Podcast: Episode 33 – David Fearn, Magnetohydrodynamics

These are the show notes for episode 33 of the Travels in a Mathematical World Podcast. 33 is the smallest integer that can not be expressed as a sum of different triangular numbers. More about 33 from the 33 Mysteries website.

Earlier in the year I travelled to Glasgow and visited the University of Glasgow. While there I met Professor David Fearn and he told me about the area of magnetohydrodynamics. If you are interesed in this topic you can get an overview from Wikipedia and read a piece on David’s website “Stability of the Earth’s Magnetic Field“. If you have access (for example through Athens) you can read a review article David wrote on “Hydromagnetic flow in planetary cores“.

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 June: University Liaison Officer’s Report

Careers resources

So far in 2009 around 450 students, 7 careers staff and 33 academic staff in 16 audiences have heard me speak on careers for mathematicians. My experience with staff is that they are very appreciative. Usually they either say “Thank you, that really reinforces everything we’ve been saying,” or “Wow, I’ve really learned a lot.” The former is very reassuring; good to know I am on the right track. The latter is extremely gratifying, particularly from careers staff. It pleases me to know I am doing my little part to improve the quality of careers advice given to mathematicians. I have had several requests to write up some of the resources used in my careers talk so here we go.

I frequently meet students who think that their only options are teaching or accountancy. Some realise there is more than just accountancy and widen their options to other parts of finance. I have seen examples of careers advice given out which reinforces this message. There is a document “Options with mathematics”, published by Prospects.ac.uk [1], which is the default document handed out as careers advice for mathematicians in many of the universities I have visited. This lists as directly relevant to a mathematics degree only finance and teaching options1. This is very damaging as it reinforces this incorrect impression of mathematics prospects for both students and their careers staff in a widely distributed document. In my careers talk, I make the point loudly and clearly that there is nothing wrong with either finance or teaching as career options, in fact I say that the country needs excellent mathematics graduates to become maths teachers and inspire the next generation, but that these options are not for everyone. I meet students who say “I don’t want to go into finance or teaching but what can I do?” Some students I talk to seem to genuinely think they have made a huge error in taking a degree that limits their options so thoroughly. If it weren’t so tragic, it would be hilarious.

I try to make the point in my talk that mathematics is a degree that doesn’t prepare you for a limited career path but in fact gives you skills that are so widely applicable they lead to a huge range of options. I try to stress the good news: according to the Maths Careers website, “Maths graduates earn more!” [2]. This gives some figures for a higher level of graduate average earnings over non-graduates and of mathematicians over the graduate average. Of course, this figure does not really stand scrutiny given the wide range of job types mathematicians are engaged in but can be a nice headliner. I point out that employment for maths graduates is below the graduate average, according to the Prospects graduate destination data [3], which shows what graduates are doing six months following graduation. I use a quote from careers advisor Sue Briault [4] to tell students: careers advisors say “Maths undergraduates are frequently targeted by employers because they have the key skills sought by business.” I do question “frequently targeted,” saying I don’t recall being “frequently targeted” by employers during my time at university! But I point out that if you present yourself in the right way the advice is that employers will be attracted to you.

Also on the subject of good graduate prospects, I point to an article which appeared in the Wall Street Journal in January 2009 [5]. This article claims that mathematics leads to a career path that provides “a steady stream of lucrative, low-stress jobs”. This quote always raises a chuckle and I would be interested to know whether members feel their job fits the description! The article reports on a study which had ranked 200 jobs from “Best” to “Worst”. The top 3 are: Mathematician, Actuary and Statistician. There are, of course, a few caveats here: What exactly is a “Mathematician”? Well, I think they mean someone working in mathematical modelling from the context. Looking at the measures used, these jobs will fare well for not involving heavy lifting, dealing with dangerous chemicals, working outdoors, unsociable hours, etc. and this will inflate their ranking. But actually there are plenty of jobs that don’t involve these and yet the top three are Mathematician, Actuary and Statistician.

A useful report that I draw on is the Class of ’99 report [6]. This UK Government-commissioned study by Warwick University published in 2005 looks at early labour market experiences of graduates over a 4 year period and I draw three results from this for my talk. The study looked at whether graduates were in a job which required them to have a degree (a graduate job). Mathematics graduates (actually, “mathematics and computing” is the grouping used) were low for percentage in non-graduate jobs. In fact, over the four year period the only lines on the graph that are lower are education and medicine. Well, I tell students, if you’ve trained to be a teacher, doctor or nurse and you aren’t doing a graduate job then something has gone very wrong! I think this is an important message: many students in their second or final year will have genuinely made all the choices that limit their options on graduation already. In mathematics the field is wide open yet mathematics still fares very well for percentage in graduate jobs.

The study found mathematicians were high for average gross earnings; top for women and second only to law for men. Finally, that the study reports a high probability of being in a “high quality” job. Participants were asked to self define whether they worked in a high quality job and a good proportion said they did. These two results are a little flimsy but hark back to the Wall Street Journal article; another little nod in the direction of mathematics leading to lucrative and enjoyable jobs.

I am very aware of the lack of academic integrity of many of the sources used here. I am not a disinterested observer; the results and conclusions are drawn selectively to support an argument. Still, this is maths promotion, not academic study. I am in the business of trying to get soon-to-be graduates excited about taking their maths further in life and not simply giving up because of the perceived lack of options. I think there is truth in what I tell students and I think that the message presented can be used to encourage students to explore their options more thoroughly. I encourage others to use the resources listed in the References in their own maths promotion.

Following this, I show students a list of sources for careers profiles. One of the barriers to careers advice for mathematics students is the wide range of options available. The mathematics student could very well be presented with half of the contents of the careers library to consider. This is good news but impractical and, I think, a real problem for careers advisers. It’s all very well saying students are presented with a limited range of options but when the potential range is so huge students will be scared away by the quantity of material potentially open to them.

I recommend students visit the Maths Careers website [8] with its full and every increasing list of careers profiles (contributions welcome: peter.rowlett@ima.org.uk). I am very pleased with the IMA’s new careers advice leaflet by Vanessa Thorogood, the content of which is excellent [9]. I hand out copies of this whenever I get the chance; I have probably given out near to a thousand since it was released earlier this year. Students who attend my careers talks or careers stalls often take extra copies for their friends. I also encourage reading of Careers for Mathematicians by Sue Briault [4].

I recommend the Plus careers library [10], which contains a good number (and growing) of careers interviews, some with audio. I also take the opportunity to push my Travels in a Mathematical World podcast [11]. This has interesting mathematicians talking about their work in some diverse applications of mathematics and I think it is a good resource for students wanting to explore their options. I tell students to read or listen to a selection of these and once they have a clearer idea of areas they are interested in they can go to the careers library and be in greater control of the range of options available to them.

Activities March-April 2009

In contrast to February, March and April were months in which many students had coursework deadlines, vacation or exam revision so the opportunities to give talks were limited. I gave my careers talk at London Met and my talk on spin in ball games followed by the chance to play pool and tennis on a Nintendo Wii (welcome relief from revision) at the Universities of Leicester, Newcastle and Sheffield.

The Easter holiday brought conference season. I was involved with the British Applied Mathematics Colloquium 2009 and associated Meet the Mathematicians outreach day from the confusing position of both an IMA and a University of Nottingham employee. I don’t mind having two separate employers; when one moves in with the other it gets a little confusing! Meet the Mathematicians was a good day of interesting talks which will appear in time on www.meetmaths.org.uk. The BAMC was, as last year, an excellent opportunity to talk to a large number of applied mathematics postgraduate students, IMA members and lecturers who might invite me to talk with their students. We even gave away a few membership application forms. I recorded a retrospective on the conference immediately following it with Professor Oliver Jensen and this can be heard as episode 27 of the Travels in a Mathematical World podcast (www.travelsinamathematicalworld.co.uk).

Also in conference season, I attended the Young Researchers in Mathematics conference at Cambridge. This is the product of an exciting new initiative to bring together young mathematics researchers and was a vibrant inaugural conference. The organisers are to be congratulated. I rounded off the conference season with a trip to London for Mathematics 2009, which I would recommend to anyone as the IMA’s premier general interest conference, and the Women in Mathematics Day, where I felt conspicuous but was welcomed nonetheless.

You can find out more about my work on the University Liaison initiative by visiting the IMA Student page or reading my blog, both via: www.ima.org.uk/student. You can also now follow me on Twitter through twitter.com/peterrowlett.


  1. PROSPECTS, 2008. Options with mathematics Via: http://www.prospects.ac.uk/cms/documents/Options_with_your_subject/Your_degree_in_mathematics.pdf?id=13969 [Accessed: 28/04/09].
  2. COUNCIL FOR THE MATHEMATICAL SCIENCES, 2006. Maths graduates earn more! [online]. Via: http://www.mathscareers.org.uk/post_16.cfm [Accessed: 08/10/08].
  3. GRADUATE PROSPECTS, 2008. What do graduates do? 2008 [online]. Via: http://www.prospects.ac.uk/cms/ShowPage/Home_page/What_do_graduates_do__2008/p!eLaFFee [Accessed: 08/10/08].
  4. BRIAULT, S., 2008. Careers for Mathematicians. Mathematics Today, 44(3), pp. 117-118. Also via: http://ima.org.uk/Careers/mt_june08_student_section_careers.pdf
  5. NEEDLEMAN, S.E., 2009. Doing the Math to Find the Good Jobs. Wall Street Journal, 6 Jan. Available at: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123119236117055127.html [Accessed: 23/01/09]
  6. PURCELL, et al, 2005. The Class of ’99: A study of the early labour market experiences of recent graduates [online]. Via: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/ier/research/class99/ [Accessed: 08/10/08].
  7. LEWIS, C., 2008. Take Five. The Times, 10 Dec. Available at: http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/career_and_jobs/article5315105.ece [Accessed: 23/01/09].
  8. Maths Careers: http://www.mathscareers.org.uk/
  9. THE INSTITUTE OF MATHEMATICS AND ITS APPLICATIONS, 2009. Mathematics Careers Advice. Available via: http://ima.org.uk/Careers/mathematics_undergraduate_careers_advice.pdf
  10. Plus Careers Library: http://plus.maths.org/interview.html
  11. IMA Travels in a Mathematical World podcast: http://www.travelsinamathematicalworld.co.uk/

1. We are talking to the authors of this document through the IMA liaison with AGCAS, Julie Hepburn, about updating this document to be a little more realistic.

Wolfram Alpha and its geeky sense of humour

…or is it just reflecting mine?

Inspired by a suggestion on Twitter to ask Wolfram|Alpha “Are you Skynet?” I had a look around for other geeky easter eggs. Here are a few:

What happens at 88mph?
What is the meaning of life?
What is the average speed of a swallow?
Hello, World
Open the pod bay doors
All your base

How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?
If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
What is the sound of one hand clapping?

I also tried a lot of others that Wolfram didn’t understand. Of course, I would rather it got better at the whole making the world’s knowledge computable thing than develop new jokes but nice to see a sense of humour from the developers.

These were mostly taken from:
Top 10 Wolfram Alpha Easter Eggs
10 Even Better Wolfram Alpha Easter Eggs
My brain

For a comprehensive list of Wolfram|Alpha easter eggs, follow the directions under: What are your easter eggs?

Podcast: Episode 32 – Maths news with Sarah Shepherd

These are the show notes for episode 32 of the Travels in a Mathematical World Podcast. 32 is the number of panels in the spherical polyhedron corresponding to the Archimedean solid the truncated icosahedron which is the most popular design of a modern football. More about the truncated icosahedron from Wolfram Mathworld. More about 32 from Number Gossip.

This week on the podcast I met Sarah Shepherd, PhD student at the University of Nottingham and Editor of iSquared Magazine and we discussed some maths news. Links to all the articles we mentioned are below.

May saw the general release of Wolfram|Alpha, a computational knowledge engine. For a general overview read “Wolfram ‘search engine’ goes live” from the BBC or a little more detail from “Ask Alpha: Quizzing the world’s first answer engine” from New Scientist or “Where does Wolfram Alpha get its information?” from The Guardian. You can read the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones investigation “Does Wolfram work?” Read about the first week of operation on Stephen Wolfram’s blog post “The First Week of Wolfram|Alpha: Thank You!”. You can read my blog post when I was playing around with Wolfram|Alpha.

A mobile phone comparison site powered by statistical analysis has become the first of its kind to be accredited by Ofcom, the communications regulator. You can read about this in “Academics tot up costs of mobiles” from the BBC or “BillMonitor comparison site rings Ofcom’s bell” from the Guardian.

The Guardian talks to Paul Wilmott, a financial mathematician who claims to have seen the credit crunch coming and has fairly strong views on who is to blame. Read “Number cruncher who foresaw financial crash.”

The inaugural Christopher Zeeman medal, jointly awarded by the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications and the London Mathematical Society and named in honour of Sir Christopher Zeeman, is to be awared to Professor Ian Stewart FRS. Read “It all adds up to connecting with people about numbers” from Times Higher Education.

On 15 May 2009, the Royal Society elected 44 new Fellows and 8 Foreign Members. I spotted 3 in maths – Professor Jonathan Peter Keating FRS, Professor Burt James Totaro FRS, Professor Yakov Sinai ForMemRS – plus 3 other using maths – Professor (John) Michael Batty CBE FBA FRS, Professor (Oscar) Peter Buneman FRS, Professor Angela McLean FRS. You can read profiles of all new Fellows and Foreign Members on the Royal Society website.

On six degrees of seperation, following the BBC programme, you can read “How Kevin Bacon sparked a new branch of science” from the BBC. You can read a general overview of the mathematical topic and its links to popular culture from Wikipedia. The BBC experiment sending packages to Boston is based on a study from the 1960s; you can read more about this and a later attempt to recreate this via email at “E-mail Study Corroborates Six Degrees of Separation” in Scientific American. There is a piece covering the small world phenomenon in Plus “Rap: rivalry and chivalry

You can read the article from the New Scientist which covers quantum computing and game theory, “Quantum poker: Are the chips down or not?

On films, Sarah mentions “Fermat’s Room” and I talk about “Agora“. You can read about the impact of the latter at Cannes in “Cannes film festival falls in love with maths” from the Guardian.

On improved weather forecasting, you can read “Met Office unveils supercomputer” from the BBC.

I mentioned Marcus du Sautoy’s Sexy Maths column in the Times. Recent editions at the time of recording were “A game of 12 pentagons: Why a football match is actually geometry in motion” and “In search of the poetry of Muslim symmetry.”

You can find out more about iSquared Magazine on the iSquared 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.

Podcast: Episode 31 – Matt Parker, Maths communication

These are the show notes for episode 31 of the Travels in a Mathematical World Podcast. 31 is the earliest and the only known case such that the sum of the divisors of two distinct numbers (16 & 25) is the same prime quantity (31), that is to say: 1+2+4+8+16 = 31 and 1+5+25 = 31. More about 31 from Number Gossip.

Not too long ago I spoke to the Maths Promotors Network about New Technologies, including podcasting. As part of this I made a live podcast recording with Matt Parker. Matt talked and gave examples of how he communicates maths to enthuse school students. After the ‘show’, Matt gave another example of an exercise he does with students and gave some advice on getting into maths communication and teaching.

During this recording Matt swallows helium and sulfur hexafluoride, which both affect the voice in comedic ways. For more fun with sulfur hexafluoride, check out “Ship floating on nothing!” You can find out more about maths humour (probably more correctly, math humor) in the Simpsons at SimpsonsMath.com. You can read an introduction to the UK National Lottery and its odds at Plus.

A good starting point if you are interested in teaching or the Student Associates Scheme is the TDA website. You can find out about more maths grads on the project website and see some of their output 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.

Maths Promotion and new technologies

Last week I went to a meeting of the Maths Promotors Network in London which had a focus on use of new technologies in mathematics promotion. I spoke at this, giving an introduction and contributing to panels on social networking (with Noel-Ann Bradshaw of the University of Greenwich and Meetings Co-ordinator of the British Society for the History of Mathematics) and podcasting (with Marianne Freiberger of Plus). The third panel was on social networking and featured Zia Rahman of more maths grads and Richard Browne of MEI.

I found the day very enjoyable with some interesting discussions about the use of these technologies. I spoke about the Maths Prom Network and how it can work to promote interesting activities. In the social networking panel Noel-Ann Bradshaw talked about use of Facebook for maths at Greenwich and the Who invented Mathematics? group, while I spoke about my use of Twitter and the IMA’s use of social networking sites Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn. In the podcasting session I gave the amateur point of view and made a live podcast recording with maths communicator Matt Parker which will appear, all being well, as episode 31 at the weekend and Marianne Freiberger spoke about the more professional version of podcasting you get with the Plus podcast.

The meeting was well attended and I am listing below a few links I collected to interesting people and their work. I encourage you to explore these links to find interesting content.

Zia Rahman works for more maths grads and contributes to the Maths Careers website, which I hope readers of this blog will know is an encyclopedic resource relating to careers information in mathematics.

Sarah Shepherd edits iSquared Magazine, a popular maths magazine that is well worth a read. Sarah contributes to the regular maths news features on the Travels in a Mathematical World podcast.

Richard Browne works for Mathematics in Education and Industry who are a body committed to mathematics education and publish newsletters, reports and interesting maths resources including the “item of the month feature“. Sue de Pomerai works for MEI’s Further Maths Network, whose website has information about further maths, CPD and other items.

Charles Goldie is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Sussex and General Secretary of the London Mathematical Society.

Marianne Freiberger edits Plus, an online maths magazine including a podcast.

John Sharp is co-organiser of the Maths-Art Seminars at London Knowledge Lab, whose website includes seminar announcements and video streaming of many previous talks. John is also involved with Bridges, an initative which includes an international maths art conference whose website has pages on exhibitions. John’s work in this area is the subject of episode 24 of the Travels in a Mathematical World podcast.

Sara Santos works for the Royal Institution of Great Britain. The website is search based and visitors are encouraged to search for “mathematics”, “magic of mathematics” and “calculating colours”.

The meeting was hosted by Caroline Davis of the Maths Promotion Unit.

Podcast: Episode 30 -Noel-Ann Bradshaw, Ramanujan

These are the show notes for episode 30 of the Travels in a Mathematical World Podcast. 30 is the largest number with the property that all smaller numberscoprime to it are prime. More about 30 from Number Gossip.

In the regular Maths History series, Noel-Ann Bradshaw of the University of Greenwich and also Meetings Co-ordinator of the British Society for the History of Mathematics talks about Ramanujan. You can read a biography of Ramanujan at the MacTutor History of Maths Archive.

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.

N.B. Correction (26/05/09): In this episode Noel-Ann makes a slip of the tongue, saying “G.K. Hardy” which should be “G.H. Hardy”. We’re sorry!