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Scenes at a maths conference

We’re all trying to combat the stereotypes of mathematicians: we try our best to make our work accessible to the public; we wear clean clothes and make eye contact; some of us even had the good sense to be female. But sometimes, the woolly-headed mathematician of legend materialises in his pure form.

Here, in his own words, are a few things that happened at a conference recently attended by one of my friends.

The curious mathmo talks to David Roberts

Way back at the end of last year I put out a call to mathematicians I know: hop on Skype and chat to me for a while about the work you’re doing at the moment. The first person to answer was David Roberts, a pure mathematician from Adelaide. 

We had a fascinating talk about one thread of David’s current work, which involves all sorts of objects I know no more about than their names. I had intended to release this as a podcast, but the quality of my recording was very poor and it turns out I’m terrible at audio editing, so instead here’s a transcription. Assume all mistakes are mine, not David’s.

If you’ve ever wanted to know what it’s like to work in the far reaches of really abstract maths, this is an excellent glimpse of it.

DR: I’m David Roberts, I’m a pure mathematician, currently between jobs. I work – as far as research goes – generally on geometry and category theory, and the interplay between those two. And also a little bit of logic stuff, which I thought I’d talk about.

We want your best #proofinatoot on

Mastodon is a new social network, heavily inspired by Twitter but with a few differences: tweets are called toots, it’s populated by tusksome mammals instead of little birds, and it’s designed to run in a decentralised manner – anyone can set up their own ‘instance’ and connect to everyone else using the GNU Social protocol.

Colin Wright and I both jumped on the bandwagon fairly early on, and realised it might be just the thing for mathematicians who want to be social: the 500 character limit leaves plenty of room for good thinkin’, and the open-source software means you can finally achieve the ultimate dream of maths on the web: LaTeX rendering!

Timetabling choreography with maths

Earlier this week my sister-in-law (“SIL” from now on) sent me an email asking for help. She’s a dance teacher, and her class need to rehearse their group pieces before their exam. She’d been trying to work out how to timetable the groups’ rehearsals, and couldn’t make it all fit together. So of course, she asked her friendly neighbourhood mathmo for help.

My initial reply was cheery and optimistic. It’s always good to let people think you know what you’re doing: much like one of Evel Knievel’s stunts, it makes you look even better on the occasions you succeed.

I’d half-remembered Katie’s friend’s Dad’s golf tournament problem and made a guess about the root of the difficulty she was having, but on closer inspection it wasn’t quite the same. I’m going to try to recount the process of coming up with an answer as it happened, with wrong turns and half-baked ideas included.

Watch this bold decision-maker score 100 at the “is this prime?” game

Fan of the site Ravi Fernando has written in to tell us about his high score at the “is this prime?” game: a cool century!

I’ve been a fan of your “Is this prime?” game for a while, and after seeing your blog post from last May, I thought I’d say hi and send you some high scores.  Until recently, my record was 89 numbers (last March 12), which I think may be the dot in the top right of your “human scores” graph.  But I tried playing some more a couple weeks ago, and I found I can go a little faster using my computer’s y/n buttons instead of my phone’s touch screen.  It turns out 100 numbers is possible!

Watch in amazement:

But, to the delight of prime fans everywhere, he didn’t stop there:

Today I even got 107 – good to have a prime record again.

Well done, Ravi!

Now is a good time to point out that the data on every attempt ever made at the game is available to download, in case you want to do your own analysis: at time of writing, there have been over 625,000 attempts, and 51 is still the number that catches people out the most.