Plus Blog

November 12, 2007
Monday, November 12, 2007

Lotto confusion

Negative numbers can confuse us all. Lottery company Camelot has withdrawn its Cool Cash scratchcard because players couldn't understand it and were confused by the negative temperatures on the card.

To win, users had to scratch away a window to reveal a temperature lower than the figure displayed on each card. As the game had a winter theme, the temperature was usually below freezing.

This is where the confusion comes in. Camelot received dozens of complaints from players who thought they had won, but were denied their prize money. They had scratched their windows to reveal numbers smaller in absolute value than the figure they needed to be lower than to win, but as both figures were negative, these numbers were actually bigger.

23-year-old Tina Farrell memorably said:

"On one of my cards it said I had to find temperatures lower than -8. The numbers I uncovered were -6 and -7 so I thought I had won, and so did the woman in the shop. But when she scanned the card the machine said I hadn't. I phoned Camelot and they fobbed me off with some story that -6 is higher - not lower - than -8 but I'm not having it. I think Camelot are giving people the wrong impression - the card doesn't say to look for a colder or warmer temperature, it says to look for a higher or lower number. Six is a lower number than 8. Imagine how many people have been misled."

Almost three times as many UK adults (15.1m) have poor numeracy skills - the equivalent of a G or below at GCSE maths - compared to those with poor literacy skills, according to the government's Skills for Life survey.

For more information, check out the Manchester Evening News

posted by Plus @ 3:31 PM

November 12, 2007
Monday, November 12, 2007

The next Beautiful Young Minds?

In October BBC2 screened a critically acclaimed documentary called "Beautiful Young Minds" which charted the fortunes of the six UK teenagers taking part in the 2006 International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) in Slovenia. (See our Plus article for more information.)

On the 8th of November, a record number of sixth formers will sit a test which could lead to them becoming next year's Beautiful Young Minds. Over 87,000 students from over 2,000 schools and colleges will sit the Senior Maths Challenge which could lead to them being selected to represent the UK in the 2008 IMO in Spain. With over 60,000 students sitting mathematics A-level last year, this demonstrates a massive proportion of A-level candidates wishing to represent their country in mathematics.

Mary Wimbury, Director of the UK Mathematics Trust (which sets the Challenge and also selects the Olympiad team) explained that 8% more students had entered the competition this year. She said, "We are delighted with the increase in entries to the Senior Maths Challenge which reflects a growing take up of mathematics amongst sixth formers. The Challenge involves answering 25 questions of increasing difficulty which aim to stimulate mathematical thinking beyond the school curriculum. We know that students find it both motivating and interesting."

The Senior Maths Challenge is sponsored by the Actuarial Profession. It presupposes a knowledge of mathematics to GCSE higher level and involves answering 25 questions in an hour and a half. Gold, silver and bronze certificates are awarded to 40% of participants nationally and the top 1,000 competitors will be invited to enter the British Mathematical Olympiad (BMO) Round 1 paper which takes place on 30th November. The best 100 qualified to represent the UK will then be invited to sit BMO Round 2 in January 2008. They will then be whittled down to a squad of 20 and finally a team of six to represent the UK.

posted by Plus @ 4:27 PM

November 2, 2007
Friday, November 02, 2007

As you probably know by know if you're a regular Plus reader, this year marks the 300th anniversary of Leonhard Euler's birth.

In our fourth Plus podcast we meet Professor Chris Budd to look at Euler's most famous bits of work and also investigate Celtic and African maths, how maths saves lives, and the maths of Christmas.

Hear more...

The following Plus articles give some background to the topics that come up in this podcast:

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posted by Plus @ 10:41 AM

October 31, 2007

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Plus's sister project boosts Maths in London's toughest schools

The NRICH project, a sister project of Plus, will be running a \$1.2 million initiative to boost the teaching of maths for thousands of school students in London's most deprived areas. Over a hundred of the4se students will be given the chance to study on residential courses at the University of Cambridge.

The Goldman Sachs Foundation, a philanthropic arm of the global investment bank Goldman Sachs, has awarded the University of Cambridge a grant of \$1.2 million. It will enable the University to develop and to deliver training to hundreds of maths teachers working in some of the UK's most disadvantaged schools. Through the resources provided to support teachers' classroom practice, this partnership could benefit up to 15,000 London school students annually.

The funding will also give 120 GCSE-age school pupils the chance to study maths in Cambridge through intensive residential courses. Each student will attend three residential workshops, running for a week each, over a one year period. These students will also undertake on-line courses supported by Cambridge staff and undergraduate mentors.

Lesley Gannon, Head of Widening Participation at the University of Cambridge, said, "This is the first time that the University of Cambridge has been funded to run subject-specific residential courses over such a lengthy period. This will allow us to work intensively with hundreds of disadvantaged students to develop their mathematical and problem solving skills and to raise aspirations."

The new programme will launch in September 2008, and will be run by two award-winning divisions of the University of Cambridge: NRICH, which is part of the Millennium Mathematics Project and a sister project of Plus, and the Group to Encourage Ethnic Minority Applications (GEEMA), which is part of the Widening Participation Team in the Cambridge Admissions Office.

The NRICH website has been providing free on-line resources as part of the Millennium Mathematics Project for almost a decade. The aim of Millennium Mathematics is to provide top-quality enrichment activities for maths students nationally and internationally.

The new programme is aimed at GCSE-age students from groups and communities currently under-represented in higher education in general and in research-led institutions in particular.

The programme will be aimed at students from disadvantaged areas in inner-city London, and teachers from the same areas. Many London boroughs are among the most deprived socio-economic areas in the UK, with school students in these areas facing enormous hurdles.

Priority will be given to students who:
• Are the first generation in their family to attend university
• Have parents in non-professional occupations
• Are from minority ethnic backgrounds currently under-represented in HE
• Attend a school with a low overall GCSE A*-C average and/or with a low overall A-level point score
• Attend a school with a high proportion of free school meals
• Attend a school with a low proportion of students going on to higher education

Nationally, mathematics faces severe challenges, which the Government commissioned 2004 Smith Inquiry into 14-19 Mathematics Education described as a "crisis in the teaching and learning of mathematics in England". The inquiry identified "deep concern about the supply of appropriately qualified mathematics teachers in secondary schools and colleges”. It also expressed concern that many young people perceived maths as “boring and irrelevant” and “too difficult, compared with other subjects".

Dr Jennifer Piggott, Director of NRICH: "This is an exciting opportunity to share some of our enjoyment of mathematics with communities such as the one I grew up in myself in Hackney, and we're very grateful to the Goldman Sachs Foundation for their generous grant. For us on the NRICH team, the evaluation component of the programme funding will also allow us to assess the impact and effect of working with students and teachers in this way, and we're therefore also looking forward to learning from the programme ourselves."

Stephanie Bell-Rose, President of The Goldman Sachs Foundation, said, "The Goldman Sachs Foundation supports initiatives that give promising young people from underserved backgrounds access to programs that will help them develop the academic and leadership skills needed to succeed in leading universities and, ultimately, in their careers. Quantitative skills are critical to their educational and professional success, and we are pleased to support this effort to improve the teaching and learning of mathematics in the United Kingdom."

October 31, 2007
Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Plus in Nature Network

Plus has teamed up with science journal giant Nature to bring maths to the Nature networking site. Nature Networks was set up quite recently to provide a global stage for science discussion, allowing scientists to meet, interact, comment on the latest news, debate current topics or exchange information. Members can create groups for their own labs or organisations, or for their own subject area.

The mathematics forum is now brought to you by Plus. We're aiming to provide a platform for anyone who wants to discuss maths, whether it's actual maths, maths teaching, the portrayal of maths in the media, or good and bad maths content elsewhere on the internet.

Please drop in and join the debate.

posted by Plus @ 3:05 PM

October 21, 2007
Monday, October 22, 2007

Excel 2007 Bug

Microsoft Excel is the back of the envelope for the modern problem solver. If a problem can't be solved in a few cells and perhaps a pivot table, then perhaps it's a problem best left alone — or left for the mathematicians in any case.

As such, recent news of a calculation bug in Excel 2007 has caused quite a stir.

In a blog post, Microsoft employee David Gainer reported that there are occasions where, when the result of a multiplication should be 65535, Excel instead displays 100000 as the answer.

You can try this yourself. Multiply 77.1 by 850, 10.2 by 6425 and 20.4 by 3212.5.

"Further testing showed a similar phenomenon with 65,536 as well," Gainer blogged.

According to Gainer, Excel gets the calculation correct but does not display it. The bug is limited to six numbers from 65,534.99999999995 to 65,535, and six numbers from 65,535.99999999995 to 65,536.

Microsoft have released a hotfix for the problem that can be downloaded and it will be included in the the first service pack update of the program.

Dan B, a Microsoft employee, commented on the Microsoft blog that:

"We're not planning to share details on this beyond what we've already communicated — i.e. that the issue occurred in formatting of floating point numbers near 65,565 and 65,536. It was code that we introduced as part of the calculation overhaul that we did for Excel 2007 however."

The problem seems to be an error in the 64-bit floating-point to string conversion routine. You can read more about this on the Microsoft blog.

posted by Plus @ 2:13 PM