Plus Blog

December 7, 2012

Mathematics and silliness is the speciality of James Grime, mathematician, juggler and comedy nerd (though not necessarily in that order). From zombie maths to post-it note dodecahedra: it's all on his YouTube channel. Here's one of his puzzles for a taster:



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December 6, 2012

Plus jetted across the Atlantic in February to attend the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver. Not only did we feast with (not on) jellyfish at the Vancouver Aquarium, we also found out how to lose weight, how to play Big Brother on the internet, and more...


Counting calories — Struggling with that new year's resolution to lose a few pounds? Weight not dropping off as fast as you'd expected? A new mathematical model has some good news and some bad news for you. Which would you like to hear first?


Rubber data — Data, data, data. 21st century life provides tons of it. It's paradise for researchers, or at least it would be if we knew how to make sense of it all. This year's AAAS annual meeting in Vancouver devoted plenty of time to the question of how to understand large amounts of data. And there's one method we particularly liked. It's based on the kind of idea that gave us the London tube map.


Counting deaths: war as a statistical problem — How many people died? It's one of the first questions asked in a war or violent conflict, but it's one of the hardest to answer. In the chaos of war many deaths go unrecorded and all sides have an interest in distorting the figures. The best we can do is come up with estimates, but the trouble is that different statistical methods for doing this can produce vastly different results . So how do we know how different methods compare?


The podcast: AAAS meeting day 1 — From flattening the Earth to dining with the jellyfish, Plus chats about the first day at the meeting.


The podcast: AAAS meeting day 2 — On the second day at the meeting we talked to Marcel Babin from the Université Laval. Babin uses satellite images to measure the amount of organisms, such as phytoplankton, in the Arctic ocean and studies how this changing biological diversity can both indicate, and impact on, climate change.


Probing the dark web: the podcast — Networks loomed large at the AAAS annual meeting in Vancouver, in particular the one you're looking at right now: the Internet. Plus went along to a session on web surveillance. It sounds sinister at first, but as we found out, it's not all about Big Brother breaching your privacy. Information on the web can help us catch terrorists and criminals and it can also identify a widespread practice called astroturfing.


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December 5, 2012

We love Science in School, the European journal for science teachers, featuring news about the latest scientific discoveries, teaching materials and many other useful resources for science teachers. The journal is freely available online, with articles translated into many European languages. The print version (in English) is free within Europe. Here are some of our favourite recent articles.


The mystery of altruism — If evolution is a process of survival of the fittest, then why do we find altruistic acts wherever we look in nature? Here on Plus we recently took a mathematical look at this question — Science in School takes the biological angle.


Accelerating the pace of science: interview with CERN's Rolf Heuer — CERN is not just the world's largest particle physics laboratory. As its director general, Rolf Heuer, explains, "CERN is a role model, demonstrating that science can bridge cultures and nations. Science is a universal language and this is what we speak at CERN."


The new definition of crystals, or how to win a Nobel Prize — Why is symmetry so central to the understanding of crystals? And why did 'forbidden' symmetry change the definition of crystals themselves?


Weighing up the evidence: what is a kilo? — We all know what a kilogram is. Or do we? Researchers worldwide are working to define precisely what this familiar unit is.


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December 4, 2012

Maths is now an integral part in the study of evolution, describing how mutation and natural selection affect a reproducing population. And now maths has shown that it if you want to get ahead in the evolutionary race, it really does pay to be nice. We were lucky enough to visit the other Cambridge earlier this year to interview Professor Martin Nowak about the mathematics of altruism.

Does it pay to be nice? – the maths of altruism part i — Does it pay to be nice? Yes, it does. And we're not just talking about that warm fuzzy feeling inside, it pays in evolutionary terms of genetic success too. We talk to Martin Nowak about how the mathematics of evolution prove that being nice is unavoidable.


Does it pay to be nice? – the maths of altruism part ii — It does pay to be nice if you repeatedly deal with the same person. Martin Nowak explains why cooperation also wins in matters of reputation, neighbourliness and family. But can evolutionary game theory save the world?


Does it pay to be clever? — Why are we so clever? In evolutionary terms this isn't obvious: evolution tends to favour cheap solutions and the human brain is expensive. It consumes about 20% of our body's energy budget yet it only makes up 2% of our body mass. So why did it make evolutionary sense for us humans to develop powerful brains? Game theory provides a possible answer.



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December 3, 2012

As we are having a little cake of our own today, we thought we'd look back on another great birthday celebration... Stephen Hawking turned 70 in January 2012 and to celebrate, the University of Cambridge put on a scientific conference as well as a public symposium. Plus went along, of course, and here are the articles and podcasts we have produced from the conferences. Happy reading and listening!

A brief history of mine — This is an excerpt from Stephen Hawking's address to his 70th birthday symposium which took place on 8th January 2011 in Cambridge.


From planets to universes — This is an article version of the lecture given by Astronomer Royal Martin Rees at Stephen Hawking's birthday symposium. It comes in two parts, the first is here and the second here.


Happy birthday Stephen Hawking! — This is our brief report from Stephen Hawking's birthday symposium, which comes with a podcast featuring Martin Rees, some of Hawking's ex-students and his graduate assistant.


Supergravity to the rescue? — In the corner of the garden between the Centre of Mathematical Sciences and the Isaac Newton Institute in Cambridge, sits a reminder of our ongoing quest to understand gravity: an apple tree that was taken as a cutting from the tree at Newton's birthplace, the tree that is said to have inspired his theory of gravity. Newton's theory was extended to the cosmological scales by Einstein's theory of general relativity – but can supergravity explain how gravity works in the quantum world? Find out in this interview with Renata Kallosh, which you can also hear as a podcast.


Bang, crunch, freeze and the multiverse — Some of the things we overheard at Stephen Hawking's 70th birthday conference did make us wonder whether I hadn't got the wrong building and stumbled in on a sci-fi convention. "The state of the multiverse". "The Universe is simple but strange". "The future for intelligent life is potentially infinite". And — excuse me — "the Big Bang was just the decay of our parent vacuum"?! You can also listen to the accompanying podcast.


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December 2, 2012

Here at Plus we love everything Vi Hart produces. But her recent series on hexaflexagons (suggested by our good friend Sharon) is superb! In addition to the history of these mathemagical objects and how to make them (part 1 and part 2) there's a hilarious Hexaflexagon Safety Guide and our favourite, Tex Mex Hexaflexagons! Enjoy!


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