If You See Anything, Say Something? Math On A Plane

Remember September 2016 2015? That was the month that [Ahmed Mohamed] brought a modified clock to school and was accused of being a terrorist. The event divided people with some feeling like it was ignorance on the part of the school, some felt the school had to be cautious, some felt it was racial profiling, and others thought it was a deliberate provocation from his possibly politically active parents. In the end, [Ahmed] moved to Qatar.

Regardless of the truth behind the affair, this month we’ve seen something that is probably even less ambiguous. The Washington Post reports that a woman told an Air Wisconsin crew that she was too ill to fly. In reality, she was sitting next to a suspicious man and her illness was a ruse to report him to the crew.

Authorities questioned the man. What was his suspicious activity? Was he assembling a bomb? Carrying a weapon? Murmuring plans for destruction into a cell phone? No, he was writing math equations. University of Pennsylvania economics professor [Guido Menzio] was on his way to deliver a speech and was reviewing some differential equations related to his work.

[Menzio] says he was treated well, and the flight was only delayed two hours (which sounds better in a blog post then it does when you are flying). However, this–to me–highlights a very troubling indicator of the general public’s level of education about… well… everything. It is all too easy to imagine any Hackaday reader looking at a schematic or a hex dump or source code could have the same experience.

Some media has tried to tie the event to [Menzio’s] appearance (he’s Italian) but I was frankly surprised that someone would be afraid of an equation. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but a math equation won’t (by itself) down an aircraft. I’ve heard speculation that the woman might have thought the equations were Arabic. First of all, what? And secondly, what if it were? If a person is writing in Arabic on an airplane, that shouldn’t be cause for alarm.

It sounds like the airline (which is owned by American Airlines) and officials acted pretty reasonably if you took the threat as credible. The real problem is that the woman–and apparently, the pilot–either didn’t recognize the writing as equations or somehow feared equations?

Regardless of your personal feelings about the clock incident, you could at least make the argument that the school had a duty to act with caution. If they missed a real bomb, they would be highly criticized for not taking a threat seriously. However, it is hard to imagine how symbols on a piece of paper could be dangerous.

While the mainstream media will continue to focus on what this means for passenger safety and racial profiling, I see it as a barometer of the general public’s perception of science, math, and technology as dark arts.

224 thoughts on “If You See Anything, Say Something? Math On A Plane

  1. saw a woman get hysterical about a guy who’d checked his fancy rifle case (all legally, locked, declared, etc) on his way back from a hunting trip. Security was called and the flight delayed. But paperwork was in order and no one in the Media gave two sh*ts about it. Happens almost all the time, someone calling someone else in for stupid reasons. But we can get some “racism” angle thrown in and it’s all over the world press. A little old lady missing her flight because she meets some “profile” set up by our ever clueless Federal Agencies, bah, who cares, right?

  2. I don’t blame the woman, her actions might’ve lacked a bit of common sense, but she was afraid and did what she was ‘conditioned’ to do. She is merely a cog in the machine who thought that she was doing the right thing.

    The fault here lies in the fear that the media peddles on the people. It is also lies with a government that for the past 16 years channeled that fear and used it to justify establishing a strong security state that strips away the rights and freedoms of its citizens as well as justify unjust and unnecessary wars abroad that in turn create even more ‘enemies’ giving us even more things to be afraid of and hate. It is an irrational self fulfilling prophecy that only benefits the ruling elite and the military industrial complex…much like the ‘red scare’ of the cold war era.

    1. We should screen paranoid-schizophrenics (i.e. dangerous types) from flights. How come EL AL Airlines never has problems like this. We must be doing something wrong here in USA. And they even have flights to and from USA too. Press CTRL-F on your keyboard and type this picture says it all

  3. He was using Arabic numerals after all. Of course so was the airline as in “Flight 1558.” There are terrorists using Arabic numerals in every math class in the US from Pre-K on. (Please don’t tell the GOP. They’ll take the numbers away to Guantanamo.)

    1. I think it was Flight 3950 (unless you were referring to that French flight last week?) . Also I get your joke… All English writers (including USA) are taught Arabic numbers (0 to 9). And Guantanamo will be closed soon and POTUS Trump WON’T be able to re-open it as Raul Castro will take it back from Mr. Obama quickly and dare Mr. Trump et al to even come any where near it again. There are plenty of Black Sites worldwide they can be transferred to. None of which are in CONUS (continental US[A]).

  4. Wouldn’t it be wiser, quicker, and cheaper to simply have a room full of engineering experts for all disciplines who work in, IDK, the NSA? where you can email / txt images of this stuff for rapid threat assessment? Or is the NSA a purely political organization with no real technical acumen backing their massive budget and 1984 style rights violations?

    1. Yes we (USA) do have a “tip-line” sponsored by US DHS. But it is probably not very helpful in this type of case. The airline NEVER suspected Dr. Menzio of anything. His equations where NEVER in question by them only Ms. Ditzey-Schizy (a name I just coined for the unidentified subject accuser of Dr. Menzio). Also you must understand that our NSA was started some 63 years ago (and previous incarnations dating back to 1917). However, it was a very top-secret to US citizens until the late Senator Frank Church mentioned them as “dangerous” in a comment aimed at the C.I.A. in 1975 after Watergate Debacle. Even then no US citizen was paying close attention as usual. Now we only know about NSA from Hollywood-bunk movies and the occasional mention in the news media. And now Edward Snowden.

  5. I guess I was one of the few people here to ACTUALLY read Al Williams Washington post article about what happened. After analysis I have come to the following conclusions:

    1) The woman passed a note to the flight attendant that she thought her seast mate was drawing symbols on a paper pad that SEEMED to her to be Arabic plans for something nefarious (RED FLAG HERE!)

    2) The note was given to the pilot. He had the good Dr. Menzio brought forward for routine questioning. The questions where related to her state of mind NOT what he was doing. However the Dr. did show the pilot that he was doing Econimics-based differential equations for a future speech in Ontario CA.

    3) The pilot turned the plane around NOT because of the Dr’s drawings but because of her state-of-mind and possible danger to the flight by HER anticipated mental illness.

    So in conclusion she was ill. Mentally ill. She was displaying the same visual and audible illusions that the late Dr. John Nash of Princeton U (USA) experienced and was demonstrated by the actor Russell Crowe in the movie https://youtu.be/YWwAOutgWBQ – she was obviously suffering from either un-diagnosed schizophrenia or was “off her meds”.In the movie Dr. Nash used the same equations Dr. Menzio used on the plane.

    So in conclusion, Air Wisconsin did nothing wrong. They did not treat Dr. Menzio with any racism or ethnic/religious bias. They only reacted appropriately to a passenger with plausibly dangerous mental illness. Have any of you witnessed a paranoid-schizophrenic in full on break from reality? In their minds they are arriving at conclusions NOT in evidence. They assume you are trying to violate their safety or rights and react in a inappropriate self-defense mode. They’d need to be restrained or given a sedative to calm them down. What airline pilot wants to deal with that at 30,000 feet?

    I’ll post Dr. Menzio’s photo in a reply to my self… You be the judge: terrorist?

      1. Here is one of Dr. Menzio’s equations from 4-years ago on his whiteboard at UPENN (USA). It was NOT unlike what he was drawing on his ill-fated flight. He does have a foreign accent (Italian) and has Mediterranean features. His accuser was a young 30-year(+) old blonde, with a red tote bag, and flip-flop beach slippers on a frigid May 2016 day. Now that’s not unusual (/sarc).


        How many terrorists ACTUALLY do the planning stage of a operation WHILE in-flight? Don’t they do that at their lair back home in privacy? It is actually this type of faulty thinking that one of our 2016 POTUS campaigners is fostering to his base. This type of paranoia should be exposed and dealt with so as to not delay flights up to 2-hours on the tarmac. Just like Dr. Menzio suggests, airline officials should have access to Google to be able to do some quick OSINT (open source intel) for any given situation like this. The co-pilot or a flight attendant could do some quicky Google searches. Also some amateur-administered Rorschach Tests for “other passengers” would be in order too.


  6. obviously your butts weren’t on the plane, human survival instinct trumps your self proclaimed intelligence anytime, true she failed but she failed safe…what you assume to be harmless equations could have been “blast radius calculations”, “airborne chemical distribution area”, etc., Monday morning quarter backing doesn’t make you a friggin’ genius, just an egotistical future death statistic…as a combat Vet I would much rather she have my back than any of you

    1. @FG – Being a “combat Vet” as you say, you know the enemy NEVER does his paper-planning in front of eye-witnesses. He would want plausible-deniability in case his plans fail and needs to get away quickly without any investigation into what he was doing leading up to it. And any “Hadji-bomber” would have done all that planning back at his hotel room or apartment (aka flat) BEFORE getting on the plane. No, all she did was complicate everybody’s lives by 2-hours and she missed her flight over some overly paranoid-schizophrenic hallucinations. This was like a local fire department wasting money, manpower, and time over someone leaving talcum powder in a urban street scene. Everyone over-reacts to something they could have easily resolved some other less-complex way.

      If she was so curious as to what he was doing she could have said “Oh my how complex your drawings are sir. May I ask what it is about?” Of course with Guido’s thick Italian accent which does NOT sound middle-eastern, he explains with a big smile on his face: “Oh it’s economic differential equations ma’am. You see I’m giving a speech in Canada next week and I need to prepare for it.” or in your mind you’d expect him to start yelling some Islamic war-praise and telling her to mind her own business?

      No a certain POTUS candidate is getting all of the benighted dullards (like himself) all worked up over NOTHING! Telling lies about our present POTUS’ track-record on dealing with REAL actionable threats and not IMAGINED ones this crazy woman had. Yes she walked away alive but so did the ENTIRE plane TWO fricking hours later!!!

  7. This Dr. Menzio reminds me of Johnny Galicki (Leonard) from THE BIG BANG THEORY, a curly headed genius with glasses who would probably be drawing sciencey’ stuff on a plane too. And there’s GARY BUSEY (FYI fired by Trump) the mentally ill rough tough-guy military-esque actor who is, well, REALLY mentally ill! If I ever needed someone to “have my back” it would NOT be Gary Busey!


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