Earlier this week my server underwent what might be politely termed an “unscheduled outage“. This has messed up a lot of stuff, including the Travels in a Mathematical World podcast. This is now back from another server and all is well again. All episodes are linked from

My personal website and ELMS remain offline at present. If I close my eyes and wish hard enough, maybe I’ll find some spare time to sort them out too.

Puzzling over careers in York

Last week I spent two days in York giving talks. Firstly I gave an evening lecture to the York University Maths Society (YUMS) on Puzzles. I found this highly enjoyable. I think was the first talk I have written that I was looking forward to giving rather than being preoccupied with anxiety on its first outing. I gave a number of puzzles for the audience to work through, talked through a little of the history of puzzles and then we had a session at the end with my collection of puzzles for the audience to play with (pictured below). Following this, YUMS and I retired to the bar for some beer and darts.

Puzzles at YorkThe following morning I went to the maths department (pictured below) for the careers fair. One of the students told me that when I offered to give my careers talk to the department the staff asked the students if they wanted a maths careers talk. The students said they did, and a maths-specific careers fair as well. It is nice to know that I inadvertently started the event! The day was organised jointly by the Careers Service and the Department of Mathematics, and advertised by YUMS as well. I think this combination really helped because the turnout was excellent. I was to give my careers talk to open the day. All the seats were gone and there were people sitting and standing at the back and in the aisles, and they were turning people away! I gave my talk and I think it went well, then we arranged I would give it again for the people who had been turned away. In total my helper for the day, York undergraduate Yi Ding, counted 80 students in the two sittings. As well my stall was hard at work without me; the organisers told me it was one of the most popular stalls even without me attending to it!

The best part of the day for me was when I was speaking to the lady from the TeachFirst stall. She said that usually when she comes to university careers fairs she finds the students naïve about the nature of the jobs market. She told me the students coming out of my talks were clued in and motivated to explore possible careers options. She said they kept telling her about the talk they’d just been in and what I had said about skills and employment prospects. This is brilliant to hear, a huge ego boost.

University of York Department of Mathematics
York Careers Fair poster

Wii ball games in Newcastle and Sheffield

At the end of April I made a trip to Newcastle and back via Sheffield to give my talk on Spin in Ball Games and play on the Wii. Both of these events were fun and I think provided some welcome revision relief for the students. At this time of year a lot of universities have ceased all but revision lectures and the appetite I found for careers talks in February is much reduced by now. Both of these talks were organised by the student societies and I think it is useful for me to have in my repertoire more fun events to engage with students in these situations.

Below are the posters used to advertise my presence in the two universities (click to enlarge). Apart from the completely made up title and abstract at Sheffield (my fault for not sending the real one), I think it is interesting to note the differences in approach taken. At Sheffield, an attempt is made to make the talk appear like a serious mathematical lecture on the physics of spin in ball games and how these are modelled in video games, using ‘examples’ on the Wii. On the other hand Newcastle make no bones about it, using a large photo of a Wii on the poster! In reality, the Newcastle interpretation is closer to reality; this is intended to be a fun night out of tenuous mathematical relevance in which the students have a laugh and go home a little more aware of the existence of the IMA. The ‘serious’ talk at Sheffield had to pause at one point when one of the players had a call from his girlfriend who, with the noise of the Wii in the background, would simply not believe he was at a maths event. “No really, it’s a serious maths lecture from the IMA” he said, with Mario Power Tennis sound effects in the background.


Advert for my talk at Newcastle
Advert for my talk at Sheffield

Conferences on Mathematics in London

At the end of the Easter conference season I spent two days in London for conferences.

The first was the IMA’s flagship general mathematical interest conference, Mathematics 2009. At this I was very excited to hear Sir Roger Penrose speak. Read an outline of Sir Roger’s work at Plus. I was also pleased for the second time to hear David Spiegelhalter speak on public understanding of uncertainty (I also attended his keynote at Young Researchers in Mathematics 2009). I also heard the following speakers at the conference: Ben Heydecker on transport modelling, John McWhirter on his research, Makhan Singh and Zia Rahman on the more maths grads project‘s use of video, Helen Byrne on mathematical biology and Fred Piper on cryptography.

The second was the Women in Mathematics Day 2009. This event is designed for women who are active in mathematics to get together, including plenty of talks and posters by PhD students.

On my way home to Nottingham I stopped by the University of Leicester for an IMA East Midlands Branch talk on The Physics of Finance by Iain Clark.

Young Researchers in Mathematics 2009

Back in conference season, I attended the Young Researchers in Mathematics conference at Cambridge (AKA Beyond Part III). This was my first time in Cambridge and it was good to see the maths building, of which I have heard a lot during my travels. Unfortunately, when I got there it appeared someone had parked a spaceship on top of it (picture below).

Centre for Mathematical Sciences, Cambridge
This conference was 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. The Young Researchers in Mathematics is an ongoing initiative. From the website:

We exist to promote links between graduate mathematician communities at universities across the UK, and facilitate the organisation of conferences, workshops and social events for young mathematicians.

The conference was part-sponsored by the IMA and so I ran a stall at the event (pictured below) and spent a good amount of time mingling.

Stall at Young Researchers in Mathematics Conference 2009
Below you will find a link to the conference photo on the Young Researchers in Mathematics website. Click to enlarge. I am almost in the middle towards the back, in a brown jumper and just behind the guy in green who stands out.

Group photo from Young Researchers in Mathematics 2009

Podcast: Episode 28 – Maths news with Sarah Shepherd

These are the show notes for episode 28 of the Travels in a Mathematical World Podcast. 28 is the number of dominoes in a standard dominoes set. More about 28 from NumberADay.

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.

‘Maths’ to crack climate change,” an article on the BBC News website about the Numerical Algorithms and Intelligent Software (NAIS) team, a group of Scottish scientists attempting to tackle some of the numerical challenges presented by modern science.

Article in the Guardian, “Go figure … why mathematicians rule the internet,” on algorithms, covering supermarket loyalty cards, shelf stacking, special offers and stock control, traffic lights, the price of low cost flights, air traffic control, Amazon recommendations, Google search results, weather forecasts and radio station playlists.

Piece in the Oxford Mail highlighting the importance of mathematics in fire fighting. Read “Flaming good way to teach maths.”

Piece in the Guardian, “Newly hatched chicks pass maths test,” on basic mathematical skills in newly hatched chicks.

Scientists reveal how eating chocolate can help improve your maths,” a piece in the Telegraph which reports on a study on the effects of flavanols (found in cocoa) on mathematical ability.

Could quantum mathematics shake up Google?“, a piece from the New Scientist which discusses the use of random matrix theory to identify salient words in documents and its potential use in search engine results.

Maths teachers ‘taught to teach’” from the BBC News website reports on a booklet containing advice on teaching mathematics which are being sent to maths teachers in England and some reaction to the booklet.

The report of the suggestion of a government advisory committee that suggests national SATS tests should be phased out. Read “Testing of 11-year-olds should be phased out, advisers tell government” from the Guardian.

Puzzling behaviour: Maths professor finds the formula that will solve ANY Sudoku” from the Daily Mail reports on an article by James Crook, “A Pencil-and-Paper Algorithm for Solving Sudoku Puzzles.”

The story “Salmond stumped by a mother’s maths question” is an interesting one. Since we recorded, there has been an apology from the BBC journalist involved, Brian Davies, in a blog post “To infinity and beyond” where he offers “to one and all, 3.14159265 apologies”. The original story is gone from the Scotsman website at the time of writing these notes, replaced with the seemingly technical error, “The article has been unable to display.” At the time of writing, Google still has a cache of the original story “Salmond stumped by a mother’s maths question – Google Cache“. I have not been able to find any reference to it, or its deletion, on the Scotsman website, apart from in deleted user contributed comments (view Google cache version). Minitrue at work.

The 14th of March was Pi Day. You can read the text of the US Government Bill which officially recognises Pi Day on The Library of Congress THOMAS website by searching for Bill Number “H.RES.224” or for the text “Pi Day”.

The 24th March 2009 was Ada Lovelace Day, in recognition of women in technology. The BBC have a good roundup of what took place.

The International Centre for Mathematical Sciences (ICMS) in Edinburgh held a maths film festival – watching Hollywood films The Oxford Murders, 21 and N Is A Number, a documentary about Paul Erdös. This was reported in The Scotsman as “Lights, camera, action – maths and the movies adds up to a winning formula“.

I recommended Marcus du Sautoy’s column Sexy Maths in the Times, the latest I had seen was “Sexy maths: the Fibonacci sequence’s prime rate.”

I also recommended the work of David Spiegelhalter through the Understanding Uncertainty website and a piece in Plus, “Understanding uncertainty: 2845 ways of spinning risk.”

I mentioned the Independant guide on Maths at university in which Noel-Ann Bradshaw and I feature. I mentioned Neil Goldwasser, who featured on Episode 7 of the Travels in a Mathematical World podcast, is now featured on the Maths Careers website.

You can find out about IMA membership grades on the Membership section of the IMA website.

I also mentioned the error I made in episode 9 of the Travels in a Mathematical World podcast, in which I claim 9 is prime.

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 Join the Facebook page.

What’s pi got to do with it?

Last week at Meet the Mathematicians I saw a talk by Jon Keating , “Some thoughts on the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” (an essay by Wigner). One element that I have taken away from this was when Jon was talking about the unexpected connections between mathematical concepts, illustrated using the normal distribution (an example from the original essay). The bell shaped curve depends on the mean and the variance, which is perfectly reasonable. The curve depends as well on pi. So Jon posed the question: If you take a large group of people, measure their heights (or other body parts, or lots of other types of data) and arrange them on a histogram, what has that to do with the ratio between the circumference and diameter of a circle?