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The Aperiodical’s Possibly Annual Awards for Mathematical Achievement

Christian Perfect: 2012 was an alright year. At the very least, all of it happened, which is better than some had predicted. And since 2012 did happen, we are obliged by the Laws of Something to give out some awards.

Katie Steckles: Of course, the most noteworthy thing which happened in 2012 was the creation of an amazing mathematical blogging website, but I don’t mean to go on too much about that. Anyway, we’ve gathered together some candidates for some categories we made up, and will decide on our favourites via the process of arguing.

CP: Allons-y!

Best diagram

The Candidates

Random walks on π
Factor conga
Flat torus
Grow your own food

CP: I’m pretty proud of the graphs I did for Katie’s piece about Herman the German friendship cake, but if we’re honest with ourselves, it’s a two-way race between the walk on π and the factor conga. The walk on π is beautiful, but I’m powerless to resist the jaunty jig of the factor conga.

KS: As a topologist, I feel I should defend the flat torus embedding we reported on in May, along with a lovely video from CP explaining the maths. But secretly I love the factor conga too much.

CP: Let’s all do the conga!

KS: Da-da da da da da, three!

The award goes to…

The factor conga!


Most coincidental numerical coincidence

The Candidates

12:12:12 12/12/12
7:08:09 10/11/12
20:12 20/12/2012
21/12/12 a.k.a
Leap second

KS: Due to what can only be described as the numerical coincidence that this year’s last two digits are the largest they can be while still being the number of a month, and also of a time on the 12-hour clock, this year has been full of “exciting” and “interesting” dates and times (if you’re a stamp collector). Consecutive number fans will have been excited by 7:08:09 on 10/11/12, whereas fans of repetition had 12:12:12 on 12/12/12, and 20:12 on 20/12/2012 to get themselves het up over. Speaking of getting het up, plenty of people got excited about (or, if you’re not familiar with the Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar, 21st December 2012) which was the end of the Mayan calendar and according to some the date of the apocalypse (apocalypse-related satire). However, my personal favourite moment this year was the leap second, which was shoehorned in to everyone’s clock faces at (well, just before) midnight UTC on 30th June 2012, and Peter made a spectacular video of a whole screenful of clocks getting mildly confused by it.

CP: 2012 was the year when I became infected with the Interesting Times Madness. I can’t let a palindromic time pass me by these days without shoving a digital display in the face of someone nearby, with the kind of grin worn by a toddler who’s very proud of his first poo.
Somehow, I managed not to get excited about 12:12:12 12/12/12. Yes, it’s a lot of twelves, but twelve is quite a boring number. Give me a good 17:19 (twin primes) or 12:36 (so many factors!) any day. (You can).
The award’s for the most coincidental coincidence though, so I think I have to go with 7:08:09 10/11/12. The leap second was a real thing! There was nothing coincidental about it!

KS: Well, I agree about it needing to be coincidental; but I don’t think 7:08:09 10/11/12 should take the crown – we’ll get a similar one next year, whereas $12^6$ and its ilk won’t happen again for a huge while. So that.

CP: Righto.

The award goes to…

12:12:12 12/12/12


Most or least plausible press release formula

The Candidates

Christmas trees
Perfect pint

KS: We recently featured a guest post by Alistair Bird about a set of formulae for calculating the correct amount of festive tat to throw at your Christmas tree. But it’s not been the only one this year, by a long chalk! The classic format of getting some vaguely qualified mathematical humans to put some symbols in an order, and then claiming it’s a ‘formula’ for something, in order to shift more of your product, has continued to prove popular in 2012 with advertising companies and newspapers looking to fill space. Our favourites included this formula for the perfect pint of beer, and this interesting formula for the perfect holiday, which seems to have used some kind of linear model in several variables to fit a curve to existing data about what makes holidays good – which makes it actually slightly mathsy, and therefore my pick of the bunch.

CP: I’m not sure if we just deleted them all from the news queue and our memories, or if 2012 was a quiet year for nonsense formula stories, but we couldn’t find any real stinkers for this award. I’ll keep an eye out for next year.

The award goes to…

The formula for the perfect holiday!


Most generously worded press release

The Candidates

Has schoolboy genius solved centuries-old problem?
Flea times tables as scientists teach insects how to count
Numerical prodigy sets Guinness record
Brain-damaged college dropout became maths genius after attack

KS: There’s hope for anyone without maths skills, as a man who was attacked by muggers and repeatedly kicked in the head now “sees mathematical formulas and turns them into stunning, intricate diagrams he can draw by hand.” Maths students all over the country are now trying it on with nearby ruffians in the hope of improving their mental powers. Animals having “learned to count” is a classic non-news story, and props to Metro for their excellent pun on the story about fleas evolving number sense. Also: a lovely bit of pseudo-deception from the Vedic ‘numerical prodigy’, who subtracted one insanely long number from another, insisting that in order to make it maximally difficult, the numbers should be chosen so that at every digit a carry was needed. Actually, that made it significantly easier.

CP: However, our winner was clear: The “schoolboy genius” problem took us, and the rest of the Internet, a full week to get to the bottom of. And while it looked like the poor headline was the Daily Mail’s fault, it was the organisers of the competition! Poor show, German competition organisers.

The award goes to…

“Has schoolboy genius solved centuries-old problem?”


Least efficient mathematical instrument

The Candidates

QAMA calculator

KS: 2012 has been a great year for inefficient computers – we learned about the QAMA calculator (covered in Episode 93 of the Math/Maths podcast) which won’t tell you the answer to your calculation unless you give it a reasonable estimate first. But our winner must surely be, clocking in at 11.5 microhertz, Matt Parker’s ambitious domino computer at Manchester Science Festival, which took a team of fourteen people over six hours to construct and was able to calculate $4+6=10$ in binary.

CP: …with a failure rate of 50%. Truly magnificent inefficiency.

The award goes to…

The Domputer!


Least or most worthwhile Alan Turing tie-in

The Candidates

The Bletchley Circle
The Turing Enigma
T&F’s free-for-a-very-short-time papers
Turing facebook timeline
Turing machine problems
Turing sunflowers

CP: We saw some pretty shoddy attempts to hitch a ride on the Turing centenary bandwagon. I expunged the worst offenders from our news queue, but of the ones that remain, I think the award has to go to publisher Taylors & Francis for a wonderful bit of rent-seeking. They made a few articles available to read for free, including two by Turing himself (they belong in a museum!),
The Bletchley Circle made a good go of it but was, when we’re honest, a clumsy Turing tie-in.

KS: Speaking of tie-ins, The Turing Enigma was “a dark thriller, commemorating the tragic death of Alan Turing,” and was made available to watch online. Manchester Science Festival did some actual proper science in the name of Turing, getting people from all over to grow sunflowers and send in photos, to be analysed by actual mathematicians and contribute to the body of data on Fibonacci numbers in sunflower spirals. There was also a competition involving Turing machine tape games, in which you had to employ algorithmic problem solving to win prizes. But my favourite Tur-thing of the year was the complete Facebook timeline created by the Science Museum, containing events from Alan Turing’s lifetime – from his birth to the present day. It gives a lovely overview of the events of his lifetime, and then beyond his death it lists all the events held to commemorate his life and work. A bit like this paragraph.

CP: I’m switching sides from Team Misanthropy to Team Positive Mental Attitude – that Facebook timeline was lovely. A deserving winner.

The award goes to…

Alan Turing’s Facebook life timeline


Weirdest story

The Candidates

The strange case of Misha Verbitsky and the trademarked beard
Japanese researchers create a crab-based computer
Advances in pure nonsense

CP: I’m a connoisseur of weird maths. 2012 has been a fruitful year for fruitloop maths stories. The idea of a computer made from crabs gives me a gentle tickle in my brain when I think of it, but Misha Verbitsky’s internment was truly surreal.

KS: However, our most popular weird maths story this year was the story of the ridiculous made-up maths paper which got accepted by a journal, despite having been written by a computer algorithm. The post on our site got picked up by Slashdot, and got nearly two thousand views during October. So, the people have spoken.

CP: Very well. I’d just like to add that Igor Pugach’s beard (KS: also, his website) is truly ridiculous.

The award goes to…

Independent, Negative, Canonically Turing Arrows of Equations and Problems in Applied Formal PDE


Best podcast

The Candidates

Relatively Prime
The Aperiodcast
Ruled out are Alex Bellos’s Land of the Rising Sums and Matt Parker’s The Turing Solution, for being on lamestream media.

CP: Relatively Prime, no question. If you still haven’t listened to it, make a new year’s resolution to spend a few hours listening through the eight fascinating episodes.

The award goes to…

Relatively Prime!


Highest-ranking mathematician

The Candidates

Sir Tim Gowers
Baronne Daubechies
Mathematical new year’s honours

KS: There were several mathematicians mentioned in the 2013 New Year’s honours, and of course mathematician and Fields Medalist Tim Gowers was made Sir Tim Gowers for the Queen’s birthday honours earlier in the year. Surely that’s the highest honour that’s been bestowed on a mathmo this year?

CP: ‘Tis the season for Lords a-leaping, and Ingrid Daubechies leapfrogged the positively common Sirs and Dames of the mathematical establishment when she was given a barony by the King of Belgium. I think this makes her the highest-ranking mathematician at the moment, unless there’s an emir or a sultan I’m missing.

The award goes to…

Baronne Ingrid Daubechies

Best knitting

The Candidates

Prime number sweater
Conjoined mobius hat
Escher patterns
Spiky icosahedron
Einstein Illusion wall hanging

KS: We’ve featured several mathematical knitting posts this year, including this conjoined Möbius hat, knitted MC Escher designs and my own pattern for a spiky icosahedron. We even went to the MathsJam conference and talked to Pat Ashforth and Steve Plummer about their amazing illusion wall hanging. But my favourite thing this year was Sondra Eklund’s prime number factorisation jumper – nerdy and cosy, it will help you both combat cold weather and factorise numbers.

CP: Glad we agree. Mine’s a size XXL, please.

The award goes to…

The prime number factorisation jumper!

Most or least useful maths website

The Candidates

Prime number pooping bear

KS: We’ve found a variety of useful websites this year – several for LaTeX editing: I find CP’s Make Big Maths really useful for if I need an image of a mathematical symbol I can screen grab; I also like detexify for if I can’t remember the LaTeX command for a symbol, but I can remember what it looks like. As always, we’ve found maths internet staples Wolfram|Alpha and the OEIS incredibly useful (at the MathsJam conference, after being asked a question along the lines ‘how would you calculate this’, one of the shouted replies was indeed ‘Wolfram|Alpha’). We also made use of, to create the graphs for our Grow Your Own Food post (it allows you to use the computer algebra system Sage, in your browser).

CP: Prime number pooping bear prime number pooping bear prime number pooping bear prime number pooping bear prime number pooping bear prime number pooping bear prime number pooping bear prime number pooping bear. is a wonderfully simple tool that gives you the corresponding unicode character for any LaTeX command.
But seriously, prime number pooping bear.

KS: Fine. I concede on this one.

The award goes to…

The prime number pooping bear!

Trolliest troll


An upside-down un-award goes to Andrew Hacker, for “Is Algebra Necessary?”, a completely unnecessary article questioning the value of ‘algebra’, recommending instead algebra.

The un-award goes to…

Andrew Hacker!

Award to us for not mentioning the terrible thing all year

CP: Well done us for not sharing our views about the terrible, overpriced, half-baked cash-in that was Everything is Mathematical.

KS: Although it did result in some nice maths puzzles being printed on random pages of The Times, by way of advertising.

CP: And some nice-ish videos done by good people like Kit Yates and Thomas Woolley. But that doesn’t excuse the symbols-floating-in-empty-space intro sequence or the rest of the entirely derivative, lacklustre tie-in site. Which hasn’t seen an update since September, by the way.

Most ubiquitous popular mathematician (The du Sautoy Prize for Omnipresence)

The Candidates

Keith Devlin
Matt Parker
Dara O Briain
James Grime

CP: Marcus du Sautoy is of course barred from this award due to the fact he would have won it if we’d been doing these awards in any of the past 10 years. He remains the media’s go-to maths talking-head, but to give him this award would only serve to encourage him.

KS: Various people have been doing their best to shove maths in the general public’s faces this year, not least of which is stand-up and physics graduate Dara O Briain, who somehow managed to get a maths programme commissioned on TV’s creative wasteland Dave. Dara O Briain’s School of Hard Sums was aired this year, and featured Marcus Du Sautoy along with a selection of comedy guests and a sprinkling of maths undergrads sitting in the corner, and managed to present a selection of puzzles ranging from mildly trivial to good fun, while simultaneously both reinforcing and challenging the stereotypes about mathematicians.

CP: You’d think Keith Devlin has been around doing popular maths stuff long enough that he’d sort of fade into the background, but that thankfully isn’t the case. As well as his long-running MAA column Devlin’s Angle, Prof Devlin has been popping up all over the place to talk about his Introduction to mathematical thinking MOOC and new book. Keith has become NPR’s resident Math Guy, called on to talk about whatever maths is fit for the radio. Unfortunately for the good professor, he’s based in the US so we only get a smattering of his output, which means he was pipped to the post by…

KS: Friend of the Aperiodical Matt Parker, whose main job is to talk about maths and entertain people, has been doing both with aplomb this year – from a comedy engineering show at the Edinburgh festival, to appearances on both TV and radio in documentaries about Alan Turing. He’s also toured with Festival of the Spoken Nerd, created a computer out of dominoes for Manchester Science Festival, and broken the world record for most simultaneous Rubik’s cubes being solved while raising money for charity. He also appears in this promo video for James May’s new set of YouTube channels, representing the maths strand.
But my vote for most ubiquitous popular mathematician goes to internet pixie James Grime, who’s done hundreds of YouTube videos (both for his own channel and for Numberphile) while keeping up his day job of talking about the Enigma machine all over the country. He’s also appeared on the radio talking about maths, including the Today programme and stats show More or Less, and been hilariously entertaining on Twitter.

CP: “Internet pixie”? Yes, I suppose James does keep popping up everywhere. And here he is again, winning an award.

The award goes to…

James Grime!

Well, that’s it for this year! If you’d like to see yourself in this list in a year’s time, make sure you do something crazy/impressive/fantastic enough to get on our radar. We look forward to it.


Trophy photo by Wikipedia user FFahm, CC-BY-SA licensed.


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