Plus Blog

July 28, 2008
Monday, July 28, 2008

Disney Pixar have just released the movie, WALL-E. A bleak, post-apocalyptic tour-de-force, the movie depicts the gentle romance between two robots of the future: WALL-E, the not-so-bright and not-so-attractive "guy" with the big heart and sweet personality, and EVE, the sleek, sexy, totally out-of-his-league babe.

Pixar designed these robots so that we see them as human. But what exactly is WALL-E? Is he pure fantasy and speculative fiction? Or is he — is artificial intelligence — simply the way of the future?



posted by westius @ 11:45 AM


At 10:57 AM, Anonymous Patrick Andrews said...

"Instead of programming a computer to abide by the traditional step-by-step rules approach, we model it like the neurons in the human brain where the results of the program depend on the "strengths" of each particular neuron."

Neural computing runs on a too is algorithmic.

It seems to me that people are algorithmic as well but that each of our internal programs can achieve intuitive leaps, insights and creative ideas by accepting as input, data in many different a certain spreadsheet of numerical data can be interpreted, from across the room as a portrait of Einstein.

At 2:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The reason why computers will never be 'human', is because human reasoning, morality and intellect is not optimal. If a machine should have the computational power to rival human thinking, pressing it into the mold of a human brain will be diametrically opposed to the aims of such a machine. We like to consider ourselves to be the pinnacle of evolution, but we are forgetting that i) evolution is an on-going process, and ii) humans are not as clever as all that. In fact, looking around you, from Big Brother to the Iraq war, would a computer with a vast intelligence feel nothing but derision for our species?

At 5:09 PM, Blogger Terry said...

I agree with many of the comments left by Patrick Andrews.
It seems to me that the advancement of artificial intelligence is handicapped to a considerable extent by the intellectual capacity of the computer technocrat.
Using a trivial example to illustrate, while working for the now-defunct computer manufacturer Sperry Univac, I asked a visiting VP what the company's position was following IBM's introduction of its (then) 'Personal Computer'. He replied that the company regarded the PC as a fad and the future was in mainframe computers! It is this level of intellect that presents the handicap mentioned earlier.
Some years later, I was to have discussions with Professor Donald Michie of Edinburgh University about what he considered to be a problem in "pattern matching". Basically, the problem was to take a large amount of information about daily trading in a retail environement and establish through analysis what represented 'normal' trading. By this means, what repesented 'abnormal' trading could be established. It was abnormal trading that was the holy grail being sought in this particular excercise. Sadly, we did not get very much further than stating the problem. The overall solution, though, was believed to lie in the computer's ability to learn from key factors in the environment of the problem. It was this ability, residing in the human counterpart (given the right degrees of application, intellect and experience), that could provide answers for discrete cases, albeit at the expense of considerable time and effort.
Terry Schooling

July 18, 2008
Friday, July 18, 2008

Who is your favourite fictional mathematician?

We all have favourite movie characters, but who is your favourite fictional mathematician?

It is quite difficult to compile a list of fictional mathematicians. Scientists are often portrayed in films — usually as mad — but there are very few who are specialised mathematicians. Here at Plus, we have come up with a list that we think covers most well-known fictional mathematicians, although it is debatable whether some are even mathematicians at all! We are asking for your opinion — who is your favourite?

Have we missed yours off the list? Please leave a comment and let us know. We will write a biography of the character who wins the poll.

posted by westius @ 12:06 PM


At 4:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 4:14 PM, Blogger Julia said...

If you're thinking about fictional mathematicians in print, there are quite a few others who might make the list. How about the title character from Uncle Petros and the Goldbach Conjecture by Apostolos Doxiadis (you can read a MAA review by Keith Devlin at Or Daisy Love from Jeff Noon's Nymphomation? Hobbs Baranov from William Gibson's Pattern Recognition? Or the narrator from The Oxford Murders, recently also made into a film?....

At 4:40 PM, Blogger westius said...

From a colleague:

The protagonist of Sam Peckinpah's film Straw Dogs is a mathematician
not on your list. Also not on your list is the maths student protagonist of Krystof Zanussi's (Polish) film "The constant".

At 4:42 PM, Blogger westius said...

From another colleague:

Of Prof Moriaty:

It was written that: 'He is a man of good birth and excellent education, endowed by nature
with a phenomenal mathematical faculty. At the age of twenty-one he wrote a treatise upon the binomial theorem, which has had a European vogue. On the strength of it he won the mathematical chair at one of our smaller universities, and had, to all appearances, a most brilliant career before him.

But the man had hereditary tendencies of the most diabolical kind. A criminal strain ran in his blood, which, instead of being modified, was increased and rendered infinitely more dangerous by his extraordinary mental powers. Dark rumours gathered round him in the University town, and eventually he was compelled to resign his chair and come down to London....'

'Is he not the celebrated author of The Dynamics of an Asteroid, a book
which ascends to such rarefied heights of pure mathematics that it is said that there was no man in the scientific press capable of criticizing it?'

At 6:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 6:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please may we have a simple .cgi voting page for this poll? I hate having to install plugins, particularly those which take up a lot of cycles like flash.

He's not fictional (prof. Comeau, the Stellan Starsgard character, is) but I like Matt whoever's question "who's the most famous living American pure mathematician?" in Good Will Hunting. The answer is Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber.

My initial inclination is to vote for Yakima, the hero of Greg Egan's Diaspora, but that's because I really like the book as a whole. Another candidate, a great contrast with the former, would be Myron Aub who rediscovers mental arithmetic in Asimov's The Feeling of Power. More reflection is required.

At 9:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's also Kate Gunzinger from the film 'It's My Turn' (see here) - this film is in fact given by Weibel in his Introduction to Homological Algebra as a reference for the Snake Lemma, a proof of which opens the film.

At 12:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wouldn't call here my favourite character but Barbara Sabich - Harrison Ford's wife in Presumed Innocent - is a mathematician (I think we hear this in the scene where she complains about how long it has taken her to get tenure).
A minor, behind the scenes character, but one without whom there would be no story.

At 1:35 PM, Blogger Anna Faherty said...

I have voted for 'The Square' but wonder if 'Count von Count' from Sesame Street should be included? He has certainly promoted the joy of numbers and counting to generations of kids around the world!

At 8:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The list is definitely too "english-centered". You are missing many fictional mathematicians in non-English spoken movies. So, the question of the poll should be: "Who is your favourite English-speaking fictional mathematician"?
E.g.: have you seen the Argentinian movie "Il treno di Moebius" ("The Moebius train")?

At 8:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Count from Sesame Street gets our vote.

At 7:46 AM, Blogger PiXnic said...

How about John Nash - a beautiful mind? Although he isn't my favourite I still love the comment "I am a well balanced individual I have a chip on both shoulders".

At 8:43 AM, Anonymous KatieG said...

How about David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) in Independence Day? Does he count as a mathematician??

At 9:26 AM, Anonymous Sandy Starr said...

One of the mathematicians on your list is Max Cohen from the film 'Pi' (played by Sean Gullette), but I'd prefer to nominate Cohen's mentor in the same film, Sol Robeson (played by Mark Margolis). When Cohen becomes obsessed with finding patterns in the digits of pi (π), Robeson quite rightly rebukes him, saying that he's no longer a mathematician but rather a numerologist.

At 6:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

John Nash isn't a fictional character...

At 9:55 AM, Blogger gary thomson said...

I voted for Prof Calculus but I'm not sure he was strictly a mathematician.

How about James Harris that guy is unreal.

At 12:21 PM, Blogger Beans said...

Wouldn't you say that "The Doctor" is a fictional character? And I have reason to believe that he's not too bad a mathematician himself!

(But then again is he really fictional?!)

At 12:58 PM, Anonymous Olivier Schwimmer said...

There is at least another mathematician in another Michael Crichton's novel: Harry Adams in Sphere (also a movie) and his character is important in the plot.

Other side comments:
a) I concur that this list looks very english literature-centered but it is likely to evolve as more comments and references are made.

Two recent examples of novels with mathematician characters:

- Hans Singer in "Villa des Hommes" by Denis Guedj (closely copied from Cantor's character)

- Arthur Seldom in "Crímenes imperceptibles" (aka "The Oxford Murders")

b) John Nash is of course a real person, but his image in the Holywood dramatization of Silvia Nasar's pseudo biography A Beautiful Mind is a complete fiction who never existed except in the script of the film.

At 1:54 PM, Blogger gary thomson said...

There is a female mathematician in Scarlett Thomas' Popco. The main charecter is Alice Butler and her grandmother is portrayed as having been one of the few women mathematicians at Bletchley Park.

At 3:23 PM, Anonymous David Thompson said...

There are numerous references to fictional mathematicians and mathematical fiction at I would vote for Professor James Darnley McCorkle in "The Chair of Philanthromathematics" by O Henry.

At 3:16 AM, Blogger Alain said...

Verushka Graef in The Steep Approach to Garbadale by Iain Banks.

The interesting about her is that she is interesting.

At 8:54 AM, Blogger MadeleineS said...

To the anonymous commenter who said "have you seen the Argentinian movie "Il treno di Moebius" ("The Moebius train")?" The answer is that we have tried and tried to see this film but cannot get a copy for public screening in the UK. It would have been part of the Edinburgh Maths at the Movies Festival last April if it had been possible. I can't speak for the USA but it's been seen by very few people in the UK because it's only ever been screened at few film festivals shortly after release.

This film, however, is based on one of my all time favourite short stories "A Subway named Mobius" by Prof. A.J. Deutsch at Harvard. It was actually written about the New York subway system. Tupelo, the topologist who solved the problem, should be on the voting list but I'm afraid he was originally an English speaking New Yorker.

At 5:44 PM, Blogger Josh said...

Numbers is a silly show.

More people need to read Asimov's Foundation series and get to know Hari Seldon.

At 12:57 PM, Blogger Brian said...

Lawrence Waterhouse.

At 12:18 PM, Blogger MadeleineS said...

Rudy Rucker's work is stuffed full of fictional mathematicians! His 2006 book "Mathematicians in love" features Bela Kis and Paul Bridge, postgrads at Berkeley and a higher world of mathematician cockroaches!

My favourite is a much earlier work "White Light" whose hero, Feliz Raymond, stays in Hilbert's Hotel and visits Cantor's Continum. If he was on the list he'd have got my vote.
See to find out more

At 10:32 AM, Blogger J.Kamesh said...

Griffin and Dr. Henry Jekyll/Edward Hyde

At 1:10 PM, Blogger G. Edgar said...

The Professor in
"The Professor and His Beloved Equation"
2006 movie from Japan
"Hakase no aishita sûshiki"

July 17, 2008
Thursday, July 17, 2008

Bicycles in London modelling contest run and won

MP Emily Thornberry, eBourbaki founder Eliana Hechter, and contest winners Peter Eccles, Tom Hudson, and Ryan Lothian.

eBourbaki has announced the winners of its 2008 Bicycles in London mathematical modelling competition. The contest took place in early May, and students were asked to model a network of low-cost rental bicycles for the City of London. Students were able to explain mathematically why some schemes in Europe have succeeded while others have failed. For more information on the contest, see our story on the Plus blog

The winning team was presented with a check for £1000 by Emily Thornberry MP, head of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Cycling.

The winning team included:

  • Peter Eccles, 21, Merton College, Oxford
  • Tom Hudson, 20, Merton College, Oxford
  • Tom Eccles, 20, Trinity College, Cambridge
  • Ryan Lothian, 20, Merton College, Oxford
  • Caroline Roney, 20, Merton College, Oxford

The winning team created two mathematical models. The first described commuter flow based on publicly available data from Transport for London. They recommend that 12 large bicycle stations be placed near rail stations in Central London together with a network of 250 smaller stations distributed throughout the West End, the City of London, and the area in between. The second model focused on the estimated use of a network of 50 stations in the proposed configuration to determine the number of bicycles appropriate for these stations. Ultimately, the team proposed an average of twenty bicycles at a small station.

eBourbaki director Eliana Hechter said, "The winning team created a mathematical model that could serve to help the City of London construct a network of rental bicycles that serves commuters most efficiently. Mathematical modelling is a way of 'testing the system' to be confident that the system, once instituted, will actually work effectively. We hope the City will work with the winners and consider using their programs in the network design."

eBourbaki organizes mathematics modelling contests for students of mathematics, computer science, and engineering around the world to provide solutions to optimization problems, addressing some of today’s greatest public goods issues. The policy implications of this contest are great and the results have been forwarded to Transport for London. The Bicycles in London contest followed the successful Shade in Phoenix contest in conjunction with the City Planning Department of the City of Phoenix, Arizona.

eBourbaki’s next contest will involve predicting the results of the next U.S. presidential election this October. We'd all like to know that result.

posted by westius @ 9:29 AM


July 16, 2008
Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Mathematicians working on one of the bedrocks of mathematics, the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra (FTA), have recently found collaborative allies in the unlikely field of astrophysics.


posted by westius @ 10:18 AM


July 3, 2008
Thursday, July 03, 2008

No matter how many friends you have on Facebook and MySpace, you won't have more real-life friends than the average person. Using mathematics to model online social networks is an evolving field, with techniques that have been used to model human interaction, such as network modelling, moving into the online world. Users of online social networks tend to build up long lists of "friends" with whom they only occasionally interact, if at all. Given that we can maintain more weak relationships online than we can in real-life, it is an interesting question to ask whether or not online social networks create as many close friendships as in real life. According to Will Reader of Sheffield Hallam University, the answer is no, and in this there is an interesting scientific and social point to be found.



posted by westius @ 1:21 PM


July 3, 2008
Thursday, July 03, 2008

Global war death toll should be tripled

The death toll from wars around the globe in the second half of the twentieth century should be increased by a factor of three, according to a recent mathematical study by Ziad Obermeyer and colleagues at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle, Washington.

Estimating a war death toll is usually done by a mixture of eyewitness reports and media coverage. This involves extrapolating large numbers from sketchy data — read more about how this is done in the Plus article Body count.

Uppsala University in Sweden, and the Peace Research Institute in Norway, both keep death toll records estimated from media coverage, but Obermeyer's study suggests that the recorded death toll for 20th century wars could have been up to three times higher than they record.

The researchers looked at the death toll estimates gathered by the World Health Organization (WHO) — these numbers are extrapolated from telephone interviews with individuals with family members who may have died. This method is considered to be more accurate than gathering information from media reports.

In most cases, the WHO surveys recorded much higher numbers of dead than the Norwegian and Swedish databases. For example, the WHO figures suggest that more than twice the number of people died in Vietnam than previously thought — currently recorded at two million. On average, across 12 countries, the WHO figures are three times bigger. If true, then the average annual death toll for wars between 1985 and 1994 was 378,000.

During the 50 years covered by the study, Obermeyer suggests that there were 269,000 deaths in Bangladesh and 141,000 in Zimbabwe — nearly five times more than previously thought — and conflicts in Sri Lanka, Bosnia, Georgia and Laos are also estimated to be more costly than previously thought. However, in other countries, such as Burma, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Namibia and The Philippines, the death tolls dropped.

The study also found that a controversial report in 2006, which estimated the death toll after the invasion of Iraq at 655,000, may have been an over-estimate. You can read more about this study in the Plus article Body count. Obermeyer revises this number down to 184,000.

One downside of the study is that it only counts conflict fatalities and not deaths that have arisen from infectious diseases, which often afflict poor countries after war.

posted by westius @ 2:54 PM


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