Words, words, words

Celebrity math

One hazard of being an attractive starlet is that many people assume you’re not that smart. This, however, is no problem for Danica McKellar, a 30-year-old former star of The Wonder Years and regular on The West Wing, because she’s actually got documented proof of her brilliance: She’s the author of the mathematical proof “Percolation and Gibbs states multiplicity for ferromagnetic Ashkin-Teller models on Z-squared” (PDF), which she cowrote while doing a degree at the University of California.

There’s an excellent profile of her in the Science section of yesterday’s New York Times, which tells the life-imitates-art story of when McKellar auditioned for the lead role in a San Diego production of the play Proof, in which a young woman claims to have solved a complex mathematical proof:

At an audition, the casting director asked about what she knew of math. Ms. McKellar said she was co-author of a mathematics proof.

“She went into a five-minute explanation,” said Sam Woodhouse, the artistic director of the San Diego Repertory Theater. “Which was a stunning and mystifying five minutes.”

McKellar even managed to talk about math during a Q&A in the current issue of Stuff magazine, in which she also appears in the cover wearing black lingerie:

Q: After [The Wonder Years], you attended UCLA, became a genius and published a paper on Percolation and Gibbs states multiplicity for ferromagnetic Ashkin-Teller models on Z2. I really enjoyed the part on infinite occupied clusters.

A: It’s really complicated and not that interesting to most people.

Heh. Perhaps the coolest and weirdest thing about McKellar is that she actually gets fan mail about math. High-school kids email her complicated math questions; she walks them through the answers on her web site. Check it out and bone up on your probability theory, puzzles about rates, and the physics of tossing a baseball from the outfield to the catcher.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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