Plus Blog
January 16, 2013
Stephen Hawking was once told by an editor that every equation in a book would halve the sales. Curiously, the opposite seems to happen when it comes to research papers. Include a bit of maths in the abstract (a kind of summary) and people rate your paper higher — even if the maths makes no sense at all. At least this is what a study published in the Journal Judgment and decision making seems to suggests. Maths: incomprehensible but impressive? Kimmo Eriksson, the author of the study, took two abstracts from papers published in respected research journals. One paper was in evolutionary anthropology and the other in sociology. He gave these two abstracts to 200 people, all experienced in reading research papers and all with a postgraduate degree, and asked them to rate the quality of the research described in the abstracts. What the 200 participants didn't know is that Eriksson had randomly added a bit of maths to one of the two abstracts they were looking at. It came in the shape of the following sentence, taken from a third and unrelated paper: A mathematical model is developed to describe sequential effects. That sentence made absolutely no sense in either context. People with degrees in maths, science and technology weren't fooled by the fake maths, but those with degrees in other areas, such as the humanities, social sciences and education, were: they rated the abstract with the tackedon sentence higher. "The experimental results suggest a bias for nonsense maths in judgements of quality of research," says Eriksson in his paper. The effect is probably down to a basic feature of human nature: we tend to be in awe of things we feel we can't understand. Maths, with its reassuring ring of objectivity and definiteness, can boost the credibility of research results. This can be perfectly legitimate: maths is a useful tool in many areas outside of hard science. But Eriksson, who moved from pure maths to interdisciplinary work in social science and cultural studies, isn't entirely happy with the way it is being used in these fields. "In areas like sociology or evolutionary anthropology I found mathematics often to be used in ways that from my viewpoint were illegitimate, such as to make a point that would better be made with only simple logic, or to uncritically take properties of a mathematical model to be properties of the real world, or to include mathematics to make a paper look more impressive," he says in his paper. "If mathematics is held in awe in an unhealthy way, its use is not subjected to sufficient levels of critical thinking." You can read Eriksson's paper here. There is also an interesting article on this and other bogus maths effect in this article in the Wall Street Journal.
3 comments

December 24, 2012
Without doubt the biggest event in physics and maths this year was the discovery of the Higgs boson. Relive the excitement and understand what it's all about with these Plus articles. Merry Christmas! The Higgs boson: A massive discovery — If it looks like the Higgs... and it smells like the Higgs... have we finally found it? Most physicists agree it's safe to say we've finally observed the elusive Higgs boson. And perhaps that is not all.... Particle hunting at the LHC — Our favourite particle physicist, Ben Allanach, explains exactly what they are looking for at the LHC. Welcome to the world of quantum jelly.... Secret symmetry and the Higgs boson: Part I and Part II — The notorious Higgs boson, also termed the god particle, is said to have given other particles their mass. But how did it do that? In this twopart article we explore the socalled Higgs mechanism, starting with the humble bar magnet and ending with a dramatic transformation of the early Universe. Countdown to the Higgs? — What does all this talk about sigma levels mean? It turns out that finding the Higgs is not so much a matter of catching the beast itself, but keeping a careful count of the evidence it leaves behind. Hooray for Higgs! — The LHC gave particle physicists an early Christmas present last year – the first glimpses of the Higgs boson. 
December 23, 2012
Timothy Lanzone on the set. Travelling Salesman is an unusual movie: despite almost every character being a mathematician there's not a mad person in sight. Moreover, the plot centres on one of the greatest unsolved problems in mathematics, does P = NP? Last month we were lucky enough to host the UK premiere of this movie, here at the Centre for Mathematical Sciences , the home of Plus. We spoke to Jonathan Oppenheim from University College London about the maths behind the movie and to the film's writer and director, Timothy Lanzone about creating drama from mathematics. You can listen to these interviews in our podcast and read more about the P versus NP problem in this article. 
December 22, 2012
Today would have been the 125th birthday of the legendary Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. This selftaught genius formed a remarkable working relationship with the mathematician G.H. Hardy which served as inspiration for the 2008 play A disappearing number by Complicite. Read our article on the play and some of the maths behind it, our interview with an actor/mathematician involved in the play, and an article featuring one of Ramanujan's contribution to number theory.
1 comments

December 21, 2012
Quick, quick, before the world ends get your head around Schrödinger's equation. This central equation of quantum mechanics is the origin of weird phenomena like quantum entanglement, also known as spooky action at a distance, and quantum superposition, being in several apparently mutually exclusive states at once. A possible consequence of the equation is the idea that the universe is constantly splitting into many parallel branches. So while one copy of you sitting in one of these branches might witness a spectacular end to the world today, another can rest assured that it will survive. Schrödinger's equation — what is it? In the 1920s the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger came up with what has become the central equation of quantum mechanics. It tells you all there is to know about a quantum physical system and it also predicts famous quantum weirdnesses such as superposition and quantum entanglement. In this, the first article of a threepart series, we introduce Schrödinger's equation and put it in its historical context. Schrödinger's equation — in action Now it's time to see the equation in action, using a very simple physical system as an example. We'll also look at another weird phenomenon called quantum tunneling. Schrödinger's equation — what does it mean? Here comes the crazy bit. How should we interpret the solution to Schrödinger's equation, the wave function? What does it tell us about the physical world? Or indeed many worlds? You can also read other articles on quantum physics and quantum mechanics on Plus. 
December 20, 2012
On the 23rd of June this year Alan Turing would have celebrated his 100th birthday. During his short and tragic life he revolutionised the scientific world and so 2012 was declared Turing Year. We're sad to see that an official pardon for his 1952 conviction for homosexuality, which was then illegal, still hasn't been granted. But that hasn't stopped us from celebrating his life and scientific achievements. See all our articles related to his work below. If you're a secondary school student then you can join the Alan Turing Cryptography Competition run by the School of Mathematics at the University of Manchester. It involves a story of six chapters, following the exploits of two children, Mike and Ellie, who get involved in a cryptographic adventure involving a mysterious ancient artifact — the Egyptian Enigma! Every two weeks, starting on Monday 7th January, a new chapter of the story will be released on the website. Each of the six chapters contains a code to be solved. Teams of at most four students have to solve these codes as fast as they can and submit their answers on the competition website. There are some great prizes for the three topplaced teams at the end of the competition. There will also be a prize for the first team to solve each chapter and a number of spot prizes awarded throughout the competition. See the competition website for details. Alan Turing: ahead of his time Alan Turing is the father of computer science and contributed significantly to the WW2 effort, but his life came to a tragic end. This article explores his story. Another look at Turing's life and work. Find out what types of numbers we can't count and why there are limits on what can be achieved with Turing machines. How does the uniform ball of cells that make up an embryo differentiate to create the dramatic patterns of a zebra or leopard? How come there are spotty animals with stripy tails, but no stripy animals with spotty tails? The answer comes from an ingenious mathematical model developed by Alan Turing. Omega and why maths has no TOEs Is there a Theory of Everything for mathematics? Gregory Chaitin thinks there isn't and Turing's famous halting problem plays an important part in his work. Turing is most famous for his work as a WWII code breaker. This article looks at the efforts of all the code breakers at Bletchley Park, which historians believe shortened the war by two years. A version of Turing's famous test – the "Completely automated public Turing test to tell computers and humans apart", or CAPTCHA for short – helps in the fight against the everyday evil of spam email. Turing's scientific legacy is going stronger than ever. An example is an announcement from February this year that scientists have devised a biological computer, based on an idea first described by Turing in the 1930s. Did a philosopher kill WALLE? AI has become big business in Hollywood, but will we ever see the computers reliably pass the Turing test? Or is it philosophically impossible? 