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I told you so: Relatively Prime has begun

Do you remember when I told you why I supported Relatively Prime and you should too? I said:

Samuel is an enthusiastic communicator of mathematics and has the technical skills to make an excellent producer of content. You may have enjoyed what he does as my co-host on the Math/Maths Podcast, or his interview show Strongly Connected Components, or his irreverent maths chat show Combinations and Permutations. Much as these are good outputs, they all have an element of being as good as they be in spare time. I don’t know about you, but of the two options on his crossroads I would like to live in a world where Samuel can take his enthusiasm and technical expertise and spend some serious time concerning himself with mathematics communication.

Well, now is my chance to say “I told you so”. Following that amazing day when I told you that next time you wake up, Relatively Prime will be a missed opportunity unless you act, 159 people donated to make the project a reality and Samuel has spent 11 months doing the work: travelling the world, recording interviews and editing (so much editing).

Now he has released the first episode of this eight-part audio documentary series. And it’s good!

The Toolbox
The mathematics that we all learn in school is great. No, really, it is. How can anyone get through life without knowing how to add or subtract. Multiply or divide. Solve for an unknown or factor a polynomial. OK, you might be able to get through life without that last one, but the point still stands, the mathematics that we all learn in school is great.  It isn’t everything though. There are a lot of other tools that mathematics has to offer that could enrich people’s lives. On this episode Samuel Hansen rummages through his mathematical tool box and showcases three tools he feel are going to be very important in the coming years.

The series will run until 5th November, with a new episode being released every Monday. (And I hear the completion of his achievement will be marked with national fireworks.) The show is available to download directly at the show’s website, but don’t forget to subscribe through iTunes or through the RSS Feed.

Plus it’s a chance to check how well he stuck to those hints he gave about Relatively Prime content, and tease him about the inevitable changes of plan!

To teach, must I principally research?

A couple of weeks ago at the HE STEM Conference I saw a keynote lecture by Sir Alan Langlands, Chief Executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England. During a questions session following this, I was surprised to be handed the microphone but apparently I had raised my hand. I asked a question. Quite a number of people approached me during the remaining day-and-a-half of the conference to say what a good question it had been so I thought I would share it here.

Sir Alan had spoken about the challenges facing STEM in HE and about the legacy of the National HE STEM Programme. On the latter, reflecting the hope that much of the HE STEM activity will develop into ongoing practice in universities, he said he hoped we wouldn’t think of this as the end but as a beginning. He also spoke about challenges affecting the sector in terms of Goverment initiatives and other factors, and the important of teaching and learning, research, etc. When I was handed the microphone I said into this something like the following.

I was interested that you spoke about looking to the future. I work for a former Higher Education Academy Subject Centre on a project funded by the National HE STEM Programme. So my contract ends tomorrow1. I aspire to being a lecturer who takes a professional research interest in his teaching but almost every job advert I read has number 1 ‘a PhD in mathematics’ and number 2 ‘ability to bring in research income’. So, while I shouldn’t ask such a personal question, I suppose I’m asking: should I acquire a research topic or plan a different career?

I’m afraid that extreme nervousness has made what happened next a bit of a blur. I certainly don’t feel like I got a satisfactory answer and several of the people who congratulated me on my question said as much to me. Perhaps someone who was there will be able to fill in more of the details via the comments.

He, quite rightly, addressed the general point rather than my specific circumstances. He certainly spoke about some universities increasingly making available career routes – both hiring new people and allowing for promotion – based on merit attached to teaching activities, and suggested that I might need to ‘shop around’ to find an institution to suit me. This is true, in that I aware of departments more friendly to my aims and I sometimes meet people who are employed as Teaching Fellows or similar who talk of promotion possibilities linked to teaching achievements. However, the norm is still to hire a researcher who, begrudgingly, indifferently or happily, is required to teach as a secondary objective. This is what I was getting at with my job advert for the University of Excellence.

I should be clear that I am not against mathematical research in any way. It’s just that I am drawn to the challenge of helping people to understand something about mathematics and its applications, and I feel that people who are willing to spend their time and energy on better teaching, outreach, educational research, etc. should have a more prominent place in the system.

1. These are both programmes formally funded by HEFCE so really I was making an unfair swipe here. I hope it didn’t make me seem too much the disgruntled ex-employee but I was a little frustrated at the suggestion that the expiry of the funding for my employment should be viewed as an exciting new beginning.

Video interview show with the researchers behind the science & maths news

Samuel Hansen has started a new initiative. ACMEScience News Now offers video interviews with researchers involved in new science and mathematics research. In the first episode Samuel talks to Paul Hines of the University of Vermont about his research into using crowdsourcing to not only answer scientific questions, but also to help determine what those questions should be. This work was announced in a press release in mid-August and the video was released nine days later, so this is fast work offering access to researchers as they announce their research.

You can view the video below. Subscribe to the ACMEScience News Now YouTube channel for more.

Mathematics: a culture of historical inaccuracy?

Earlier this year, back when I somehow managed to find time to write blog posts (sorry!), I wrote a couple of pieces on incorrect but oft-repeated stories in history of mathematics, basically describing some issues and expressing my frustration. These were Apparently Gauss got in this bar fight with Hilbert… and Why do we enjoy maths history misconceptions?

Today Thony Christie wrote on Twitter (as @rmathematicus) with a link to this post by Dennis Des Chene (aka “Scaliger”): On bad anecdotes and good fun. As Thony points out, this is an “excellent piece of maths history myth busting” and I am writing this quick note to commend you to read it.

Duck Physics: review of an emerging field

Peter Rowlett*
* corresponding author

The emerging field of duck physics offers a theoretical exploration of the standard model of particle physics and its implications for ducks. This review takes a chronological approach and documents early developments of this exciting new discipline. The field of duck physics promises interesting results for ducks and has already started to develop results that have been reapplied to the standard model Higgs.

The 4th of July, a day previously of little significance, may now be celebrated as ‘Higgs day’. Many Americans marked the discovery with fireworks and it’s nice to see such celebration of science. The discovery led to an amusing (to me, anyway) exchange on Twitter. Old tweets get lost, and the hashtag we used is already gone from Twitter search, so I am recording the conversation here.

It all started with @C_J_Smith‘s assertion:

We have a Higgs!
— Calvin James Smith (@C_J_Smith) July 4, 2012

Pedantically, I pointed out:

or, rather, two teams have independently discovered a new particle which behaves like a Higgs ;) Looks like a duck, etc.
— Peter Rowlett (@peterrowlett) July 4, 2012

Of course Calvin knew this:

absolutely! We’ve a new boson – now to find out if it is a #Higgs (or a duck)!
— Calvin James Smith (@C_J_Smith) July 4, 2012

And this is when the fun started. A tweet from @MA1CAL started a new hashtag:

it is, however, unlikely to be a duck ;-) #vivaduckphysics
— MA1CAL (@MA1CAL) July 4, 2012

Being unfamiliar with duck physics, I asked the obvious question:

my physics is a little rusty; what does the standard model say about ducks? #vivaduckphysics
— Peter Rowlett (@peterrowlett) July 4, 2012

@MA1CAL revealed that vast possibilities were offered by this exciting new research area:

precious little – although there is a penguin process #vivaduckphysics
— MA1CAL (@MA1CAL) July 4, 2012

I called for further collaborators:

Further research needed re how ducks decay in GeV collisions #vivaduckphysics
— Peter Rowlett (@peterrowlett) July 4, 2012

In an example of multiple discovery (the usual way by which science progresses), one of the early key results in the field was developed independently by @lizmallard and @markdatko:

ducks are made of quacks?
— Liz Hanson (@lizmallard) July 4, 2012

one would expect decays to top quacks surely
— mark datko (@markdatko) July 4, 2012

@MA1CAL was optimistic about the potential:

this funding request is drafting itself! #vivaduckphysics
— MA1CAL (@MA1CAL) July 4, 2012

It is an important test of a new theory to see how well it fits with the predictions made by established models. An early result in duck physics, a hypothesis from @needmoreletters, had implications which challenged the standard model Higgs:

does the Higgs Boson weigh more than a duck, or have CERN detected a witch? #vivaduckphysics #notthatholygrail1
— alicia (@needmoreletters) July 4, 2012

Taking the only logical course of action, I suggested:

Burn it! #vivaduckphysics #notthatholygrail
— Peter Rowlett (@peterrowlett) July 4, 2012

I also enquired of our newest duck physicist:

@needmoreletters who are you, who are so wise in the ways of science? #vivaduckphysics
— Peter Rowlett (@peterrowlett) July 4, 2012

So where does duck physics go from here? The field has been fairly quiet recently but I presume the main practitioners are hard at work on new theories. I hope this review article will encourage other researchers to enter the field. The potential for impact is clear:

so what does it say that the most retweets I’ve ever got was a joke combining Higgs Boson & Monty Python?

— alicia (@needmoreletters) July 4, 2012

1. Despite @needmoreletters‘s assertion of a “bad joke“, given the context I regard #notthatholygrail as some pretty inspired hashtagging.

Bletchley Park Turing First Day Cover

For my recent birthday I was given a wonderful present: a special UK stamp commemorating Alan Turing, who was born 100 years ago today. The stamp was issued by the Royal Mail not for the Turing centenary but as one of a series of special stamp sets to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

This stamp is particularly special because it is one of 1000 which originated at the Bletchley Park Post Office that were stuck onto a specially designed envelope (Turing, mathematics and patterns) and cancelled on the day the stamp was issued, 23 February 2012, using a special Bombe-themed postmark.