TIME mathematics

Top Mathematics Prize Awarded to a Woman for First Time

First woman to win Fields Medal in mathematics
Iranian Professor of mathematics Maryam Mirzakhani Stanford University/EPA

Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani wins the Fields Medal, considered the Nobel of math, and breaks into a male-dominated academic elite. All 52 previous winners of the award were men

A female mathematician has won the most prestigious prize in math for the first time, a hugely symbolic breakthrough for gender equality in one of the most male-dominated areas of academic research.

Maryam Mirzakhani, 37, will be awarded the Fields Medal — widely considered math’s Nobel Prize, since there is no Nobel for mathematics — at a ceremony in Seoul on Wednesday morning. Born and raised in Iran, she has been a professor at Stanford University since 2008.

All the previous 52 winners of the Fields have been men since its inception in 1936, one of the most visible indicators that at its highest level math remains a predominantly male preserve.

Ingrid Daubechies, president of the International Mathematical Union (IMU), said that Mirzakhani’s success was “hugely symbolic and I hope it will encourage more women to get into mathematics because we need more women. I am very happy that now we can put to rest that particular ‘it has never happened before.’”

The Fields Medal is awarded every four years at the IMU’s International Mathematical Congress to two to four mathematicians aged under 40. The medal honors “outstanding mathematical achievement for existing work and for the promise of future achievement,” which is why there is an age limit.

Besides Mirzakhani, the other recipients will be Manjul Bhargava, Princeton professor who was born in Canada but raised in the U.S.; Artur Ávila from Brazil; and Martin Hairer from Austria.

As well as honoring a woman for the first time, this year’s Fields also reflect the rise of the developing world in producing top mathematicians, even if they are working at universities in the West.

Ávila, who works in Paris, is the first winner from South America and Mirzakhani the first from the Middle East.

Yet it is the emergence of a female winner that is likely to cause the most discussion in math and science circles. Even though the percentage of math majors who are women is now approaching parity with men in the U.S., women make up less than 10% of full math professors at the top 100 universities in the U.S., according to Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams, both Cornell University professors, in their book The Mathematics of Sex.

“In the U.S. about 30% of the graduate population at research departments are women,” said Daubechies. “But a higher percentage of women leave academia than men, so we have an even lower percentage of women postdocs and an even lower percentage of women in faculty. It is not just that the numbers are small, it is also that more leave percentagewise. I hope that will change.”

Daubechies, who is the first female president of the IMU, said that there have been excellent female mathematicians before but often they have not done their strongest work before age 40.

“I am of course chuffed that the first female Fields medalist has happened when I am president, but I think it is coincidence. I did not set it out as an agenda point. It would have been completely inappropriate to do that.”

Each Fields Medal comes with a citation, which can be hard to understand for those with no mathematical grounding — and even those with one, since the frontiers of math are such abstract places.

Ávila won “for his profound contributions to dynamical systems theory,” Bhargava won “for developing powerful new methods in the geometry of numbers,” Hairer won “for his outstanding contributions to the theory of stochastic partial differential equations,” and Mirzakhani won “for her outstanding contributions to the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces.”

Daubechies added: “At the IMU we believe that mathematical talent is spread randomly and uniformly over the Earth — it is just opportunity that is not. We hope very much that by making more opportunities available — for women, or people from developing countries — we will see more of them at the very top, not just in the rank and file.”

TIME Environment

Massive ‘Red Tide’ Threatens Florida Beaches

NBC News

“It can kill fish by the millions"

A toxic red tide, the biggest in nearly a decade, is threatening tourism and endangered manatees as it moves down the Florida coast.

The culprit is Karenia brevis, microscopic algae that explode in numbers when the conditions are right, usually in late summer or early fall.

“These kinds of blooms damage wildlife, people, tourism, everything,” Don Anderson, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, told NBC News. “It can kill fish by the millions.”

The current red tide bloom is around 20 miles off the southwestern coast of Florida, too far away to bother beachgoers, at least for now…

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME astronomy

What the ‘Supermoon’ Looked Like Around the World

A 'supermoon,' resulting from a full moon that moves around the planet at the nearest approach of its orbit appearing more than one-tenth larger and one-third brighter, was visible on Sunday night. From Spain to China and New York to Athens, here's how it looked around the world

TIME Environment

Giant Waves Pose New Risk for Ships in Ice-Diminished Arctic

This map shows the extent of Arctic sea ice in July 2014. It was 3.19 million square miles (8.25 million square kilometers). The magenta lines show the 1981 to 2010 median extent for that month. The black cross indicates the geographic North Pole. NBC

"These are still pretty treacherous waters"

Monster waves should be added to the list of hazards faced by ship captains as they plot a course through the waters of the Arctic Ocean, according to a new study that reports observations of house-sized swells in seas that until recently were covered in ice year-round.

“Waves always pose a risk to working at sea,” study author Jim Thomson, an oceanographer at the University of Washington in Seattle, said via email to NBC News from off the coast of northern Alaska. “The unique thing about the Arctic is that it is changing so rapidly that we cannot apply past measurements to understand future risk…”

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME astronomy

This Supermoon Hogs the Spotlight Sunday (Sorry, Perseid Meteors)

This weekend marks the year's most super-duper supermoon


This is the summer of the supermoon, with three full moons in a row that appear bigger and brighter than normal. But this weekend marks the year’s most super-duper supermoon: When the moon rises on Sunday evening, it’ll be as close as a full moon ever gets to Earth during 2014.

Purists will protest: At its closest, the full moon is about 14 percent wider and 30 percent brighter than it is at its farthest. That difference is virtually impossible to perceive with the naked eye. It becomes noticeable only when you compare two photos of the full moon taken under the same conditions at different times of year…

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME space

Cosmic First: Spacecraft Orbits Comet—With Plans to Land

Behind the veil: Comet 67P—like all comets—is a lot less glamorous without its tail
Behind the veil: Comet 67P—like all comets—is a lot less glamorous without its tail European Space Agency

Watching comets from a distance is one thing. Riding along with one for more than a year—not to mention landing on it—is something else entirely

Space scientists have scrutinized comets with Earthly telescopes. They’ve watched from afar as one comet self-destructed and slammed into Jupiter, and as another committed hara kiri by venturing too close to the Sun. They’ve even sent space probes to whiz by comets at high speed, trying to unravel their still mysterious nature. Until now, however, nobody has attempted the daredevil stunt of inserting a space probe into orbit around a comet and following with the even riskier maneuver of sending a lander down to scratch and sniff at its ancient, murky surface.

But that’s exactly what the scientists and engineers behind the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission have just accomplished—or the first part, anyway. On August 6 at about 7:00 A.M. ET, after more than ten years in pursuit, Rosetta caught up with and began circling a bulbous comet known as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimernko (mercifully called 67P for short). And in early November, if all goes according to plan, the mother ship will deploy a lander named Philae to analyze the comet’s structure and composition in unprecedented detail.

It may seem like an awful lot of effort to expend just to study a member of a class of cosmic objects Harvard astronomer Fred Whipple once described as “dirty snowballs.” But these particular snowballs could be the key to all sorts scientific mysteries. They’ve been largely deep-frozen since the Solar System formed some 4.6 billion years ago, for example, so they preserve some of the original material from that seminal time. A rain of comets shortly after Earth came into existence might have been the source of our planet’s life-giving oceans. And some of that “dirt” comes in the form of tarry organic compounds, which means comet impacts could even have played a crucial role in the origin of life.

All of these questions, plus more nobody’s even thought to ask, could be answered, at least in part, by Rosetta and Philae as they ride along with 67P for the next 15 months, using a total of 21 separate instruments, including cameras to study the comet as it stirs to life in the heat of the Sun.

“We’ll be there through its closest approach with the Sun in summer 2015, when the activity is at a maximum and the nucleus is expelling thousands of pounds of material per minute,” says Mark Taylor, Rosetta’s chief scientist. That material will give 67P a temporary atmosphere for the orbiter to sample and analyze (among other things, it should be able to tell if the comet’s ice is a chemical match for Earth’s oceans), but since its closest approach to the Sun is still about 27 million miles (43 million km) outside Earth’s orbit, there’s not enough heat to make the thin atmosphere (called the coma) flare into a full-fledged tail.

The main spacecraft is currently circling at a distance of 60 miles (96 km) but it will gradually diminish to less than 10—stationkeeping while the lander does its work on the surface. That work will involve taking close-up photos and analyzing 67P’s surface chemistry—as well as the chemistry of the subsurface. Philae carries a handy drill which can penetrate a few inches into the ground beneath it. “It digs up a sample and puts it into a small oven,” explains Rosetta team member Fred Goesmann, of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany, which allows volatile chemicals to be released for chemical identification.

Another, ingenious experiment will be able to look far deeper into the comet’s interior. When the orbiter is on the opposite side of 67P from Philae’s landing site, it will send radio waves right through entire 3 mi. (4,8 km) mass of rock and ice. Philae will reflect the waves back—and just like a CT scan does with the human body—the reflected waves will reveal the interior structure of the comet. That will help scientists figure out whether it formed as a single piece, or as small chunks that slowly aggregated into 67P’s current size.

And that’s just a hint of what the mission is likely to uncover. Racing by comets at high speed or peering at them through telescopes has proven useful enough. Hanging out with one for more than a year of intensive study, however, will give scientists an unprecedented amount of information about these icy messengers from out beyond Neptune.

TIME Innovation

IBM’s New Processor Sounds More Brain-Like Than Ever

Imagine assistive glasses for the visually impaired that can help them navigate through complex environments—without the need for a wi-fi connection.
Imagine assistive glasses for the visually impaired that can help them navigate through complex environments—without the need for a wi-fi connection. IBM

IBM unveils a new processor that sips a fraction of the energy today's processors do, but that can deliver radically greater returns on a brain-like synaptic scale.

IBM’s splashy new “brain” chip, TrueNorth, is actually nothing like a real human brain — it’s not going to admire the pointillistic works of Van Gogh, much less fall in love with you before absconding to frolic with a new race of godlike machine beings ala Her — but it is a remarkable-sounding next step in the direction of brain-like computers that mimic the synaptic conversation actual brains have been having for eons.

The chip, designed over the past decade and part of IBM’s TrueNorth computing architecture, is detailed in the August 8 issue of Science, and it’s based on a principle that’s been around for decades known as neuromorphic engineering. That’s a fancy way of describing a system that mimics the biological nervous system, including (though not limited to) biological brains.

TrueNorth is IBM’s stab at a neuromorphic processor, something its authors describe as an “efficient, scalable and flexible non-von Neumann architecture.” John von Neumann came up with the basic architecture for how you’d go about running a digital processor in the 1940s, and it’s that essentially linear notion that forms the basis for the computers we’re still using today.

But linearity has its disadvantages: today’s processors are epically faster than human brains at crunching massively complex mathematical equations, say simulating weather patterns or calculating all the gravitational vectors involved in soft-landing a rover on Mars. But they’re utterly dimwitted at attempting contextual feats we humans perform with ease, say picking a voice out of a crowd or deciding which type of wine goes best with a meal.

That’s where the notion of brain-like parallelism comes in, itself a well-established idea in computing, but TrueNorth is about scaling it to unprecedented levels. The processor simulates a brain with one million neurons and 256 million synapses — about the crunch-power of a honey bee or cockroach — fueled by an on-chip network of 4,096 neurosynaptic cores. That adds up to a 5.4 billion transistor processor — the largest chip IBM’s yet built — but one that sips a mere 70 milliwatts of power during realtime operations, or four orders of magnitude fewer than conventional chips today. Altogether, the chip can perform 46 billion synaptic operations per second, per watt, says IBM.


Think of it as a little like the old left brain, right brain relationship: language and analytic thinking are left (von Neumann architecture) while sense and pattern recognition are right (neuromorphic processors). And that’s just the start, says IBM, noting that in the years to come, it hopes to bring the two together “to create a holistic computing intelligence.”

While we’re waiting for our holistic machine overlords to take over, what can TrueNorth do after developers have figured out what to design for it? How about improving visual and auditory tasks traditional computers presently stumble over?

As IBM Fellow Dharmendra Modha writes, “The architecture can solve a wide class of problems from vision, audition, and multi-sensory fusion, and has the potential to revolutionize the computer industry by integrating brain-like capability into devices where computation is constrained by power and speed.” Notice the way Modha describes the chips as complementary: the strategy with TrueNorth out of the gate looks to be integrative rather than one of displacing the processors in our smartphones, tablets and laptop computers.

Again, it’s important to bear in mind that TrueNorth isn’t a brain. As Modha himself notes, “we have not built the brain, or any brain. We have built a computer that is inspired by the brain.” But it’s an important step forward: another rung on a ladder that’s as high as our hopes of perhaps someday creating computer-like beings in our own image, or ones better still.

TIME Japan

Science Scandal Triggers Suicide, Soul-Searching in Japan

Sasai, deputy director of the Riken's Center for Developmental Biology, poses for a photo with Haruko Obokata in front of a screen showing STAP cells, in Kobe
Yoshiki Sasai, right, deputy director of the Riken's Center for Developmental Biology, poses for a photo with Haruko Obokata on Jan. 28, 2014. Kyodo/Reuters

Yoshiki Sasai’s death has generated mixed emotions among Japan's scientific community

It was a success story that Japan sorely needed: a young, talented and beautiful researcher developed a cheap and simple way to grow versatile stem cells.

The discovery promised to usher in a new age of regenerative medicine, validated Japan as a leader in scientific research and demonstrated that even in a male-dominated society, women could excel when given a chance.

Alas, it may have been too good to be true.

Intrigued by researcher Haruko Obokata’s breakthrough, other scientists tried but failed to replicate her results. Peer-review websites accused her of falsifying data and doctoring images, and supervisors were accused of lax management. Obokata, 30, was forced to retract her scientific papers, and the government-sponsored research center where she worked launched a formal investigation.

The matter took a darker turn this week when Obokata’s supervisor and mentor, Yoshiki Sasai, a noted scientist in his own right, was found hanging from a stairway railing at his office.

In farewell letters found at his desk, Sasai reportedly apologized for the turmoil, but urged Obokata to continue her work and to prove her detractors wrong.

Sasai’s death cast a pall over the controversy. But in a nation where suicide does not carry the same stigma as in some Western countries, there has been a certain degree of sympathy — if not outright approval.

“This is seen in some respects as an honorable way out of a shameful and devastating turn of events: ‘A highflyer brought low by an underling’s mistakes, seeking to atone for and expunge the shame,’” says Jeffrey Kingston, a professor of Asian studies at Tokyo’s Temple University-Japan. “This touches a chord of sympathy and understanding in Japan.”

Sasai was a noted stem-cell scientist and deputy director of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology, in Kobe — part of a national research system that receives roughly $1 billion a year in government support and is part of an ambitious effort to boost scientific research throughout Japan.

The 52-year-old was not directly involved in Obokata’s research, but had helped recruit her and supervised the research papers that were published in the British journal Nature in January.

But whether Sasai’s death generates sympathy for Obokata or the rest of Japan’s scientific community remains to be seen.

Obokata burst onto the scene in late January with the publication of the Nature papers, of which she was the lead author. Those studies claimed to have found a new way of creating stem cells, dubbed stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, or STAP. Such cells could be used to create new tissue, with potential for treating illnesses like Alzheimer’s, heart disease and stroke.

Poised and photogenic, Obokata was an instant hit with Japan’s frenetic media —mainstream and social, alike. Here, after all, was a different kind of scientist. Even in the lab, Obokata flashed stylish clothes, false eyelashes and fashionable hairstyles. She eschewed the usual white lab coat in favor of a traditional housewife’s kappogi (a gift from her grandmother, she explained) and had the walls of her lab painted pink and yellow and decorated with cartoon characters.

Even Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has made “womenomics” a key plinth of his economic revival package, noticed. He commended Obokata’s apparent achievement from the floor of Japan’s Parliament and vowed to build “a country where the women are the brightest in the world.”

But it didn’t take long for doubts to surface. Peer-review websites noticed oddities and discrepancies in Obokata’s research. Attempts to replicate her findings failed.

By mid-February, RIKEN had launched an internal investigation. In April, officials charged Obokata with fabricating data, doctoring images and borrowing descriptions from other research papers.

Meanwhile, discrepancies were found in the research of other leading scientists, though none with the public profile of Obokata.

In an excruciating, four-hour press conference televised live by many of Japan’s major networks, a tearful Obokata struggled to maintain her composure. She admitted errors in her research papers, but maintained they were innocent mistakes that did not affect the final results. STAP cells were real, she insisted.

She has remained on the staff at RIKEN but has maintained a low profile, refusing interviews. In July, RIKEN officials announced that she would be allowed to take part in a five-month experiment designed to discover once and for all whether her initial findings were real. Other researchers and video cameras would monitor her work, officials said.

The RIKEN affair has been watched closely by Japan’s scientific community, which has produced its share of Nobel Prizes but is often viewed as insular and underperforming.

“One thing that should not be lost in all this is that Japan produces outstanding science,” says Jonathan Dorfan, a former director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, at Stanford University, and now president of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan.

“People in the scientific community here are paying attention to this, and hopefully that will lead to the kind of training that will avoid an outcome like this happening again.”

TIME Infectious Disease

Watch a Science Cop Take on Donald Trump

TIME's Jeffrey Kluger takes on The Donald for crimes against science


The Ebola outbreak that is causing such fear and suffering in Africa is a very real and very deadly thing. But the fact is that the nature of the Ebola virus is such that it stands a very low chance of ever causing a pandemic like AIDS or H1N1. That hasn’t stopped America’s great foghorn—Donald Trump—and others like him from spreading all kinds of misinformation about the disease, warning people that patients should not be brought to the U.S. and that flights from West Africa should be stopped, otherwise we face an American epidemic.

But Trump and his ilk are committing a science crime—the crime of misinformation. Here’s the truth, from TIME’s Jeffrey Kluger.


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