Monthly Archives: May 2006

Math and Barry Bonds

Barry Bonds has surpassed Babe Ruth’s homerun record but a large contingent of basefall fans are less than thrilled at the news.  The likelihood of steroid use has tainted the achievement of Bonds prompting many to suggest either an asterisks beside the record or simply a denial of the record entirely.  David Young of Glenshaw, Pa.. has suggested that simple math could resolve the whole issue. Apparently, he believes any suspicious use of performance enhancers should require the actual number of home runs obtained by an individual be multiplied by a 0.9 weight factor. On the other hand, any performance inhibitors, such as the legendary obesity, beer guzzling and womanizing habits of the Babe, should require a weight factor of 1.1. When all is said and done, the single season record would still go to Roger Maris at 67, who survived crushing media scrutiny. Second place would be the Babe with 66, Bonds a close third with 65.7, then McGwire at 63 and Sosa at 60. By the way, actual totals are given by Bonds (73), McGwire (70), Sosa (66), Maris (61) and then Ruth (60). In should be noted, however, that exactly where Young’s numbers of 0.9 and 1.1 come from is a mystery. It likely was derived just to put the order as he would like it. We should be careful not to use math to simply artificially manipulate the decision process. After all, 95% of all statistics are made up, right?

By the way, I find it quite interesting that amidst all the controversy of Bonds, we are likely to see others join the exclusive club of Aaron-Bonds-Ruth in the fairly near future. Alex Rodriguez recently became the first player to top 400 homeruns before the age of 30. Others in the realm of possibility include Pujols and possibly even Manny Ramirez or Jim Thorne. Read more here.


a heart surgeon doing math

A worthwhile read:

Medical Guesswork

Modern medicine seems to have missed the usefullness of using mathematics as a decision making process.  This article is about Dr. David Eddy, a cardiac surgeon, who “discovered the beauty of mathematics and its promise of answering medical questions.”  After making it through a two-year math course in a couple of months, he persuaded Stanford to accept him as a PhD student in the mathematically intense field of Engineer-Economics Systems.  He has since spent his career promoting what he calls, “Evidence-based medicine.”

Apparently there is a truly alarming number of common practices, treatments and medicines that are utilized, not because of proven effectiveness, but merely as “cherished physician myths.”  As a couple of examples he showed that the annual chest X-ray is worthless, and he traced the general practice of preventing women from giving birth vaginally if they had previously had a cesarian to one lone doctor’s recommendation.

One of the more interesting portions of the article is where it describes Eddy’s development of a computer model that helped him crack the “diabetes puzzle.”

The human brain, Eddy explains, needs help to make sense of patients who have combinations of diseases, and of the complex probabilities involved in each. To provide that assistance, Eddy has spent the past 10 years leading a team to develop the computer model that helped him crack the diabetes puzzle. Dubbed Archimedes, this program seeks to mimic in equations the actual biology of the body, and make treatment recommendations as well as figure out what each approach costs. It is at least 10 times “better than the model we use now, which is called thinking,” says Dr. Richard Kahn, chief scientific officer at the American Diabetes Assn.

I strongly recommend this article as just another example of the many, many applications of mathematics that make a real difference in the world.

Mathematics and Art

The American Mathematical Society (AMS) has a new site dedicated to the connection between mathematics and art, specifically dealing with mathematical imagery.  As expected, much of the site is dedicated to the Dutch artist, M.C. Escher who created amazing works of art through the use of mathematics.  You will find links to galleries, museums, articles and other resources.

Interestingly the quote on the front page of the site is by G.H. Hardy, from his book, A Mathematician’s Apology, which I recently read for the first time and review here.

A mathematician, like a painter or poet, is a maker of patterns.  If his patterns are more permanent that their, it is because they are made with ideas.

I find that an interesting reference to the abstractness of mathematics, whereas the site is dedicated to a concrete visualization of the abstractness.  The beauty of mathematics is in its nature to be independent of application and context.  Nevertheless, bringing those patterns into the visual can create some stunning graphics.

My Policital Leanings

This is from a quiz at


political description that
fits you best is…


CONSERVATIVES tend to favor economic freedom, but frequently support laws to restrict personal behavior that violates “traditionalvalues.” They oppose excessive government control of business, while endorsing government action to defend morality and the traditional family structure. Conservatives usually support a strong military, oppose bureaucracy and high taxes, favor a free-market economy, and endorse strong law enforcement.

The RED DOT on the Chart shows where you fit on the political map.

37.5 mpg

I just finished reading an article in today’s paper that discussed a proposal before the Texas Transportation Commission whereby two interstate highways in West Texas would have their speed limits boosted to 80 mph. Wow. For most of my driving life, that is, since the time I was sixteen, I would have thought that was awesome. But I can tell I am getting old when I start thinking thoughts like, “That’s just too darn fast.”

Reading through the article I could only find two real reasons why this was considered a good idea. Unfortunately, both reasons are flawed:

  1. “Carlos Lopez, director of traffic operations for the department, said a survey of both interstates found that 85 percent of motorists were driving up to 79 mph.”
    • I will definitely be passing that along to our resident statistician as a perfect example of an abuse of statistical data. This statistic really tells you nothing. It looks like an argument that a vast majority are already driving over the current speed limit of 70 so it makes sense to move the speed limit up. Unfortunately, this statistic doesn’t tell you how many people are breaking the current speed limit. Notice how the statistic includes all speeds from 0 up to 79 mph. What if we were to learn that 84.9% of all people were driving up to 70 mph? That is certainly possible under the provided statement. If nothing else, the statement needs to be clarified so as to indicate what percentage of drivers are breaking the current speed limit.
    • It also surprises me that 15% of drivers were found to be driving 80 or more. This brings up another good point: Are drivers “consistently” driving that fast or did the survey simply ask if a driver “ever” drove that fast? For example, we might conclude that those 85% of drivers set their cruise control on 79 everytime they hit the interstate, but just as likely, they may “occasionally” drive over the speed limit, and even less frequently, up to 79 mph. In the end, the argument that “Everybody’s doing it” is not only a bad argument but it is not supported by the information provided.
  2. “It’s generally considered a safer condition when motorists are traveling at a uniform speed,” [Randall] Dillard said.
    • Let’s take that what he says is true. Is that independent of the speed at which we travel. For example, it seems that his argument makes perfect sense if the flow of traffic is 60mph and someone comes along and drives 20 mph. There is a lack of safety at that point. It’s simply the principle of relative motion, if two objects are moving in the same direction at different but constant velocities then the difference in their velocities represents their motion relative to each other. On the other hand consider the case where we might raise the speed limit to 150 mph. One car is traveling 150 mph and the other is 140 mph. That would be exactly the same relative velocity as if one were traveling 80 mph and the other 70 mph. And yet there is an obvious difference between the two scenarios. I think the second is much safer than the first simply due to the magnitude of the velocities and not their difference. Thus, Dillard’s idea must have some upper bound. That is, to a certain point it is safer when motorists are traveling at a uniform speed. So the question is whether 80mph is beyond that point. Again maybe I’m getting old, but it seems like it just may be.

The article makes a pretty good set of points in opposition to the proposal citing things like safety and gas mileage as clear drawbacks to the proposal. In fact, I was already planning on posting something with respect to this before I read the article.

I discovered this past week as I was commuting back and forth to Lubbock (a roughly 50 mile one way trip) that if I average 60 mph instead of my usually 73 mph that my gas mileage shot up from 29 mpg to 37.5 mpg. Wow, I say, Wow! 37.5 mpg is wonderful, especially if you consider that I will be making that trip 4 times a week. That is roughly 400 miles per week.

At 29 mpg that would run me about 13.8 gallons per week. At $2.749 a gallon, I’m paying $37.92 in gas a week.

At 37.5 mpg that would run me about 10.67 gallons per week, which comes to $29.32 in gas a week. I’m saving $8.60 a week for 12 weeks. A grand total of $103.20. Not bad. Now the final question is whether Lori thinks that the extra 18 minutes a day (or 14 hours and 24 minutes total for the summer) is worth $103.20.

Bioinformatics and me

This past week marked the beginning of my venture in the wide world of Bioinformatics. As I was looking for work this summer I was searching for just about any area of research where my affinity for new mathematical applications would be satisfied. Somehow, since I became a mathematics researcher I have developed a knack for entering new areas of research as often as my children need new shoes. My master’s work was in scattered data approximation, my doctoral work in finite element methods, last summer I worked for a physical chemist, over the last year I have been developing variable knot spline algorithms and now I am working to learn the field of bioinformatics.

Here is where I work.

This is near where I work and I have no idea what it is or why its there.

So what am I doing? As I keep telling everyone who asks me what I am doing, I am on the steepest part of the learning curve (I hope) so I am just barely learning exactly what it is I am going to do all summer.

As far as I can tell, the first couple of projects that I will be working will involve taking long sequences of genetic data (a list of “letters” A,G,T,C that encode the information of “life”) and comparing them. For example, the primary investigator that I am working for has done significant research in identifying genes in cotton fiber cells. Because of the relative simplicity of the cotton fiber, she has been able to determine which genes encode information about the cell wall. By the way, I will likely sound much more like a computer scientist than a biologist in explaining this. We are going to take the known regions and compare them with other data from other research groups who are working on other plant species such as the Arabidopsis plant or the Poplar tree and help them identify cell wall genes in their genetic data.

Later on, I believe we intend to expand the list of transcription factors for cotton as well as do some research into MicroRNA sequences in cotton data. My boss is more of a laboratory scientist but I have been assured that the only time I might be asked to step into the lab will be to pose for pictures so it looks like they are doing something important. She is very new to the university so most of her lab equipment (and there is a LOT of it) is still in boxes.