John Milnor’s phone rang at 6AM.  It was the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters calling.

Milnor, a New Jersey native, is the 2011 winner of the Abel Prize in mathematics. He’s a topologist and dynamical systems theorist at Stony Brook University in New York state. In May, King Harald of Norway will present Milnor with the $1-million prize, a Nobel-level cachet among mathematicians.

For Milnor, the prize caps a long and distinguished mathematical career. He first attracted attention in 1950, when, as an undergraduate at Princeton University, he solved a previously unsolved problem on the total curvature of knots.  In 1956, Milnor proved the existence of “exotic” 7-dimensional spheres. He is also known as a great expositor, whose books present simple, common-sense explanations. John McCleary of Vassar College edits Milnor’s works and says the mathematician is a master of understated elegance. “Reading a paper by him is like wandering into an old, old church. You wander off to one side, into the nave, and suddenly you come across this spectacular altar, or a beautiful painting that was totally unexpected.”

Milnor says that what he loves most about mathematics is “a feeling of miracles.” He adds, “You’re working on a problem and it seems impossibly hard, but then you just put together an idea here and an idea there, and somehow the answer just drops out.”

What I loved most about math is that I Survived Geometry.  Talk about miracles. But I do like to listen to RADIOLAB podcasts.  It makes things I might not find interesting, well, interesting. Like this show about numbers. The hosts, Robert and Jad, say that whether you love ‘em or hate ‘em, chances are that you rely on numbers every day of your life. Numbers confuse us, connect us and even reveal secrets about us.

In 25 Minutes to Go, Johnny Cash counts down the minutes to his hanging. It’s the start of the back-and-forth between Robert and Jad about whether you could live without numbers. Jad introduces his newborn son, Amil, and insists that he has no concept of numbers whatsoever. Like father, like son?

RADIOLAB ~ it’s today’s Per Diem Good Thing.


Toni 3/26/11

SOS! Baseball Is About to Start! Let’s Hear It for Hip Pocket. Ike to Mike. Squish the Bug

David Ortiz
Image by paul.hadsall via Flickr

Sometimes the hum inside our heads that provides the model for our living and learning is an adage, a phrase, an acronym, a mnemonic that reminds us of the steps. Here’s the story that taught me this.


Hip Pocket. Ike to Mike. Squish the bug.  The hitter swings the bat, the ball zooms off to right field , the next batter steps into the box and says the same thing. Hip Pocket. Ike to Mike. Squish the Bug.

It’s early in the baseball season, and I’m watching and listening to the end of the first practice. Jack is the coach of the Freshman team, Doug is the freshman and Rob and John, just home from college, are assistants. When I arrived,the team had just lined up for a final batting practice before calling it quits for the day. At first I think I must have mis-heard what they are saying, but all 20 boys accompany their batting with the same mantra.

As we drive home I ask Jack and the boys about it. So what’s this hip pocket all about?

John, an English major, begins the explanation. It’s a mnemonic, Mom.  Remember  Mnemosyne?  The mother of the Muses? Goddess of memory? Hip Pocket helps the kids remember.

Remember how to bat? I frown.  Don’t they know how already?

Doug pitches in. But we all have different stances.

Rob, with a chuckle, And some are pretty awful.

So we have the boys memorize this set of phrases to help them remember how to stand at the plate, says Jack.

At home,Doug goes through the motions and Jack labels the actions.

When the pitcher is in his wind up, the batter can see his hip pocket. Picture of a Right Handed Batter Waiting for a Pitch

This cues him to shift his stance so that his hip pocket is facing the pitcher’s hip pocket. One shoulder is “Ike” and the other is “Mike.”

Picture of a Stylistic Image of a Baseball Player at Bat

The batter swings from Ike to Mike, and, while doing so, twists his back foot as if he were squishing a bug. Hip Pocket Ike to Mike Squish the bug.

Picture of a Batter with Arms Fully Extended after a Swing

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Towards the end of the season, the boys again line up for batting practice. I listen. No one chants Hip pocket. Ike to Mike. Squish the bug.

Afterwards as the team picks up gloves and drink cups, I go over to Doug. So, Doug, you don’t use that Hip Pocket thing anymore?

He looks up from stuffing the bat bag, pity in his eyes at my ignorance.  Mom! We don’t need to say it anymore, and here he pauses, leans the bat bag on his leg so he can free a hand. He taps his forehead, It’s inside us!