Getting cancer wrong indeed


Flipping through Newsweek’s cover story about “Solving Cancer”, my heart skipped a beat when I saw a math equation. It was not the bogus (x + y = -c) equation that they used in their cover art, that I cheekily used for this post’s art too. It was this guy:


This was highly unusual! I don’t recall the last time I came across a math equation in science writing in popular news media. I was already impressed! A science journalist was going to explain this seemingly complex equation to his uninitiated readers. Sign me up!

Alas, all my hopes were dashed, when upon reading the article, to my dismay, here’s what Newsweek wrote about the equation:

If that freaks you out, don’t worry—it freaks out a lot of clinicians. Gatenby and his team are doing the math for them…

The whole point of throwing that equation in there was shock and awe. Oh gee whiz, lookie here, a complicated cancer model with undecipherable math symbols. Are you scared dear reader? Don’t be! We’ll let the math nerds work it out.

Perhaps it is too much to expect popular science writing with meaningful treatment of mathematics. Pieces that convey the magic and mystery of math rather than propagate math-phobia amongst lay readers may have gone away with the passing of Martin Gardner. Quite sad to think that in view of this year’s “mathematics, magic and mystery” theme for math awareness month as an homage to Gardner!

I simultaneously understand the math aversion and feel a strong need to get others past it. I was fairly math averse myself. Through much of my K through 12 education, math was the dreaded homework best saved for last, only to be rushed through at the very end. This quote from Donald Miller’s book, Blue Like Jazz, best summarizes my math experience:

I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night where I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes. After that I liked jazz music. Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.

I don’t think I can find better words to describe how I went from “not liking math” to spending over a decade of my life learning to do cool things with math and earning a few academic degrees along the way. Not everyone in the country should get a PhD in math (PS: I don’t have a PhD in math), but you don’t need a PhD in math to understand its utility and beauty. And you don’t need a PhD in math to figure out when something just doesn’t make any sense, like that equation published in the Newsweek article.

With no context for that lone equation provided by Newsweek, except that this was a cancer model developed by Robert Gatenby, it took a bit of digging to find the original paper that referenced the equation. That was followed by some amount of squinting to make sense out the equation. As written, it made no sense to me. Unless there was a missing comma in that equation, so that it reads like so:


The correct form is also found in this wiki about this particular cancer model, with more details to indulge your interest. The typographical error existed in the original paper, which Newsweek then used without understanding, to bamboozle an unwary reader with mathematical symbols. Getting cancer wrong indeed! Or perhaps the way cancer research advances are reported in popular media.

Image credit: Microsoft clipart and Newsweek cover used for the creation of the blog post art.

2 Responses to “Getting cancer wrong indeed”
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  • Legalese

    The purpose of this blog is to share interesting bits from around the web and beyond. All opinions expressed on this site are my own, unless credited to someone else. The images and artwork have also been created by me, unless credited to the sources. Oh! And please don't hold me liable for your actions resulting from any information on this site. As with everything else on the internet, read with the requisite amount of skepticism.
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