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Maths at the Edinburgh Fringe

Every August a multitude of comedy shows, theatre pieces, interpretive dance performances, musical extravaganzas and spoken word events spring up all over the Edinburgh Fringe. As a busy mathematician (there are infinitely many integers; who has spare time?) I’m sure you’ll appreciate our guide to which of those things are mathematical, or have a tangential (LOL) relationship with mathematics. Please note: none of these are recommendations, as we haven’t seen the shows and mainly have been grepping the word ‘maths’ in online programmes.

Best way to explain topology: now officially ‘using baked goods’

Nobel Prize news!

The 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to a trio of physicists: Michael Kosterlitz, Duncan Haldane and David Thouless“for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter”.

And here’s the maths angle – their work is in the field of topological physics, which relates strange matter (superconductors, superfluids and the like) to topology, via the interesting way the properties of the materials change in phases, like the different fundamental shapes of objects in topology. None of the material we’ve taken a cursory glance at so far yields a simple explanation of how these two things are linked, but they have explanatory PDFs on the Nobel website if you’d like a dig around: Popular (PDF) and Advanced (PDF).

Also, impressively many newspaper headlines seem to have failed to notice that ‘strange matter’ is actually a thing in physics, and consequently mangled it in their explanations.

Cue of course an amazing press conference in which Nobel Committee for Physics member Thors Hans Hansson holds up a bun, a bagel and a pretzel to explain the difference. Classic topology.

More information

Official Nobel press release

British scientists win Nobel prize in physics for work so baffling it had to be described using bagels, at The Telegraph (bonus points for ‘Noble prize’ typo, if it’s not been corrected yet)

Physics prize explanations on the Nobel website: Popular (PDF) and Advanced (PDF)


Physics with hidden calculus

Crossing campus this afternoon, a student whose exam is later this week asked me “when you ask a real-world question on the exam and you want us to solve an ODE, can we just do it using formula we memorised from A-level physics?” Like what? “Like with one of the distance questions we might just use $v^2 = u^2 + 2as$.” I said that if they were relying on a result we didn’t use in the module and that they hadn’t proven, this would be a problem.

In the latest Taking Maths Further podcast (Episode 19: Computer games and mechanics), we had a puzzle that we say could be answered roughly, but the precise answer 23.53 (2 d.p.) required a little calculus. On Twitter, @NickJTaylor said

Geometric Unity: phenomenal advance, or crazy theory?

Marcus du Sautoy has this week presented to the world the physics of Eric Weinstein. ‘Geometric Unity’, apparently, argues “that the seemingly baroque features of the standard model of particle physics are in fact inexorable and geometrically natural when generalizations of the Yang-Mills and Dirac theories are unified with one of general relativity”.

Apparently, du Sautoy and Weinstein were postdocs together in the 1990s. Weinstein is a mathematical physicist turned economist who has been working on his these ideas privately for 20 years. Two years ago, he started to explain his thoughts to Marcus in a bar in New York.

Higgs boson discovery passes peer review

The discovery of the Higgs boson, which “completes the standard model [of particle physics]” according to New Scientist, has passed peer review. Two papers, from the two experiments which each contributed to the discovery, have been published in Volume 716, Issue 1 (17 September 2012) of Physics Letters B, the same journal as Peter Higgs’ original paper which proposed the existence of a “mass-giving boson”. Despite declaring the standard model complete, the New Scientist piece says it is “lacking” and welcomes “the hunt for new physics”. Both papers are “Universally Available” at Science Direct (links below).

Source:  Higgs boson gets peer-review seal of approval (New Scientist).

Observation of a new particle in the search for the Standard Model Higgs boson with the ATLAS detector at the LHC (ATLAS Collaboration, 2012, Physics Letters B, 1-29);
Observation of a new boson at a mass of 125 GeV with the CMS experiment at the LHC (CMS Collaboration, 2012, Physics Letters B, 30-61).

Related: Have they discovered the Higgs boson? Probably.

Have they discovered the Higgs boson? Probably

I feel that we should acknowledge the announcement made at CERN this morning. As put by Brian Cox on Twitter: “ATLAS and CMS have independently discovered a new particle mass ~ 126 GeV which behaves like [the standard model] Higgs”. This is all based on statistical analysis of experimental data and, since the Higgs cannot be observed directly, there are some outstanding questions that require further research.

Have they discovered the Higgs boson? The answer is: probably. If it’s the Higgs, then it’s a nice example of theoretical physics making demonstrable predictions about nature. If the discovered particle is something else, then there’s a bunch more theoretical work to do to understand this.