Created by producer Robert Pollie, the 7th Avenue Project is a weekly radio show for the seriously curious. Interviews and features on science, philosophy, art, music, culture, comedy and real-life stories.
The show airs every Sunday at 12 noon (PST) on NPR affiliate Central Coast Public Radio.
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Mathematician Jordan Ellenberg: How Not to Be Wrong Show for Aug 17, 2014
In the summer of 2011, a political talking point made the rounds claiming that the state of Wisconsin under governor Scott Walker had produced more than half of the country’s new jobs for the month of June. Sure enough, America’s Dairyland had added 9,500 private sector jobs, while only 18,000 had been created nationwide. But there’s a catch: that 18,000 figure measured net new jobs, factoring in the many jobs lost across the country along with the tens of thousands created. In fact, job growth in a number of states actually outpaced Wisconsin’s. Texas alone added 32,000 jobs, so you could say, nonsensically, that it contributed 180% of the national total.
That load of hooey is far from the most egregious example of the muddled math that gets promulgated these days, not just by fact-spinning political hacks but also well-meaning journalists and public explainers. And our current infatuation with numerical evidence and data-driven everything isn’t going to help if we’re unequipped to interpret the numbers intelligently.
"The point of math isn’t solving problems," mathematician Jordan Ellenberg told me, "it’s understanding stuff." Jordan and I discussed some of the many ways we misunderstand stuff – "we’ meaning just about everyone, including the media, would-be experts and even some scientists – and how we can do better. Jordan is the author of the acclaimed new book How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking.
Click the play arrow above to hear the show, or the download icon on the upper right to get your own mp3.
Mathematician Noson Yanofsky: The Outer Limits of Reason Show for June 15, 2014
Does science have all the answers? The answer is no, and the proof comes from science itself. Mathematician/computer scientist Noson Yanofsky and I talked about his latest book, The Outer Limits of Reason: What Science, Mathematics, and Logic Cannot Tell Us. It’s a treasury of insoluble problems, undecidable propositions and practical or theoretical barriers to understanding. We discussed Alan Turing’s Halting Problem, Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, Heisenbergian uncertainty, the mathematics of infinity and the simultaneously simple and ridiculously difficult traveling salesman problem. Also quantum computing, the trouble with self-referentiality and the wondrous correspondence between math and the physical world.
Click the play arrow above to hear the interview, or the download icon on the upper right to get your own mp3.
Show for Dec 8, 2013. Mathematician Cédric Villani.
Since winning the Fields Medal (the closest thing in mathematics to the Nobel Prize) in 2010, Cédric Villani has become something of a roving ambassador for math and science. He’s well-suited (literally) to the role: a patient explainer and broad-minded thinker, passionate about education and social engagement, with a seemingly limitless range of interests. And just a cool guy.
We talked about Cédric’s emergence as a math whiz, what it’s like to spend years exploring a single equation, his fascination with statistical mechanics and entropy, whether math is “real” in some more-than-conceptual sense, what mathematicians do that computers can’t, his love of comic books, and, yes, his trademark retro look, seen below.
Click the Listen arrow at the top of this post to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)
Show for April 7, 2013. Leonard Susskind: Plumbing the Universe.
Last time I spoke to the theoretical physicist Leonard Susskind, it was about his long-running debate with Stephen Hawking on the nature of information and black holes, as retold in the book The Black Hole War. You can listen to that conversation here. This time, we talked about Lenny himself: his humble beginnings as a plumber’s son in the Bronx, becoming a physicist, his thought process, his best ideas and some of his duds. Also, why he loves to explain physics to non-experts – a talent he put to good use in this interview, describing some of the initial insights that led to string theory and shedding light on the mind-stretching holographic principle. Overall, a very interesting glimpse into a highly original mind.
You can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)
Show for Feb 10, 2013. Civil rights leader and educator Bob Moses.
In the early 1960’s Bob Moses risked life and limb as a civil rights organizer in the deep south. In recent decades he’s taken up a new cause, promoting math instruction for educationally disadvantaged kids. He believes quality education is a fundamental right, and math skills are a key to economic opportunity. Bob is soft-spoken and not one to play up his accomplishments, but his story is extraordinary, as you’ll hear in this conversation.
Show for June 26, 2011. Jennifer Ouellette and The Calculus Diaries.
How one mathophobe conquered her fears, and others can, too. For years, science journalist Jennifer Ouellette made a living writing about subjects like physics, while avoiding the mathematics. Finally, she resolved to shed the dread and confront calculus, as she relates in her recent book The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse. We talked about her reconciliation with math, the history and uses of calculus (e.g., predicting rates of zombification), the sources of math anxiety and techniques for getting over it.
We also played an excerpt from this song, by Matthew Kaney:
Click the “play” arrow above to listen to the show, or download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)
Incidentally, Jennifer’s hubby is the physicist Sean Carroll, who we interviewed here on the subject of time.