Sunday, September 19, 2010

Significant figures, error, and "proofiness"

Professional scientists and engineers have to be skilled in the handling of error and the tracking of significant figures. High school students are not professional scientists or engineers. While I don't exclude any discussion of these issues in my course, neither do I dwell on them. We spend a day on them, and revisit them as needed.

I heard an interesting story on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered that made me think of how significant figures and error work their way into "everyday life." The piece is an interview with Charles Seife, whose latest book, Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception will arrive on bookshelves this week.

Amazon's description of the book:

"Proofiness," as Charles Seife explains in this eye-opening book, is the art of using pure mathematics for impure ends, and he reminds readers that bad mathematics has a dark side. It is used to bring down beloved government officials and to appoint undeserving ones (both Democratic and Republican), to convict the innocent and acquit the guilty, to ruin our economy, and to fix the outcomes of future elections. This penetrating look at the intersection of math and society will appeal to readers of Freakonomics and the books of Malcolm Gladwell."

Listen to the NPR piece here. If you're not familiar with the story of the 65,000,038 year-old dinosaur, you shouldn't miss it.

The brief time spent on these matters in not for naught. Too much time on them pushes out actual physics out of the school year.

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