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LMS Popular Lectures 2013: ‘Mathematics in the Courtroom’ and ‘Addictive Number Theory

The London Mathematical Society Popular Lectures for 2013 have been announced. Professor Ray Hill, University of Salford, will talk about ‘Mathematics in the Courtroom’, and Dr. Vicky Neale, University of Cambridge, will give a lecture on ‘Addictive Number Theory’.

The strange case of Misha Verbitsky and the trademarked beard

A mathematician named Misha Verbitsky was arrested while trying to leave his native Russia for a conference in Poland, and is now banned from leaving the country. Apparently, he had been convicted in absentia of infringing Igor Pugach’s copyright in a blog post criticising him.

Some infinities (and egos) are bigger than others

Here’s a tale of a rational (or irrational?) legal battle from the 1990s re: Cantor’s diagonal argument.

Cantor’s diagonal argument from 1891 was truly revolutionary: an ingenious way to demonstrate that no matter what proposed list of all real numbers (or, say, just those between $0$ and $1$) is put forth, it’s easy to find a number which is definitely missing from the list.1

In a nutshell, Cantor was the first to show that some infinities are bigger than others.

Cantor’s diagonalisation argument for the reals is watertight, and has proved to be a model of elegance and simplicity in the century plus that has passed since it first appeared.

That didn’t stop engineer William Dilworth publishing A correction in set theory, in which he refutes Cantor’s argument, in the Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences in 1974.

  1. One has to pay close attention to realise that the same proof doesn’t also establish that the rationals are uncountable, bearing in mind that the Cantor pairing function shows that the rationals most certainly are countable. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Countable_set []

May I publish a letter from my MP without permission?

A friend of mine recently contacted her MP on a matter of use or misuse of statistics in promotional material and received a reply. She wants to write a blog post about the experience. The fairest way to do this would be to quote the MP’s response, since this avoids hearsay and anecdote. Is she free to do this? I have an answer to this question and I share this below.

I googled a lot, to no avail, and asked on Twitter.

Help: If I write to my MP is it okay to publish the reply in full with comment on a blog? URL to reputable source yes or no appreciated.

The answers were unclear. Clearly a private letter from a private individual is copyright of that individual so permission must be sought, and this was the view taken by several respondents. However, a letter written on company time might result in copyright owned by the employer. In this case, the MP works for the state and has their time paid by the taxpayer to perform the public function of representing constituent’s issues. Then, is the constituent free to publish the letter without seeking permission? This was the view of several other respondents.

There are also issues of privacy, but if the MP has revealed nothing private and the constituent is happy is that okay?

Or perhaps there is a public interest defence? 

Happily, @singinghedgehog suggested that I ask the House of Commons Information Office. I sent the following query.

Hello,
If a constituent writes to their MP and their MP replies, are they free to publish the response in a blog post?
I have been told that the contents of the email are private and the constituent should write back asking for permission. I have also been told that no permission is needed as the MP’s time is publicly funded so as long as the constituent is happy they may make the contents public.
Thank you for your help in clarifying this matter. As I found an answer hard to find, may I publish your response on my blog?
Thank you,
Peter. 

Notice how I cleverly ask “may I publish your response on my blog?”? They didn’t reply to that bit! So I emailed back asking if this was okay and got this response (I’ve taken off the name of the respondent because there is no need to include this):

Dear Peter,
There are no restrictions on publishing emails from this office as we are a public information service.
I hope that this is useful. 

So here is the original response (I’ve highlighted the key bit):

Dear Peter,
Thank you for your email.
I have spoken to our legal services team and they have given the following response to your question:
Letters written by Members
A Member has copyright in letters that s/he has written. Therefore, the relevant Member’s consent must be obtained before their letter can be published.
Letters written by constituents
Constituents are advised that, if they send a letter to their MP, it may be protected by qualified privilege for the purposes of defamation. However, this protection is likely to be lost if a constituent puts their letter in the public domain.
I hope that this is useful to you. 

So my friend must ask permission. Better, she should have asked permission in her original letter. I don’t think the second part applies (though I haven’t seen the correspondence in question) but it is interesting to note.

This surprised me because the two seemingly most reputable responses – one originating with someone who works for an MP and one secret “reputable source” (“I’d tell you who but I’d have to kill us both”) – both gave the opposite answer. So I’m publishing this here in the hope it is useful to someone.

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