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2012 Abel Prize awarded to Endre Szemerédi

The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters has decided to award the Abel Prize for 2012 to Endre Szemerédi (Alfréd Rényi Institute of Mathematics, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest, and Department of Computer Science, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, USA) “for his fundamental contributions to discrete mathematics and theoretical computer science, and in recognition of the profound and lasting impact of these contributions on additive number theory and ergodic theory.”

The Abel Prize is awarded annually since 2003 “for outstanding scientific work in the field of mathematics” and, according to Wolfram MathWorld, is “modelled after the Nobel Prize”

There are profiles of Szemerédi (pronounced, according to Nature, “sem-er-ADY”) and descriptions of his work in New ScientistPattern master wins million-dollar mathematics prize” and NatureMathematician’s ‘irregular mind’ scoops Abel award“.

BBC R&D automatic tagging of speech audio using vector spaces

A post on the BBC Research & Development Blog outlines work on automatic tagging of speech audio. The work is concerned with the World Service archive, which apparently has “very sparse” associated programme data. The archive “covers many decades and consists of about two and a half years of high-quality continuous audio content”. The aim was to associate the content of the programme with key words. The post explains:

For example if a programme mentions ‘London’, ‘Olympics’ and ‘1948’ a lot, then there is a high chance it is talking about the 1948 Summer Olympics.

The post discusses the technical challenges of this endeavour – automatic transcription, searching for terms from a subject classification. This uses “an approach inspired by the Enhanced Topic-based Vector Space Model proposed by D. Kuropka“. A detailed description is given in the full article of moving from constructing a vector space to extracting a ranked list of topic identifiers for each programme.

The resulting classification was evaluated:

against 150 programmes that have been manually tagged in BBC Programmes and [we] found that the results, although by no means perfect, are good enough to efficiently bootstrap the tagging of a large collection of programmes.

The algorithm is apparently described in more detail in a paper accepted for Linked Data on the Web (LDOW2012), a workshop of the World Wide Web 2012 conference in Lyon 16th-20th April 2012. The post also discusses next steps for the work.

Source: Automatically tagging the World Service archive.


Investigative journalist attempts to test whether GCSE maths is ‘dumbed down’

Barnie Choudhury, principal lecturer at the University of Lincoln’s school of journalism with a background in investigative journalist, is taking the GCSE examinations in an attempt to “test whether or not the allegations made in recent years that exams had been ‘dumbed down’ were true”. An article in the Lincolnshire Echo says:

He sat his O-level in maths in 1981 and came out with a B grade.
If he does not match this when the GCSE grades are revealed in August, Mr Choudhury believes this will prove that exams today are harder.

Flaws in the experimental methodology left as an exercise for the reader, although Mr Choudhury hints at some when he is quoted saying:

A part of me is hoping that journalists are right – that exams are easier. But I see my daughter’s mathematics work now and I don’t know any of it. So I thought if she was going through the pain, then so would I and I’d see for myself how tough the exams are.
But now I’m wishing I hadn’t started. It has not been dumbed down at all – if anything, I’m finding it more difficult the second time around, even though I’m older and I’ve sat lots of exams in my life. Maybe my brain has slowed down but it really is difficult.

Source: University of Lincoln lecturer inspired to take maths GSCE by his children.

NASA Angry Birds partnership

You may have thought Angry Birds is a waste of time. Information Week are reporting that the new Angry Birds Space game was “developed in collaboration with NASA through a Space Act Agreement”, a kind of commercial partnership NASA has used for “more than 50 years”. The article explains:

NASA seized on Angry Birds Space as an opportunity to educate the public on the law of physics that’s fundamental to everything it does: gravity. On, it used the occasion to explain the difference between normal gravity ($1g$), zero gravity ($0g$), and microgravity ($1 \times 10^{-6} g$), and to point out that experiments on the International Space Station happen in a microgravity environment. In a video demo of what that looks like in practice, astronaut Don Pettitt used a slingshot to catapult an Angry Bird across the interior of the Space Station.

The article outlines a series of experiments NASA will be undertaking in microgravity, though really the game is an outreach activity:

NASA hopes that Angry Birds Space will spark kids to take a keener interest in math, physics, and engineering careers… Of course, there’s a gigantic leap from the animated world of flying feathers into the real world of astronomy, aerospace science, and propulsion systems.

Source: Angry Birds Space Mirrors Real Rocket Science.

Spanish link in cracking the Enigma code

The BBC has reported that a pair of Enigma machines used in the Spanish Civil War have been given to the head of GCHQ, Britain’s communications intelligence agency. Apparently these machines are two of “around two dozen” discovered “a few years ago, in a secret room at the Spanish Ministry of Defence in Madrid.” The article explains how these “fill in a missing chapter in the history of British code-breaking”. Apparently the use of commercial Enigma machines between Spain and Germany during the Spanish Civil War gave British codebreakers access to live traffic, since military signals used within Germany were too weak to hear in Britain. Within six or seven months, in April 1937, Dilly Knox produced his first decryption of an Enigma message.

As to how this relates to the better known Enigma story, the article explains that:

The machines used in Spain were modified versions of the commercial Enigma machine. The military machine that would be used by Germany during World War II was an order of magnitude more secure because a plugboard was attached to the front.

These more complex signals are where the better known Polish/Bletchley Park story of Enigma fits into the story.

The BBC explains the trade made for the two Enigma machines:

In return the UK handed over a number of items including a German four rotor Naval Enigma machine recovered from Flensburg in May 1945, an Enigma rotor box and related documents. The idea is that this could serve as the foundation of a display on code-making and code-breaking at the Spanish Army Museum

One machine will be held at GCHQ and the other will be placed on public display at Bletchley Park. The full article gives some interesting insight from the GCHQ historian and the director of Spain’s intelligence service.

Source: BBC News – The Spanish link in cracking the Enigma code.

New NCETM contract awarded

You may remember that funding for the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM), the mathematics school teacher professional development programme, came to an end in March 2011 and the NCETM entered a “transitional contract” while a new tender took place.

Now the NCETM website has announced that a new consortium has been awarded the contract for the mathematics continuing professional development (CPD) support programme for 2012-2015. The consortium consists of Tribal Education (the previous NCETM contract holder), Myscience (who operate Science Learning Centres), Mathematics in Education and Industry (MEI), and the Institute of Education, University of London.

The NCETM announcement outlines the previous work of the members of the consortium and carries quotes from a representative of each member.

Source: Improving mathematics education in all schools: the NCETM to coordinate the CPD support programme for mathematics 2012-2015.