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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?

Meet the Mathematicians video

A couple of weeks ago I attended Meet the Mathematicians, a schools outreach day at the School of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Nottingham connected to the BAMC conference.

A short video has just been released which was taken during the Meet the Mathematicians day which is worth a watch.

British Applied Mathematics Colloquium 2009

I attended the 2009 British Applied Mathematics Colloquium (BAMC) at the School of Mathematical Sciences, University of Nottingham last week.

On day 1, I attended as a delegate from Nottingham interested in the Mathematics Education mini-symposium. On days 2 and 3, I attended as an exhibitor from the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications and assisted with running the IMA stall. Needless to say, some people know me as an IMA chap and others as an e-learning chap. This made for a very confusing week. I don’t mind working for two employers but when one moves in with the other it all gets a little messy!

Overall I had a very good time at the conference. I took an approach of forced complete lack of self-consciousness, wandering up to people with: “Hello, I’m Peter, I work for the IMA” to see where it led me. I serendipitously did this with several people with whom I have been speaking by email or on Facebook or Twitter. In fact, at one particular wine reception I had a run of people who have invited me to give talks or to other events but who I had not met. I spoke to a lot of PhD students and postdocs and hopefully raised some awareness of the IMA. I spoke to a few younger members and encouraged them to get involved and make the most of their membership. I spoke to a lot of more established members who used the materials on the stall on upcoming conferences, etc. to become more informed about the activities of the Institute. I even gave away a couple of IMA application forms. And, of course, I answered a lot of questions about the ‘merger’ (in case you’re wondering the answers are always either: 1. there is a vote taking place currently; 2. no, no one knows the outcome yet).

Meet the Mathematicians

As part of the BAMC, the School of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Nottingham held a schools outreach day called “Meet the Mathematicians“. This was a day of talks and a lunchtime session including interesting stalls, examples of mathematics research, a showcase of mathematical puzzles, a maths trail and a prize quiz.

As e-learning chap in the School, it was my job to operate the online prize quiz. The questions were written by Joel Feinstein and encoded to Questionmark Perception from a previous open day quiz. The questions were both mathematical and mathematics general knowledge (history and so forth). The computer suite was set up in the morning. All I had to do was be on hand to make sure nothing went wrong. We had a minor panic when no one had attempted the quiz half way through lunch, followed by increased signage and then a secondary panic when there was a queue and more computers had to be logged on. Apart from that it ran very smoothly. My role then was to write down the names of the top two scorers and slip them to Joel in an envelope (awards ceremony-style) during the panel discussion.

I think the day was good for the students who attended and for the School. It is always pleasing to see outreach events but a shame there aren’t more of them.

Meet the Mathematicians next year will be at Heriot-Watt University in connection with BAMC 2010 at the Maxwell Institute (Edinburgh/Heriot Watt).

Mathematics Today June: University Liaison Officer’s Report

The following report is my report in Mathematics Today June.

“When I graduated from my mathematics degree, between results and graduation I received a letter from a local academic suggesting I join the IMA. I thought: ‘Who are these people and why would I want to give them my money?’ and the letter went straight in the bin.”

I have made this statement a lot since I applied for the job as University Liaison Officer last October and have found general agreement from those who also received such letters and even from those who distribute them. This leads me to suspect you may be nodding as you read this!

I think the process of a known local academic giving a letter to students suggesting they join is a good idea with a desirable personal touch. In my opinion, the problem is that the students aren’t aware of the IMA, its work and the benefits of joining before this point and so the letter doesn’t strike a chord.

I later discovered who the Institute are, learned a little about what it does and joined up. I think the IMA has a lot to offer graduates as they embark on their careers but yet only a small percentage of maths graduates are joining (approx. 5%). The illuminating statistic here, in my opinion, is that there are around 4500 members of the IMA and there are around 4500 mathematics graduates per year in the UK. So the potential is huge!

I should explain a little for those who do not know about the graduate recruitment exercise. Sometime towards the start of the calendar year the IMA writes to its contacts in UK university mathematics departments and asks how many graduates they will have this year. They are then sent the appropriate number of graduate recruitment packs to distribute to those students. They should have been received and distributed therefore during the past 2-3 months.

I have spoken with people in universities who distribute these packs and appreciate their value to the students. Some people send the packs through the post to students while some hand them out in final year lectures. I have also visited universities where I can’t find anyone who is aware of receiving the packs or what happens to them.

So my call for assistance this time is: are you involved with the graduate recruitment exercise at your university? I am interested in how the packs are handled. Do you have any views on the effectiveness of this campaign or what could be done to improve it? If you have any information or views on this or any other issue please email me at

If you believe your university is not involved in this process then I would certainly be pleased to hear from you as it may mean we have an out of date contact in our list.

Activities March-April 2008

In March I visited the University of Reading, where the Mathematics Department has a compulsory skills module which includes a career management component operated by the Careers Advisory Service. This is an unusual arrangement and an interesting one. I also visited Bath and Bristol and found at those universities an appetite for engagement with the IMA and particularly for careers talks given by former students who are now IMA members.

In March/April I attended two half days of the 50th anniversary BAMC. It was really great to see such a vibrant applied mathematics community at work, although it must be said that most of the talks were outside my mathematical knowledge! I also attended a couple of interesting sessions at “Meet the Mathematicians”, a sixth form outreach event attached to BAMC.

In April I spent a beautiful sunny day visiting the Mathematical Institute at Oxford. I met with several interesting members of staff and had a productive chat with the incoming organising committee for the Invariants, the student mathematical society. The Invariants enjoy slightly off-syllabus mathematics talks and are thinking about reviving a student magazine. I also spent a productive afternoon in Portsmouth visiting the Department of Mathematics and the Purple Door careers service. To round off the month I attended the Manchester Mathsoc Ball and talked to final year students about the benefits of joining the IMA.

IMA Stickers

I have to apologise for the trouble with the stickers last time. For those who don’t know I wrote in Mathematics Today April that a sticker would be included saying “I’m a member of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications – Are you?” Unfortunately this was not included with Mathematics Today as expected but instead we sent it out the following week under a separate cover.

Still, I must report a huge positive reaction to the stickers. I would like to say thank you to all the people who have emailed me with their support for this idea to raise the visibility of the IMA. I have also had several requests from people wanting more than one sticker, which is very gratifying!

During my visit to Portsmouth in April I saw my first sticker “in the wild” (that is, a sticker I didn’t stick to something!) on the door of Ann Heal. I have since seen others and plenty of people have told me how they have displayed theirs. It is nice to see people taking a liking to this idea.

IMA on Facebook

The IMA group on Facebook and the IMA Facebook App are linked to from the IMA Student page (not just for students!) at or search for “Institute of Mathematics and its Applications” on Facebook.

If you are attending the Eight Younger Members Conference in May you can add this to your Events on Facebook.

Student Section of Mathematics Today

In the Student Section this issue is a piece adapted from a careers advice leaflet produced for mathematics students by Bath Careers Advisory Service by Sue Briault. I hope you will find this, as I did, packed with useful advice.

An historic meeting

Woke with a rather large hangover in a hall of residence room, rushed late to a lecture theatre and listened to a chap give a talk I didn’t fully understand… this is certainly bringing back memories!

I’m on the train now going home from Manchester having spent the last two days at the 50th British Applied Mathematics Colloquium (BAMC). The conference will continue for another two days but I have to be back in Nottingham.

I have enjoyed being at the BAMC and have met a lot of people. I tried to go to a variety of talks and didn’t fully understand any of them (I wasn’t the target audience for any of them and in a 20 minute talk there’s an awful lot of need for the word “obviously”). But it is good to get a sense of how vibrant applied mathematics is as a subject (8 talks in parallel every 25 minutes 6 times a half day plus plenaries is an awful lot of content!) and always good to meet practitioners of the art.

Also attached to the BAMC was a schools outreach event called “Meet the Mathematicians” and I was lucky enough to sit in on talks by Chris Budd and David Broomhead. Around 50 local sixth form students attended and seemed to respond well to the talks I attended. There was a photo taken with the students just starting out on their careers and participants from the original BAMC 50 years ago. I don’t know if the outreach day is going to be a new BAMC tradition but it seems a good idea.

Incidentally, yesterday when I was on the train and posted my report to Mathematics Today April there was a chap sat opposite me. He seemed perfectly nice and we exchanged pleasantries a little but I really thought little of it. Later, he introduced himself to me at the BAMC! He is John Watson and he attended the first few BTMC (as BAMC was then called) meetings in the late 50s and early 60s. He was one of several people who were involved at the start invited to the 50th anniversary conference. So there was a missed opportunity for me!