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The Maths of Life and Death – The God Equation

Aperiodicolleague Kit Yates has recently had a new book out: The Maths of Life and Death. He’s kindly agreed to share a sample chapter with us, explaining the God Equation: it’s used by NICE to decide whether to fund new drugs.

In my new book, The Maths of Life and Death, I explore the true stories of life-changing events in which the application (or misapplication) of mathematics has played a critical role: patients crippled by faulty genes and entrepreneurs bankrupt by faulty algorithms; innocent victims of miscarriages of justice and the unwitting victims of software glitches. I follow stories of investors who have lost fortunes and parents who have lost children, all because of mathematical misunderstanding. I wrestle with ethical dilemmas from screening to statistical subterfuge and examine pertinent societal issues such as political referenda, disease prevention, criminal justice and artificial intelligence. I aim to demonstrate that mathematics has something profound or significant to say on all of these subjects, and more.

High definition

We asked #bigmathoff competitor Lucy Rycroft-Smith to tell us a little about her latest project – CM Define It, an app aiming to collect and define mathematical vocabulary, which launches today.

When you teach mathematical vocabulary, how do you define its meaning?

Are you exact, choosing your words specifically?  Do you give a written definition?  Do you give multiple explanations?  Do you use diagrams?  Metaphors? Connect to previous vocabulary?

As part of our work at Cambridge, creating a Framework for mathematics learning, we are creating a network of semantic links across nodes in our mathematical layer – and we initially thought we could just import a mathematical glossary from somewhere else to populate this.  But we found so many inconsistencies, technical errors, and definition loops in many existing glossaries that we decided to make an app to ask the mathematical community what they thought, with the aim of developing a crowdsourced, multi-layered collage which takes into account different layers of mathematical experience.

MathsJam’s “Back of an Envelope” Fermi Challenge

Aperiodipal and MathsJam regular Rob Eastaway organised an inter-MathsJam competition for last month’s events, challenging Jams to make Fermi estimates on the back of an envelope. The prize was a copy of his new book, Maths on the Back of an Envelope. Here Rob gives a summary of the entries he received, and shares his favourites.

Regular attendees of MathsJam will know that in September, Katie Steckles kindly allowed me to hijack the evening (in the nicest possible sense) by posing some envelope-related challenges, in celebration of the publication of my new book Maths On The Back Of An Envelope. In addition to some envelope-related puzzles, there was also an open challenge to Maths Jam groups to come up with their own back-of-an-envelope problems, with the chance to win the book as a prize.

Alan Turing is the face of the new £50 note

The Bank of England has announced, following a public poll, that the new £50 note will feature mathematician, cryptographer and computer science pioneer Alan Turing. While this might seem like unambiguous good news, the issues it raises are more complicated than they first appear. Here’s a guest post from LGBT+ mathematician Calvin Smith with his thoughts on the decision.

Image result for £50 note

It’s obviously fabulous that Alan Turing is being recognised on the new £50 note, but this joy at seeing a gay mathematician given this recognition is tainted with the memory of his cruel treatment by the society of the day and the ongoing persecution of queer and trans people today.

It’s absolutely right that we celebrate the achievements of Turing the mathematician, and I’m hoping that this also creates an opportunity to talk more about the amazing work he did away from his well-known code-breaking in the field of mathematical biology, where he developed models which help us to understand the formation of shapes and patterns in biology. As a gay man working in mathematics I’m also hoping that the additional prominence given to Turing’s work acts as a further catalyst to drive inclusion in STEM subjects and that more young queer people consider study and careers in these areas.

If we are committed to doing the best science and solving modern problems then we need the most diverse set of thinkers available and for each of them to be able to bring their whole authentic selves to work. There are some wonderful organisations like Pride In Stem and events like the LGBT STEMinar which bring together and give voice to a diverse mix of queer scientists who can otherwise feel invisible or over-exposed in their local work environment. Stonewall’s work in making workplaces (especially universities) more LGBT+ inclusive cannot be underestimated as a driver for positive change. Hopefully the greater awareness and visibility afforded by Turing can drive improvements: the future of science is fabulously queer and intersectional. Fire the glitter cannon!

However, setting aside my maths-joy at seeing another mathematician celebrated I’m also filled with a cocktail of bitterness and seething rage at this announcement. Turing and society’s treatment of him is hugely symbolic and cannot be underestimated. Turing’s appearance on a bank note does not excuse society its historic treatment of him of other victims of homophobia. Just because we now have same-sex marriage does not mean the fight for queer inclusion is over. I grew up under Section 28 telling me that homosexual relationships were “pretend families” and while I am now a proud gay dad to two lovely scamps it is worth reflecting that Section 28 was only repealed in 2003, same-sex adoption introduced in 2005. Many of our recent victories seem fragile and culturally we still have a long way to go to eradicate the homophobia, lesbophobia, biphobia and transphobia which continues to lead to assaults on queer people to this day. Turing is also a call to action and constant vigilance so that we don’t turn the clock back on acceptance without exception, on inclusion for all, and for no outsiders.

July is LGBT wrath month: a Turing banknote cannot be allowed to become a pinkwashed sticking plaster over the underlying issues of intolerance, and we need LGBT+ people and their allies to continue the fight so that it remains a call to action – and not the undeserved pat on the back which leads to complacency and the further loss of queer and trans lives.


This is a guest post from Philipp Legner, the creator of Mathigon an interactive maths education platform.

Every year, thousands of students around the world ask themselves why they have to learn mathematics. Calculators can do long division. You can look up the quadratic formula on the internet. And when will you ever need calculus in everyday life? It seems like they have a point.

In fact, the maths curriculum has not changed significantly in the last 50 years. Its primary focus is on memorising rules and procedures which can be used to solve standardised exam questions. I created Mathigon because I strongly believe we need to change this – not only to make mathematics more enjoyable for students, but also to teach different skills that are much more useful in life: problem-solving, abstraction, logical reasoning, creativity, and curiosity.

Talking Maths in Public

In 2017, the University of Bath hosted the first Talking Maths in Public conference, a gathering for UK maths communicators. As part of the event, attendance bursaries were awarded to students interested in maths outreach, and the recipients of the bursaries wrote about their experiences. To celebrate the fact that a second TMiP conference will be happening this year (booking is open now, and we’re all going to be there!), we’re sharing their report of TMiP 2017. You can find out more about this year’s event (which also includes a bursary scheme) at

This post was jointly written by Imogen Morris, (University of Edinburgh), David Nkansah (University of Glasgow) and Olivia Sorto (University of Edinburgh).