This week, Plus is attending the Edinburgh International Science Festival — an educational charity aiming to engage society in the value of science and technology, placing a particularly strong emphasis on providing experiences of science that are inspiring and confidence building. The Festival is internationally well-regarded and one of the
biggest science events in the UK. Its timing suggests we are now well into science festival season, with roughly another 10 city-wide events to be held around the country, in addition to the recently run Cambridge and Brighton Science Festivals. In 2007, Plus attended the BA York Science Festival — you can read more on the Plus Blog.
There is a comprehensive range of talks from some of the world's leading scientists, and last evening Plus attended a talk by Chris Bishop, Deputy Director of Microsoft Research in Cambridge, on Machine Learning. Compared to humans,
machines are very bad at recognising some patterns — for instance, recognising that a photo of a cow is actually a cow and not a dog or a shadow or even a spoon — they simply do not innately know these things and must be taught. Whilst humans are very good at understanding messy handwriting — a subtle task — computers must learn. Bishop's work involves developing computers that can learn and so
become smarter in completing their tasks. To read more about the mathematics involved, see the Cambridge team's introduction to applied mathematics for machine learning.
Central to machine learning is the Turing Test. English mathematician Alan Turing — instrumental in breaking the Enigma code during World War II — is widely regarded as one of the founders of modern computer science — see the Plus article What computers can't do. In a 1950 paper, he described what he called the
Imitation game, now known as the Turing Test, in which a person (in a separate room) tries to distinguish between human and computer test subjects by asking them each a series of questions. If the person can't distinguish between the computer and the human, the computer is deemed to be intelligent. There is a (currently unclaimed) prize
of $100,000 for a computer that can pass the Turing Test. Bishop talked about the Forza Motorsport X-box game, in which you race against other players or against the computer. The computer car can be taught to drive like a human — you can create a "Drivatar" which will learn from the way you drive and then drive like you. The word Drivatar comes from
avatar, which in gamer-speak is the player's representation within the game. Participants in trials have said that they cannot tell the difference between a human playing and a computer, and so within a very limited context, the Drivatar passes the Turing Test.
Bishop also talked about other developments in machine learning, from Spam email detection — see the Plus article CAPTCHA if they can — to websearches and modern developments in HIV detection. New software is being developed to look for patterns in the HIV protein code. This code evolves over time, and so searching for
the same string of amino acids each time is likely not to work. He also discussed developments in the way computers play the games Chess and Go. He stated that whilst the IBM Deep Blue chess-playing computer was able to beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997, it was not because of any particular
advances in machine "intelligence" — the success was largely due to advancements in computer memory and speed that allowed the computer to analyse the game very thoroughly. If at each turn you can make around 30 possible moves, and then there are around 30 possible replies by your opponent, and then in turn another 30 possible moves you can make, and so on, then a human could never hope to
analyse each and every scenario. However, Deep Blue was able to look at the full set of possible moves and then make the best one (although it did have the intelligence to look within a set of smart moves). With the game Go however, at each turn there are around 200 possible moves, meaning that it is impossible currently to completely analyse each scenario before playing a move. Bishop is working
with computers that are learning by playing against humans.
I have also attended Wonderama and the mathematical puzzles at the Museum of Scotland. Wonderama is designed for the whole family and hosts many free activities and events for budding scientists, aspiring surgeons,
wannabe adventurers and trainee archaeologists. Thankfully, my time around science festivals means that I wasn't outdone by 8-year olds in the mathematical puzzle department. Actually, that is not completely true...
Tonight, I am eagerly awaiting the Edinburgh Medal Address by Professor Chris Rapley, Director of the Science Museum, on the dangers of climate change. The Edinburgh Medal is awarded each year to those within science whose professional achievements are judged to have made a significant contribution to the
understanding and well-being of humanity.
For more information and a comprehensive program, see the Festival website. The event runs until April 6.
One of the most important international prizes for mathematics has this year been awarded jointly to two outstanding mathematicians — even though one of them was originally unable to find a publisher for his groundbreaking work.
The season opens on 27 March with the UK premiere of the highly acclaimed animation, Flatland the Film. Based on the 1889 novel by Edwin A. Abbot, the film tackles issues revolving around race, gender, religion and globalisation. Mr A. Square is an average middle-class Flatlander until enlightenment allows him to see his world from a
different dimension. He discovers that Flatland is threatened by forces it cannot possibly recognise. Will he be able to save his family and his world? Everyone attending the screening will receive a "goody bag" containing postcards signed by Flatland's director Ladd Ehlinger Jr, a copy of the novel donated by Transreal Fiction, vouchers from Filmhouse and Edinburgh International Science Festival, and other mathematical goodies from ICMS. A discussion led by Maximillian Ruffert of University of Edinburgh and Katie Russell of Heriot-Watt University will follow
You can read the Plus review of the original 1889 novel Flatland in the Plus article 'Flatland'.
Pi is screened on 1 April and explores the life and experiences of Max, a gifted mathematician who believes that everything in the Universe can be expressed mathematically. He becomes obsessed with finding the underlying pattern behind the stock market, but religious and commercial groups try to exploit his research. Can he pass through this
philosophical maelstrom and survive unscathed? Giorgos Papageorgiou and Tim Johnson of Heriot Watt University will discuss the film with the audience after the screening.
The final film, Cube, is screened on April 3. Cube investigates the relationships between six apparently unconnected individuals who wake up inside a three-dimensional maze of interlocking cubes. Developing mutual trust is the key to survival as they are forced to collaborate on cracking the code behind the
Cube's mechanism. How many will escape to discover the bigger mystery that lies outside their existentialist prison? Science fiction author and mathematician Hannu Rajaniemi will discuss questions arising from the mathematics in Cube with the audience.
Tickets are available for individual films, or at a discounted rate for all three, from the box office at Filmhouse Cinema, 88 Lothian Road, Edinburgh, EH3 9BZ (phone: 0131 228 2688). Each screening will start at 5.45pm, and there will be discussion in the theatre after the screening, and then over coffee and drinks.
The 2008 Templeton Prize has been awarded to Polish mathematical physicist Michael Heller. Heller has worked for more than 40 years in theology, philosophy, mathematics and cosmology, and intends to use the £820,000 prize to set up a cross-university and inter-disciplinary institute to
investigate questions in science, theology and philosophy.
16th century depiction of Genesis (Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel): God creates Adam. Like Galileo, Heller thinks that mathematics is the "language of
The Templeton Prize was founded in 1972 by philanthropist Sir John Templeton, and is awarded annually to a living person for "progress toward research or discoveries about spiritual realities". It is the world's largest annual monetary prize of any kind given to an individual (£820,000). Plus reported on John Barrow's success in 2006.
Heller has been rewarded for "developing sharply focused and strikingly original concepts on the origin and cause of the Universe, often under intense (communist Poland) governmental repression."
Heller's work these days is largely in non-commutative geometry, which he uses to attempt to remove the problem of a cosmological singularity at the origin of the Universe. "If on the fundamental level of physics there is no space and no time, as many physicists think," says Heller, "non-commutative geometry could be a suitable tool to deal with such a situation."
You can read more on non-commutative geometry in the Plus article Quantum Geometry.
Physical demonstration of mathematical traffic model
Recently, Plusreported on work done by mathematicians from the Universities of Exeter, Bristol and Budapest into why traffic jams often occur for seemingly no reason.
Now, for the first time, researchers from several Japanese universities have recreated this effect by placing 22 vehicles on a 230-metre single-lane circuit. The drivers drove at a steady 30 kilometres per hour, and whilst initially the traffic flowed smoothly, eventually a backwards travelling shock-wave developed which forced some cars to almost stop and others to increase their speed to 40
kilometres per hour to catch the car in front.