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Math and Science

The Why Files

In a brilliant coup, The Why Files (http://www.whyfiles.org) manage to effectively bring math to the masses by exploring the science behind the news. Every week, actual news headlines are explored and deconstructed in order to touch upon the math behind the facts, so in a fell swoop, visitors stay informed on current events as well as learn about practical math / science applications.

Take, for example, a person who is unable to work due to an injury or debilitating illness and decides to apply for social security disability benefits. When he applies, he will be asked to supply medical and other information to determine if his circumstance meets Social Security’s definition of disability. It can be a daunting process, particularly knowing that up to 60% – 70% of initial applications are denied for one reason or another. What are the numbers that were used to get these percentages? If denied the person can have their file reviewed again within 60 days. If that also is denied, there is an appeal hearing possible. At this point, the fellow decides to do an online search and find a Social Security disability lawyer whose offices are relatively close by. A social security attorney can appeal decisions to an Administrative Law Judge and the statistics are very good for winning the appeal. Approximately 60% -70% of these appeals win! Again, in order to get these percentages one needs the hard numbers of appeal hearing wins and loses. Math at work. And once the disabled person is granted benefits, a social security lawyer usually receives approximately 25% of the benefits up to a certain amount. Again math is need to compute the monies.

Or another example, a janitorial supply store that offers dozens of different toilet papers. Toilet paper is available in 1, 2, or 3 ply / layers. The three ply is always more expensive. Is the cost really worth the difference when it comes to the strength of the toilet paper? Is it just the ply or the “type” of paper. Some toilet paper is thin and rough, other brands are soft and thicker? And the big question: is the ply thickness the determining factor with how many toilet paper squares are used when people wipe themselves. There must be a science to determining how much toilet paper to buy at a janitorial supply store. But exactly how is it determined?

Or the massive 7.0. earthquake which struck about 25 kilometers west of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, on January 12, 2010. More than 150,000 people may have lost their lives, according to government reports. It was a violent aftershock with a 5.9 magnitude that actually decimated Port-au-Prince on January 20th. Going even further behind the headlines, The Why Files explains that four days later, a whopping 52 aftershocks registering 4.5 magnitude or above had been recorded.

Why lead the Why Files to ask why earthquakes follow earthquakes. And do some “aftershocks” take years to appear? And is there a way to gain a better understanding of earthquake sequences that can help seismologists better predict future ones?

The Why Files then explains the two types of “follow-on” quakes, triggered earthquakes – which occur in a nearby section of the original fault – and aftershocks which technically occur in the same section of the fault.

So where exactly do the math and science fit into the equation?

In a word: predictability. This question gets asked a lot in relation to all sorts of things. Probably one area where predictability along with math and science fits into an equation is its use in gambling. Just as scientist use math and science to predict earthquakes, gamblers use math and science in games like poker and blackjack to beat other players by using probability and statistics. For instance if a person goes to a website to play slots online and he/ she wants to succeed as a gambler, then learning about probability and statistics would be helpful. Since slots are completely luck (no skill needed), the probability of a win does not change due to past losses. So mathematicians are more likely to go to games where the odds are more favorable, like poker, or even roulette. Blackjack is especially good if you can combine math with card counting, which is why casinos use multiple decks to thwart the counters. There is a reason why many mathematicians make great gamblers. Every game of chance involves probability. By using probability in certain games, a person can make money in the long run.

Unlike gamblers who rely on luck, experience and the math and science fields of probability and statistics, we would like scientists to ground their predictions in solid math and science. Aftershocks are relatively predictable, and follow well-established empirical rules. The largest aftershock is typically one unit smaller than the main shock. Case in point, the January 20th aftershock, which measured at 5.9 on the Richter scale, was a little over 1 magnitude unit smaller than the January 12th main shock. Predictably, the aftershock rate will fall with time – note that aftershocks are considered finished when earthquakes fall back down to the background rate.

And that’s just one of the countless headlines that the Why Files ask why about….!

And upcoming in the next few posts, a really super hot topic is weight loss. Why is it possible for some people to lose huge amounts of weight in such a short time – 1 pound a day for a month? Jude Reiner discusses the incredible success of a revitalized 1950’s diet that centers around diet injections and a low calorie diet. Jude actually went on the diet and photographed his progress. You won’t believe what you see!

And one more tease of a Why File – What makes women more insightful when it comes to analyzing the responses to uncomfortable questions? We have evidence that females have an edge here, boys. Stay tuned – More incredibel Why Files stuff coming at you…

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