Plus Blog

December 1, 2012

Are you reading this page because you decided to or because you were destined to from the start of time? Plus shares Mick's sentiment that we are free to do what we want, any old time. But what does physics and mathematics have to say about free will? In one of our most mind-bending yet enjoyable investigations (published in January this year), we spoke to philosopher of physics Jeremy Butterfield, quantum physicist Anton Zeilinger, cosmologist and mathematician George Ellis and mathematician John Conway to find out more.

Freedom and physics — Most of us think that we have the capacity to act freely. Our sense of morality, our legal system, our whole culture is based on the idea that there is such a thing as free will. It's embarrassing then that classical physics seems to tell a different story. And what does quantum theory have to say about free will?

Free, from top to bottom? — A traditional view of science holds that every system — including ourselves — is no more than the sum of its parts. To understand it, all you have to do is take it apart and see what's happening to the smallest constituents. But the mathematician and cosmologist George Ellis disagrees. He believes that complexity can arise from simple components and physical effects can have non-physical causes, opening a door for our free will to make a difference in a physical world.

John Conway: discovering free will (part I) — On August 19, 2004, John Conway was standing with his friend Simon Kochen at the blackboard in Kochen’s office in Princeton. They had been trying to understand a thought experiment involving quantum physics and relativity. What they discovered, and how they described it, created one of the most controversial theorems of their careers: The Free Will Theorem.

John Conway: discovering free will (part II) — In this, the second part of our interview, John Conway explains how the Kochen-Specker Theorem from 1965 not only seemed to explain the EPR Paradox, it also provided the first hint of Conway and Kochen's Free Will Theorem.

John Conway: discovering free will (part III) — In the third part of our interview John Conway continues to explain the Free Will Theorem and how it has changed his perception of the Universe.

Back to the 2012 Plus Advent Calendar

November 15, 2012

Make your childhood dreams come true and join the Paris Fire Brigade as part of the 2012-13 Mathematical Competitive Game. This year's game is brought to you by the French Federation of Mathematical Games, Société de Calcul Mathématique SA as well as The Paris Firemen Brigade and is open to anyone to enter either individually or in groups.


The previous games have also all been based on real life problems – designing a bus or electricity network or searching for the best car itinerary in partnership with transport or electricity companies – and solving them usually takes several months of work.

This year's game is to decide how best to use your limited resources of firefighters and equipment to fight fires and minimise their damage across the whole of Siberia. This huge region is broken up into cells defined by latitude and longitude, so these vary in size as well as the their level of population and landscape. There are mathematical descriptions of the ways the fires start, spread and the damage they cause as well as for modelling your firefighting capacities and the way they can combat the fires. Your job is to decide how to distribute your firefighters and specially equipped planes and then estimate the cost from damage from the fires in one summer, the cost of your firefighting strategy and the probability that your strategy to keep costs to this level will work.

And there's not only mathematical glory and the gratitude of Siberia on offer, there's also up to 500 Euros in prizes for the winners. You can find the details of this year's competition here and download the data. Good luck!

To get you thinking about how you can mathematically model fires, read our article Matrix: Simulating the world Part II about simulating the spread of forest fires using cellular automata.. The example below has either bare earth (grey squares) or trees (green squares), with squares turning green as new trees grow. Tree's catch fire (and their squares turn orange) as a result of lightning strike and the fire spreads to all adjoining squares with trees.

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October 31, 2012
The Lie group E8

This is a visual representation of the Lie group E8, which encodes the symmetries of a 57-dimensional geometrical object. Find out more here. Image: Claudio Rocchini.

Tomorrow, 1st November 2012 at 4pm GMT, Plus will be part of a MOOC (massive open online course)! For an hour we will be talking about the beautiful subject of symmetry in a way that is accessible to everyone and there will be questions and answers too. This online talk is open to everyone and it's free. To join, register here.

We will explore a range of symmetry topics, from the beautiful patterns in the Alhambra to mathematical group theory and symmetry breaking in physics.

This talk is part of a whole series called VizMath which explores the many images of maths, from crocheted hyperbolic curves to the mathematics of origami. VizMath was created by Betty Hurley-Dasgupta and Carol Yeager and it's published by SUNY/Empire State College, USA.

Come and join us!

October 26, 2012

Travelling Salesman poster

Date: Tuesday 20 November 2012, 6.30 pm

Venue: Centre for Mathematical Sciences, Clarkson Road, Cambridge CB3 0WA

Tickets: Entry is by ticket only, £7.50 each. PLEASE NOTE THAT TICKETS FOR THIS EVENT ARE NOW SOLD OUT.

We're very excited to be hosting the UK premiere of acclaimed indie film Travelling Salesman, a mathematical thriller imagining the consequences of solving the P vs NP problem.

Travelling Salesman is an intellectual thriller set in a fictional reality where four brilliant mathematicians solve the P vs NP problem, one of the hardest open problems in maths with profound implications for computer science and cryptography. Offered $10 million dollars by the US government for exclusive access to the solution, they must grapple with the practical and moral repercussions of discovering a proof that P = NP. (Find out more about the P vs NP problem here.)

This is the first time that Travelling Salesman has been shown in the UK. The screening will be prefaced by a short introductory talk by Professor Jonathan Oppenheim (UCL) and will be followed by a live Q&A session with the writer/director, Timothy Lanzone.

Entry is by ticket only (£7.50 each - please note the event is now sold out). The event will start at 6.30 pm, and should finish by 8.30/8.45pm.

See the official Travelling Salesman website.

"It is not often that espionage thrillers feature a round of peer review, but this early scene is a natural fit for Travelling Salesman, a film based on the premise that the biggest unsolved problem in computer science has been cracked. ... P = NP ... is a great premise that writers Andy and Timothy Lanzone use to explore the theme of scientific hubris. Travelling Salesman’s mathematicians are all too aware of what their work will do to the world, and watching them argue how to handle the consequences offers a thriller far more cerebral than most." New Scientist

October 16, 2012

Today is Ada Lovelace Day celebrating the work of women in mathematics, science, technology and engineering. For this year's celebrations we bring you a selection of our favourite female interviewees from the last 15 years. The interviews are part of our careers library, a collection of in-depth interviews with people who use maths in their jobs every day. To find our more about the pioneering work of Ada Lovelace herself read our article Ada Lovelace - visions of today. You can also check out last year's Ada Lovelace Day blog for a selection of Plus articles by and about women mathematicians.

Career interview: President of the European Mathematical Society — What's it like being a research mathematician and figurehead of Europe's representative body for mathematics? Find out in our interview with Marta Sanz-Solé.

Career interview: Actor and mathematician — Victoria Gould has always known she would be an actor, and went straight from studying arts at school to running her own theatre company. But she eventually had to come clean about her guilty secret - she loves maths - and has since managed to combine a career as a research mathematician and teacher with a successful acting career on television and in theatre. She tells Plus why she needs to use both sides of her brain.

Career interview: Cost engineer — Heather MacKinlay's work as an engineer has taken her from the civility of Surrey to the wild west of Australian mining towns and multibillion pound projects in the Algerian desert. And along the way she has also become a successful painter. Heather tells Plus that engineering and painting are just different ways of looking at the world, and how her work as a cost engineer is all about understanding the big picture.

Career interview: Brazil correspondent, The Economist — Helen Joyce is a former editor of Plus magazine who now works as a journalist for The Economist. In August she's off to Brazil to be the paper's Brazil Bureau Chief. In between packing and learning Portuguese she has found time to tell Plus all about her varied career and the role maths has played in it.

Career interview: Fashion designer — Sandy Black, Professor of Fashion and Textile Design, has combined her love of art and design with her love of mathematics in her career as a knitwear designer. Sandy talks to Plus about the mathematics in fashion, knitting, and how science and fashion could make the world a better place.

Career interview: Government statistician — Emily Poskett works as a government statistician for the Department for International Development. With lots of travel and the opportunity to make a real difference in poorer countries, her job is far more than just number crunching.

October 12, 2012

The first ever National Biology Week is happening between October 13th and 19th 2012. It's organised by the Society of Biology and there'll be events around the country giving everyone the chance to learn about the second-most fascinating science (if you count maths as a science). But if you'd rather stay in and cuddle up with your laptop you can read about the many overlaps between maths and biology here on Plus. They not only drive biology but also pose new challenges for maths. Here are some of our favourite maths and biology articles (and there's more in our project Do you know what's good for you: Mathematics and the biomedical sciences).

Biology's next microscope, mathematics' next physics — It is thought that the next great advances in biology and medicine will be discovered with mathematics. As biology stands on the brink of becoming a theoretical science this article asks if there is more to this collaboration than maths acting as biology's newest microscope.

How the leopard got its spots — 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? This article solves these, and other, puzzles of animal patterning.

Reconstructing the tree of life — At the heart of Darwin's theory of evolution lies a beautifully simple mathematical object: the evolutionary tree. In this article we look at how maths is used to reconstruct and understand it.

Finding your way home without knowing where you are — When insects go foraging, they zoom off from their nest in complex zig-zag paths. How do they manage to find their way back home? And how do they manage to do so along a straight path?

If you're a teacher looking for hands-on activities on maths and biology, try the Maths and our Health and Disease Dynamics schools packs from our sister site Motivate and the stemNRICH Living World collection from our sister site NRICH.

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