic explorers to stars beyond the solar system, we know where we should send them!”

Caleb Scharf, director of astrobiology research at Columbia University, says the the new planet represents “a tremendously important psychological moment for the field, as well as for our species. Discovering who lives in the house next door can change perspectives and priorities—and that’s what Proxima b will do.”

Although it is barely more than four light-years away, Proxima Centauri is too faint to be seen with the naked eye. It drifts at the outskirts of the twin sunlike stars Alpha Centauri A and B, forming a stellar trio that appears as a single gleaming point in the southern constellation of Centaurus. The tiny star is fated to slowly slip farther away from us on the Milky Way’s celestial currents, but will remain the closest one bearing a planet for perhaps the next 40,000 years.

“For the first time, we have an exoplanet within our reach that could be a host to biological organisms,” says study co-author Mikko Tuomi, an astronomer at the University of Hertfordshire. “And that makes Proxima b not only one of the most fascinating discoveries astronomers have made but also one of the most important that can be made.”

Even so, it is a discovery that almost didn’t happen. “People seem to think we just found the planet. But no, we have believed it was there for years,” Anglada-Escude says. “We just had to build an argument to convince others it exists.”


A new class of galaxy has been discovered, one made almost entirely of dark matter

A new class of galaxy has been discovered, one made almost entirely of dark matter
By Rachel Feltman
Aug 25 2016

Much of the universe is made of dark matter, the unknowable, as-yet-undetected stuff that barely interacts with the “normal” matter around it. In the Milky Way, dark matter outnumbers regular matter by about 5 to 1, and very tiny dwarf galaxies are known to contain even more of the stuff.

But now scientists have found something entirely new: a galaxy with the same mass as the Milky Way but with only 1 percent of our galaxy’s star power. About 99.99 percent of this other galaxy is made up of dark matter, and scientists believe it may be one of many.

The galaxy Dragonfly 44, described in a study published Thursday in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, is 300 million light years away. If scientists can track down a similar galaxy closer to home, however, they may be able to use it to make the first direct detection of dark matter.

The researchers who found Dragonfly 44 weren’t looking for a dark galaxy. Another surprise: They found it using a telescope built of camera parts. The Dragonfly Telephoto Array was built by a group of astronomers at Yale University and the University of Toronto who realized that telephoto lenses — so often used for nature photography and sporting events — were well-suited for spotting the kind of large, dim objects that pose problems for typical telescopes.

“We planned to study the outskirts of galaxies to see what exists around them, but by accident we saw all these little smudges,” study author Pieter van Dokkum of Yale told The Post. At first, van Dokkum and his colleagues thought they were seeing image defects. But when they looked more closely at their data, they realized they’d found an entirely new class of object.

Let’s pause here to remind ourselves that scientists have no idea what dark matter is. Dark matter is the name given to a mysterious form of matter that we know must be there. Without something adding to the mass of the universe, things would tear apart. The laws of physics require some unknown, unseen kind of something to hold the universe together (while dark energy pushes it farther and farther apart). All we really know about dark matter is that it barely interacts with anything, including its own ilk.

Dragonfly 44 wasn’t like the dark galaxies that have been found before, which are all quite tiny. It was as big as the Milky Way, but with far fewer stars.

“They are so diffuse, these galaxies, so tenuous, that they would be ripped apart. There just wasn’t enough mass to hold them together,” van Dokkum said.

The researchers then turned from their maverick telescope to an old standard: the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, home to the largest telescope in the United States. They spent six nights imaging the galaxy to be sure of its mass. What they found shocked them.

“It’s pretty crazy, the difference from the Milky Way is a factor of 100,” he said. It’s as if someone picked through the Milky Way, selecting just one star out of 100 and throwing the rest away. For the galaxy to stay in one piece, it must make up the difference with dark matter. “That’s just something we never knew could happen.”

And unlike in previously observed galaxies where dark matter dominates only in certain areas — in the Milky Way, the dark-matter fraction is less than half that of the star-filled central regions — it rules all of Dragonfly 44. Even in the central, visible regions, dark matter makes up about 98 percent of the total mass.

What’s “especially bothersome,” according to van Dokkum, is the fact that the galaxy is roughly the same size as the Milky Way — a solidly average-size galaxy, the kind we thought we understood well.