Plus Blog

September 12, 2007

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

BA Festival of Science - Day 4

Another evening, another function, this one sponsored by the More Maths Grads programme. Dr Reidun Twarock, to whom I spoke earlier in the day, gave her talk on viruses and symmetry, possibly the most interactive maths I have seen. Icosahedrons made from cardboard and real footballs were thrown into the audience to help explain her mathematical concepts, and the talk was followed by a brief function in which the More Maths Grads people promoted their activities.

Journeying in this morning, I regretted somewhat the dodgy Yorkshire fish and chips I had the night before. I attended a press conference on studies conducted by the University of Bristol that suggests that not only is there trace evidence of drug usage on nearly every UK bank note in circulation, but that the notes circulate quickly enough throughout the country that no particular area has higher instances of drug use on their notes. Cocaine was found on nearly every note, whilst heroine is found on around 5%. The presence of the drugs is not simply because notes are used in drug-taking activities - even fresh new notes have some contamination because they are contaminated very early on through contact with infected notes. Cocaine is particularly sticky, and so only very brief contact can contaminate a note.

The next press conference was from Professor Terence Cosgrove from Revolymer, who has developed a non-stick chewing gum. More to the point, he was at pains to note that it is not "non-stick" but rather "low-adhesive". He has made the chewing low-adhesive by introducing a patented polymer that has hydrophilic ends, and so will wash off the pavement with water.

I spent the afternoon chatting to Plus editorial board member Chris Budd about all sorts of mathematical issues - mainly that of Euler and the role of maths in the food and drink industry. But we also touched on mathematics communication, period costumes, maths in crime solving and maths in Celtic and African knots and art. You can hear all this on the podcast very shortly.

Unfortunately my time at the BA Festival of Science is coming to an end. I am about to head into York for a session entitled "How maths changed my life" followed by the last train back to London. I certainly look forward to attending the 2008 version in Liverpool.

September 11, 2007

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The BA Festival of Science - day 3

The evening of day 2 promised to make day 3 of the science festival very long for night-owl science journalists. I attended the Association of British Science Writers reception, which was a great affair - hardly surprising given the £400 bar tab, unlimited wine on top of this and free food. It was great to meet some well-known British science writers from UK newspapers, and observe the drinking habits of others!

My first stop on day 3 of the Science Festival was to speak to Dr Quentin Atkinson, a post-doctoral research fellow in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Reading, about his research into the evolution of Indo-European languages. He used statistical modelling techniques borrowed from evolutionary biology to date the age of the Indo-European language family and so test between the two main competing theories of Indo-European origins - that of the Kurgan horsemen and of the Anatolian farming hypotheses.

The modelling involved the use of Bayesian networks and instead of looking at how a gene might have evolved over time, he looked at certain words across the Indo-European languages and found where splits between language groups might have occurred. He looked at 200 words such as "mother", "father" and "rain" across 87 languages and found that the original Indo-European language split around 8700 years ago.

I interviewed Dr Reiden Twarock of York University on the geometric properties of viruses. This is the headline mathematics event of the festival, and tonight is accompanied by a reception sponsored by the More Maths Grads project. Dr Twarock is a thoroughly lovely and engaging lady who is using group theory and geometry to build models of how viruses form. These mathematical tools allow her to zoom in on the mechanisms responsible for virus structure and assembly. The resulting insights can then spark new ideas for the development of new anti-viral drugs. This interview will inform future news and features on Plus.

Throughout the day I chatted to a number of people regarding their posters, including some about optimisation, train timetabling, mathematical modelling of sun-spots and Bayesian modelling of Pacific Island cultural movement. These, again, will all appear as Plus news items.

Lastly I chatted to Dr Anthony Sudbery about all sorts of topics with regard to quantum computing. Parallel worlds, unbreakable codes and entangled particles were just some of topics that I pretended to know about ... .

So, now I'm off to rest my brain and then attend the mathematics function tonight. Watch our podcast and news feed for more information on these above topics over the next few weeks.


September 10, 2007

Monday, September 10, 2007

BA Festival of Science - days 1 and 2

The BA Festival of Science is the UK's foremost celebration of science, engineering and technology and its impact on our society. This year the festival has made its way to York, and I (Marc West) am here on behalf of Plus to enjoy the sciencey goodness and bring you the latest news from the world of mathematics.

The festival is not solely based on maths - indeed, talks and events focusing on maths alone are few and far between, and certainly none of the activities on the first 2 days of the conference centred on it. This does not mean, however, that maths has played no part in the talks.

I spoke to former UK Olympian, and now Professor at Liverpool John Moores University, Greg Whyte about his research into the limits of human performance. You will hear this interview when the next edition of the Plus podcast is released. He was tempted into this work in part because of what he called a "ridiculous" piece of work published in the esteemed journal Nature in the 1990s.

This work postulated that come the year 2050, women would be running as quickly as men, and would then power on past and run even quicker, leaving men in their wake. The reasoning behind this statement was fairly simple. If you plotted the speeds of world record runs by females in the 1500 m, and then plotted the same graph for the males, linear regression on both sets of data would result in their trendlines crossing near 2050. This was because the decrease in the women's world record has been comparatively more than the men's.

A view of the data, and a slight amount of lateral thinking spots the mistake. To start with, it is not a surprise that the female world record speed should fall by more than the men's given that females take longer to run the distance. Secondly, linear regression is completely the wrong type of fit for the data. Professor Whyte fitted a polynomial "s" curve, which showed that the period in which the greatest amount of change made to the world record speed was in the 1960s and 70s - he postulated that this was because of drug usage among athletes.

Whyte also performed his modelling on other running distances and on swimming speeds and found that over almost all distances the difference between males and females remained at around 10%.

Other events that I have seen include a performance by children's science author Nick Arnold, and a talk hosted by Professor Robert Winston about his life. I was intrigued to know he dabbled with the idea of becoming a theatre director after university. He was passionate in his arguments that IVF has now been priced far too highly by private companies making a large profit. His current research is looking into genetically manipulating large animals so that their organs can be used in humans.

I am now off to enjoy one of the many parties and functions that the "press badge" gets you in to!

See you tomorrow,


August 30, 2007
Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Illusion of Wealth

Imagine that one day you were greeted by your boss at work and told that you had been given a 100% pay rise because of your sterling efforts. Later that day, your bank calls to let you know that your savings and investments have doubled overnight due to an odd fluctuation in the international financial markets. But just when you thought that all your years of hard work had finally paid off, you discover when buying your groceries that evening that the price of food and drink has also doubled – but that does not matter too much, this is just a small increase.

Are you in a better position than you were the night before? Even taking into account the rise in your cost of living, your net savings have increased, so should you be thanking your boss and your bank manager?

Whilst you may feel wealthier in this situation, this is simply an illusion. You still have to work as many hours tomorrow as you did yesterday to buy your groceries – nominal values have risen, but not real values.

Economists have long considered that financial markets limit the impact of traders trading on nominal values – irrational traders. This is because it is assumed that they are taken advantage of by smarter traders. However, new studies by Jean-Robert Tyran of the University of Copenhagen have shown that there are situations in which money illusion can have a massive impact on the market, especially when there is a fall in nominal values.

An interesting example is the housing market. When interest rates are low, monthly nominal interest payments on mortgages are low compared to the rent on similar properties, so people start to buy. However, if inflation is decreasing, whilst current payments on the mortgage are falling, the real cost of future mortgage payments is increasing. This is because your salary is not growing and it will take you longer to pay off your debt. These investors have fallen for the illusion. They are similar to those who pay off their credit card bill with monthly payments over 24 months, instead of over 12, as the down-payments are smaller.

Tyran’s experimental studies show that if there is a monetary contraction within the market – that is, if the nominal costs of goods and services fall – firms are reluctant to follow suit and cut their prices as this would result in lower nominal profits, even if their real profit would remain the same.

This is called nominal loss aversion and results in part from the fact that our inbuilt fear of losses tends to outweigh our desire for a gain of the same amount. It can be seen in other financial areas, such as employees accepting a nominal pay increase, even if it results in a real pay-cut if it does not match inflation. Another example is a homeowner being more unwilling to sell a house at a real loss if it comes with a nominal loss rather than cloaked by a nominal gain.

Conversely, the experiments show that firms have no problem increasing their nominal prices should there be a rise in inflation and wages to maintain their real profit.

Laboratory work is often based on simplified economies, whilst interpretation of real data can be extremely difficult, so Tyran hopes that experimental research, combined with real observations of the market, can be used together to better understand money illusion.

posted by Plus @ 1:40 PM


At 9:59 AM, Blogger Tenon_Saw said...

When I click on the link to the blog from I am asked to log in although I can click 'cancel' and get here. IS that correct?

At 8:51 AM, Blogger westius said...

fixing it now
thanks for letting us know!

August 22, 2007
Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Listen to the first Plus Podcast!

If you enjoy stepping into the world of mathematics through the Plus website, now you can take maths on the move with you and enjoy Plus whereever you are! We are pleased to release our first Plus PodcastBreaking the ice: Maths reshaping geometry and combating climate change. In this podcast we talk to Shahn Majid about a whole new geometry of space, find out about how mathematics is combatting climate change, as well as all the latest news from the world of maths. You can subscribe to the podcasts, or just stay tuned to Plus for the next podcast due late September.

Happy listening!


posted by Plus @ 9:44 AM


August 3, 2007
Friday, August 03, 2007

Game over for checkers

Computer scientists at the University of Alberta have solved checkers, the popular board game with a history dating back to 3,000 BC.

After 18-and-a-half years and sifting through 500 billion billion (a five followed by 20 zeroes) checkers positions, Dr. Jonathan Schaeffer and colleagues have built a checkers-playing computer program that cannot be beaten. Completed in late April this year, the program, Chinook, may be played to a draw but will never be defeated. The results of this research were published recently in the journal Science.

"This is a tremendous achievement — a truly significant advance in artificial intelligence," said Dr. Jaap van den Herik, editor of the International Computer Games Journal. "I think we've raised the bar — and raised it quite a bit — in terms of what can be achieved in computer technology and artificial intelligence," said Schaeffer, chair of the University of Alberta Department of Computing Science. "With Chinook, we've pushed the envelope about one million times more than anything that's been done before."

A self-described "awful" checkers player, Schaeffer created Chinook to exploit the superior processing and memory capabilities of computers and determine the best way to incorporate artificial intelligence principals in order to play checkers.

With the help of some top-level checkers players, Schaeffer programmed heuristics — rules of thumb — into a computer software program that captured knowledge of successful and unsuccessful checkers moves. Then he and his team let the program run, while they painstakingly monitored, fixed, tweaked, and updated it as it went.

An average of 50 computers, with more than 200 running at peak times, were used everyday to compute the knowledge necessary to complete Chinook. Now that it is complete, the program no longer needs heuristics — it has become a database of information that knows the best move to play in every situation of a game. If Chinook's opponent also plays perfectly the game would end in a draw.

"We've taken the knowledge used in artificial intelligence applications to the extreme by replacing human-understandable heuristics with perfect knowledge," Schaffer said. "It's an exciting demonstration of the possibilities that software and hardware are now capable of achieving."

Schaeffer started the Chinook project in 1989, with the initial goal of winning the human world checkers championship. In 1990 it earned the right to play for the championship. The program went on to lose in the championship match in 1992, but won it in 1994, becoming the first computer program to win a human world championship in any game — a feat recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records.

Chinook remained undefeated until the program was retired in 1997. With his sights set on developing Chinook into the perfect checkers program, Schaeffer restarted the project in 2001. "I'm thrilled with this achievement," he said. "Solving checkers has been something of an obsession of mine for nearly two decades, and it's really satisfying to see it through to its conclusion."

"I'm also really proud of the artificial intelligence program that we've built at the University of Alberta," he added. "We've built up the premier games group in the world, definitely second-to-none. And we've built up a strong, international, truly world-class reputation, and I'm very proud of that."

posted by Plus @ 4:23 PM


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