Thursday, April 09, 2009

Fermi, Pasta, Ulam, and the Birth of Experimental Mathematics

The May-June 2009 issue of the magazine American Scientist will include the article, Fermi, Pasta, Ulam and the Birth of Experimental Mathematics, which I coauthored with Norm Zabusky, Bambi Hu, and David Campbell. (I added an extra comma in the title of the blog entry, as I prefer that style. I was not allowed to use it in the article because of the magazine's official style policy.

This article is basically "FPU for Dummies", as it attempts to discuss the Fermi-Pasta-Ulam problem (and the massive amount of exciting work it has spawned; this includes multiple subdisciplines of math and physics!) without using mathematical equations. This is really hard for a subject like this...


Travis said...

Appropriately, that usage of the comma is sometimes known as the "Oxford comma". (You should definitely tell the editors, "I am an Oxford professor and as such I insist on the Oxford comma.") I prefer it too, for the reasons mentioned in a timely Language Log post from today. Or the classic example, "I would like to thank my parents, God and Ayn Rand."

Also, one of the best songs from last year was "Oxford Comma" by Vampire Weekend. Had I made a yearly mix CD for 2008 that song would definitely have been on it.

Mason said...

Hah! I didn't know it was called the Oxford comma, though we are kind of known as having the last bastion for certain grammatical battles.

Whenever the editors told me that the magazine had a specific style, I basically had to acquiesce. I argued many other things vehemently, however---everything and anything on which I had an opinion of the magazine style gave me any leeway at all do so so. One of my favorite examples was when one of the editors (not the main one) disparaged people who used one particular way of phrasing things because he felt it was dead wrong (note he only went this far with his comments on one very specific thing), and then I responded by pointing out that in UK English that it often specifically correct (though I agreed with him that it was very awkward in that instance) and his alternative was often specifically wrong. We found a solution that was far better than either option (and now I can't even remember what the grammatical issue was!), but I wasn't going to let his comment slide---while accepting his dislike, I felt the need to point out that there was another, technically correct, way of doing things because the suggestion was otherwise. [Ah, now I remember: it was about putting a dash in compound adjectives. See The History Boys for more about compound adjectives. :) ]

You are the second person to tell me about that song. I have already put it on my list of songs to acquire. I haven't heard it yet, so I should probably listen to a sample to see if I want to buy it from iTunes.

Jon said...

I have often wondered about physical principles underlying the fragmentation patterns of peptides in tandem mass spectrometry. It seems like FPU may help here. Maybe this is already published - as I have become more of a biologist I have lost the ability to read J Phys Chem critically.

I approve of the Oxford comma, but still have difficulty using punctuation in a formally correct manner.

Mason said...

I'm not sure if these things have been used for that. There are some nonlinear oscillator models in the context of DNA, and I believe that ILMs are considered relevant in DNA (maybe even by some of the biologists?).