I made a silly joke, and it made me think.
You may be aware that our own Christian Lawson-Perfect is running the Big Internet Math-Off here at the Aperiodical, a single-elimination tournament with sixteen competitors. I was knocked out in round one by the brilliant Alison Kiddle. I joked that if Alison went on to win, then I’d be joint second.
I’ve been mulling this over and I felt there was something there in thinking about the placement of the non-winners in such a tournament, so I had a play.
This week’s episode of More or Less on the BBC World Service answered a question that involved estimating big numbers: Are there more stars than grains of beach sand?
This claim was famously made by Carl Sagan in the seminal programme Cosmos.
The cosmos is rich beyond measure. The number of stars in the universe is larger than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet Earth.
More or Less come to a fairly standard answer, that Sagan was correct. This sort of problem, which involves approximating unknowable numbers based on a series of estimates, is called a Fermi problem. I’ve written about Fermi problems here before. The More or Less approach to answering this raised a question from a reader of this blog.
Alright, actually Paul is one of the writers of this blog, rather than a reader. Even so, are his concerns warranted?
Do you remember Paul the Octopus? During the 2010 World Cup, in what his Wikipedia page calls “divinations”, Paul was offered boxes of food labelled with different competitors. Whichever box he ate from first was considered his prediction for the match, with some success.
Yesterday morning, my son and I did something similar with our cat, Tabby. This is in response to Matt Parker’s latest initiative, Psychic Pets. Matt is hoping to get thousands of pet owners to make predictions, in order that the odds are good a pet can be found which predicted all prior results for both teams in the final. The good news is it’s fairly straightforward to take part.
I gave a talk on Fermi problems and a method for approaching them using the approximate geometric mean at the Maths Jam gathering in 2017. This post is a write up of that talk with some extras added in from useful discussion afterwards.
Enrico Fermi apparently had a knack for making rough estimates with very little data. Fermi problems are problems which ask for estimations for which very little data is available. Some standard Fermi problems:
- How many piano tuners are there in New York City?
- How many hairs are there on a bear?
- How many miles does a person walk in a lifetime?
- How many people in the world are talking on their mobile phones right now?
Hopefully you get the idea. These are problems for which little data is available, but for which intelligent guesses can be made. I have used problems of this type with students as an exercise in estimation and making assumptions. Inspired by a tweet from Alison Kiddle, I have set these up as a comparison of which is bigger from two unknowable things. Are there more cats in Sheffield or train carriages passing through Sheffield station every day? That sort of thing.
On 31st January 2008, I gave my first lecture. I was passing my PhD supervisor in the corridor and he said “there might be some teaching going if you fancy it, go and talk to Mike”. And that, as innocuous as it sounds, was the spark that lit the flame. I strongly disliked public speaking, having hardly done it (not having had much chance to practice in my education to date – I may have only given one talk in front of people to that point, as part of the assessment of my MSc dissertation), but I recognised that this was something I needed to get over. I had just started working for the IMA, where my job was to travel the country giving talks to undergraduate audiences, and I realised that signing up to a regular lecture slot would get me some much-needed experience. I enjoyed teaching so much that I have pursued it since.
I just noticed that last Wednesday was ten years since that lecture. It was basic maths for forensic science students. I was given a booklet of notes and told to either use it or write my own (I used it), had a short chat about how the module might work with another lecturer, and there I was in front of the students. That was spring in the academic year 2007/8 and this is the 21st teaching semester since then. This one is the 15th semester during which I have taught — the last 12 in a row, during which I got a full-time contract and ended ten years of part-time working.
I have this awful feeling this might lead people to imagine I’m one of the people who knows what they are doing.
P.S. The other thing that I started when I started working for the IMA was blogging – yesterday marks ten years since my first post. So this post represents the start of my second ten years of blogging.
A couple of weekends ago was the big MathsJam gathering (I might call it a recreational maths conference, but this is discouraged). Two of the delightful sideshows, alongside an excellent series of talks, were the competitions. The Baking Competition is fairly straightforward, with prizes for “best flavour, best presentation, and best maths”:
The first will reward a well-made, delicious item; the second will reward the item which has been decorated the most beautifully and looks most like what it’s supposed to be; and the third will reward the most ingenious mathematical theming.
You can view the entries from this year on the MathsJam website.