"Substitution ciphers: Ancient – Renaissance"

I have produced a talk in what will hopefully become a series, History of maths and x. This aims to offer mathematical histories for various topics, x. The idea is that each topic is covered in a talk at the University of Nottingham that is available to view online, in an article for iSquared Magazine and is accompanied by a companion podcast released through the Travels in a Mathematical World podcast as episode 49.

Abstract for talk

Cryptography is the process by which messages are communicated through secret means. Cipher cryptography converts messages by applying some cipher algorithm with a secret key to a plaintext message, converting it into a ciphertext message that cannot be read by interceptors. Cryptanalysis is the science that attempts to decipher these messages without access to the secret key.

This talk will focus on substitution ciphers and demonstrate the processes of encrypting and breaking some examples of these. The focus is on the battle between cryptographers – who create cipher systems – and cryptanalysts – who attempt to break them. As cryptanalysis develops more ingenious ciphers must be created and this constant struggle evolves from Roman generals, through the Golden Age of Islam to political intrigue in Renaissance Europe.

This talk will provide a gentle introduction and will assume no prior knowledge of cryptography.

You can find out more about this at History of maths and x website.

Podcast: Episode 50 – Sebastien Guenneau, Invisibility cloaks

These are the show notes for episode 50 of the Travels in a Mathematical World Podcast. 50 is one half of the square of the base of our number system, a fact which seems to give it an arbitrary significance.

So as this is the special half-century episode of the podcast I have a treat which I have been saving for just such an occasion. On a trip to Liverpool earlier in the year I sat down with Dr. Sebastien Guenneau of the University of Liverpool who told me about his work on invisibility cloaks. You can find out a lot more about Sebastien’s work in metamaterials on his website or by reading the New Scientist article “Invisibility cloak could hide buildings from quakes” and the Physics World article “Invisibility cloak for water waves“.

You can find out more about my work with the IMA by following me on Twitter, reading this blog and visiting http://www.ima.org.uk/student/. Join the Facebook page.

Podcast: Episode 49 – History of Maths and x, Substitution ciphers: Ancient – Renaissance

These are the show notes for episode 49 of the Travels in a Mathematical World Podcast. 49 is the number of strings on a harp. More about 49 from Number Gossip.

In the week in which this episode is released I am giving the first in hopefully a series of lectures entitled “History of Maths and x”, for various x. I am no expert on these topics but they interest me and I would like to explain a little of them to you. This time the x is cryptography and the lecture covers “Substitution ciphers: Ancient – Renaissance”. Lectures take place at the University of Nottingham. The lecture was videoed for the web and can be downloaded at History of Maths and x. Lectures are to be accompanied by an article in iSquared Magazine and a companion episode of this podcast containing additional information not in the talk or article.

You can view the talk and find out more through www.historyofmathsandx.co.uk.

You can find out more about my work with the IMA by following me on Twitter, reading this blog and visiting http://www.ima.org.uk/student/. Join the Facebook page.

Podcast: Episode 48 – Andrea Donafee, Cash balance optimisation

These are the show notes for episode 48 of the Travels in a Mathematical World Podcast. 48 is the smallest number with 10 divisors. More about 48 from Number Gossip.

This week Andrea Donafee spoke to me about her work for Cash Management Systems in optimisation around managing cash balances. You can read more about Andrea’s work by reading her profile on the Maths Careers website.

You can find out more about my work with the IMA by following me on Twitter, reading this blog and visiting http://www.ima.org.uk/student/. Join the Facebook page.

Mathematics Today December 2009: University Liaison Officer’s Report

Improving graduate skills through an undergraduate conference

When I give my careers talk to undergraduates I talk about the skills their degree offers and those it may not. I highlight the skills employers think maths graduates do and don’t have, based on commonly held stereotypes. On the plus side a mathematician is logical, systematic, rigorous, clear thinking and analytical [1]. These are logical, analytical problem solvers, highly valued in many areas of employment [2]. On the other hand, employers think mathematicians are lacking in certain areas, including communication and social skills [1].

I believe the soon-to-be-graduate mathematician needs to be aware of the preconceptions held by the people who are interviewing them for positions. I tell students the person hiring them thinks they are a logical problem solver and worth hiring, but they believe that if they do so their new employee will need to be brought up to speed on communication and social skills. If the mathematician can demonstrate they conform only to the positive side of the stereotype they have the opportunity to surprise the interviewer and this may give them an edge. Of course it is not sufficient to simply make unsubstantiated claims: “I am an excellent communicator”. The student must be armed with experiences to provide evidence of their range of employability skills: “I have done x and this shows me to be an excellent communicator”.

It is against this background that I was approached by Noel-Ann Bradshaw of the University of Greenwich with a plan to provide graduates with appropriate experiences and evidence of their skills: an undergraduate conference. Students are invited to propose short talks on a topic of their choosing, which will be approved through an abstract submission process. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear we were very happy to support this initiative through the University Liaison Project.

The conference, Tomorrow’s Mathematicians Today: an Undergraduate Mathematics Conference in London, supported by the IMA, is to take place on 6 February 2010 at the University of Greenwich. Abstracts are invited –by 1 p. m. on 18 December 2009 please to tmt@gre.ac.uk – and the students will be notified whether they have been successful in the new year. Students looking towards further study and research will benefit from having experienced (endured?!) the process of submitting an abstract to a conference. All student presenters will benefit from a skills enhancing experience and will return the better for having attended with clear evidence to demonstrate to potential employers what employable people they are. All attendees will find they have an enjoyable, enriching experience hearing about some interesting mathematics and mixing with their peers. As an added bonus Noel-Ann has managed quite a coup in getting IMA-LMS Christopher Zeeman Medal winner Professor Ian Stewart to deliver the keynote address.

The conference title – Tomorrow’s Mathematicians Today – reflects the idea that the conference is designed to attract delegates who will become the leading mathematicians of tomorrow. In part I think this will be a self-fulfilling prophecy; having benefited from this conference the delegates are armed to go into the world and become the next generation of leading mathematicians. I highly recommend encouraging your students to attend. There is more information on attendance and a call for papers elsewhere in this issue of Mathematics Today or you can visit the conference website at http://mathsoc.cms.gre.ac.uk/tmt/.


  1. CHALLIS, N., GRETTON, H., HOUSTON, K., and NEILL, N., 2002. Developing transferable skills: preparation for employment. In: P. KAHN, ed. and J. KYLE, ed., Effective Teaching and Learning in Mathematics & its Applications. London: Kogan Page, 2002, pp. 79-91.
  2. QUALITY ASSURANCE AGENCY FOR HIGHER EDUCATION, THE, 2002. Subject benchmark statements: Academic standards – Mathematics, statistics and operational research. Gloucester: The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education.

Activities Sept-Oct 2009

In September I returned from my summer break and started planning for the new academic year. I provided comments to Julie Hepburn, the IMA’s liaison in the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, on a rewrite she has conducted of the widely distributed careers advice leaflet “Your Options with Mathematics”. This leaflet had many limitations and Julie has made a substantial improvement despite severe restrictions on the style, length of individual sections and types of jobs that can be recommended. With the wide distribution and knock-on impact of that leaflet among careers advisors I think Julie has managed a substantial leap forward in improving the quality of careers advice offered to mathematicians. Also in preparation for the new year I arranged a print run of leaflets highlighting the benefits of membership to students that will be distributed to all departments and careers services where mathematics degrees are offered. I would be grateful if you could assist in distributing these and please let me know (peter.rowlett@ima.org.uk) if you need more!

In October I resumed my visits to universities. I gave my careers talk at the University of East Anglia, twice during induction week at Nottingham Trent, at Liverpool John Moores, Liverpool, Kingston, Lancaster, Manchester Metropolitan and Bolton. I also gave a talk on puzzles at Liverpool and one on cryptography at Lancaster. I took an IMA stall to a careers fair at Kingston and to the ever-successful “Calculating Careers” Fair at Manchester. I was shadowed to Kingston by new IMA Assistant Director, John Meeson, who wanted the opportunity to learn about students and their motivations re. membership, Altogether these events have put me in contact with over 500 students in October.

Podcast: Episode 47 – Mark Blyth, Applications of fluid dynamics in biology

These are the show notes for episode 47 of the Travels in a Mathematical World Podcast. 47 is prime and is the ‘quintessential random number’, a popular in joke; see the 47 society or the Wikipedia page 47 (as an in joke).

This week on the podcast Mark Blyth of University of East Anglia (UEA) talked to me about his work applying fluid dynamics and elastomechanics to problems in biology and medicine. You can find more information on links between mathematics and biology at UEA at the UEA Research in Mathematical Biology webpage.

You can find out more about my work with the IMA by following me on Twitter, reading this blog and visiting http://www.ima.org.uk/student/. Join the Facebook page.