The Professor vs. the NSA

Today, Martin Hellman stands before a crowd of hundreds, narrating the history of his research in public key encryption. It’s foundational: internet security is built on mathematics, and Hellman (along with collaborator Whitfield Diffie) helped to fashion that math. Throughout the talk, you can see their adorable bromance: Diffie heckles from the front row, and Hellman banters right back.

Back in the 1970s, Hellman and Diffie couldn’t have known that their work would lead to this stage. In fact, there was a likelier destination.

Federal prison.

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“It’s July 1977,” Hellman tells the audience. “Whit and I are involved in a major fight with NSA over the data encryption standard.” Continue reading


Insatiable for Updates

a weekly roundup of cartoons, links, and the updates you and your computer are both hankering for

2017.10.2 no more problems

I’m awaiting the day when the New York Times becomes a full-time math-only publication. This week brought us a step closer.

First, Manil Suri meditates on the social impact of mathematical discovery, by asking who invented zero.

And second, Jordan Ellenberg describes the state of gerrymandering in Wisconsin, where new computational techniques have elevated the old practice from an art to a science. “As a mathematician, I’m impressed,” writes Ellenberg. “As a Wisconsin voter, I feel a little ill.”

2017.10.5 computer updates

A gem from ArXiV: Marvel Universe Looks Almost Like a Real Social Network, applying graph theory to the Marvel comics universe. Each character is a node; appearing together in a comic book is an arc.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, 99.4% of all characters belong to a single connected component of the graph.

2017.10.6 odd number theorists

Last thought: the Best Mathematics Writing of 2017 looks sharp.

No, There’s No Nobel in Math

It’s the very first on the Nobel Prize’s list of frequently asked questions: Is there a Nobel Prize in Mathematics?

Alas; it turns out that Alfred Nobel didn’t much appreciate the icy abstractions of mathematics. And before you ask, there’s no prize for computer science, either.

Faced with this emphatic snub, what’s the best response for the math/CS community? Should we pout? Throw tantrums? Pen angry, tear-stained letters to the King of Sweden? Gossip that Nobel was just jealous because his fiancée slept with a mathematician (fact-check: probably false)?

Though not above juicy gossip, the math/CS world has mostly pursued a different solution: Give fancy prizes of our own. Today, these five prizes rank among the highest in math and computer science: Continue reading

The Fortune of Mathematicians

a weekly roundup of cartoons, links, and breathless summaries

I just got back from the most exciting and undeserved week of my year: the Heidelberg Laureate Forum.


It gathers, in an adorable German city, 25 laureates of math and computer scientists (winners of the Fields Medal, Abel Prize, Turing Award, etc.) along with 200 young researchers (students and postdocs), for a week of lectures, discussions, and fancy dinners at museums like this:


Among my favorite activities of the week is ambushing the young researchers and asking them to draw cartoons for me. You can find three posts on the HLF blog: Continue reading

25 Are Here, and 1 Is Not

I’ve soul-searched and thesaurus-ed, but there’s no better word for this opening ceremony at the Heidelberg Laureate Forum than “pomp.” The audience rises. Doors are thrown open. And, with a blast of orchestral music, twenty-five living legends of mathematics and computer science shuffle down the aisle.


© Heidelberg Laureate Forum Foundation / Kreutzer – 2017

Last year, when I asked a few of them about this grand entrance, they shrugged and laughed. Yes, they’re icons of academia, titans of scholarship. But also, they’re human beings, blinking in the megawatt spotlight, frowning as they scan for their reserved seats.

The HLF gathers these 25 laureates alongside 200 young researchers to talk about what comes between those two phases: A career spent solving problems. A lifetime of chasing your curiosities and your demons through those strange borderlands, from the cold realm of mathematical abstraction to the messy world of human reality, and back again.

In short: research.

The crowd rises for a moment of silence, to honor three laureates who died in the past year. Two are legends of computer science, both named Charles: Thacker and Bachman. The third picture breaks my heart.

It’s Maryam Mirzakhani.

Continue reading

A Probability Puzzle That You’ll Get Wrong

a weekly roundup of cartoons, links, and nefarious probability brainteasers

Like the rest of the math internet, I recently fell in love with this rascal of a problem:

  1. I roll a die until I get a 6. What is the expected number of throws?
  2. When I tried this, I happened to roll only even numbers prior to getting the 6. Knowing this, what is the expected number of throws now?

I’ll let you think. See the end of the post for a solution.

2017.9.18 bull and bear market

Continue reading

The State of Being Stuck

Last year, I got the high school math teacher’s version of a wish on a magic lamp: a chance to ask a question of the world’s most famous mathematician.


Andrew Wiles gained his fame by solving a nearly 400-year-old problem: Fermat’s Last Theorem. The same puzzle had captivated Wiles as a child and inspired him to pursue mathematics. His solution touched off a mathematical craze in a culture where “mathematical craze” is an oxymoron. Wiles found himself the subject of books, radio programs, TV documentaries—the biggest mathematical celebrity of the last half-century.

Continue reading