Issue 49

December 2008
The two major events over the last couple of months have been the credit crunch and the US presidential election. We take a mathematical view of both of these, muse over the surprising effectiveness of maths when it comes to describing the world we live in, and scrutinise some mathematical philosophy. Plus the usual mix of news, reviews and podcasts.
If you like mathematics because things are either true or false, then you'll be worried to hear that in some quarters this basic concept is hotly disputed. In this article Phil Wilson looks at constructivist mathematics, which holds that some things are neither true, nor false, nor anything in between.
When it comes to describing natural phenomena, mathematics is amazingly — even unreasonably — effective. In this article Mario Livio looks at an example of strings and knots, taking us from the mysteries of physical matter to the most esoteric outpost of pure mathematics, and back again.
We live in a world full of information and it's a statistician's job to make sense of it. In this article Dianne Cook explores ways of analysing data and shows how they can be applied to anything from investigating diners' tipping behaviour to understanding climate change and genetics.
Mathematics takes to the stage with A disappearing number, a work by Complicite, inspired by the mathematical collaboration of Hardy and Ramanujan. Rachel Thomas went to see the play, and explains some of the maths. You can also read her interview with Victoria Gould about how the show was created.
With the credit crunch dominating the news, columnists have been wailing about "chaos in the markets", and "turbulent" share prices. But what does move the markets? Are they deterministic, or a result of chance? Colva Roney-Dougal explores the maths, from chaos to group theory.
In the light of recent events, it may appear that attempting to model the behaviour of financial markets is an impossible task. However, there are mathematical models of financial processes that, when applied correctly, have proved remarkably effective. Angus Brown looks at one of these, a simple model for option pricing, and explains how it takes us on the road to the famous Black-Scholes equation of financial mathematics, which won its discoverers the 1997 Nobel Prize in Economics.
What Dickens thought about statistics
  • Support Plus — make a difference to mathematics
  • Common sense

This may seem like an odd question — after all, he’s won — but it opens up some deep philosophical issues surrounding probability. David Spiegelhalter investigates how probability can be defined.

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.
So basic, yet so tricky: prime numbers are the atoms among natural numbers and lie at the centre of some of the most difficult open problems in maths. This package brings together all material we have on primes, from prime number algorithms to new discoveries. And you will find out what all that's got to do with David Beckham.
The coloured hat exam Three students have been put in detention by their evil maths teacher, Mr Chalk.
"Oh god, I hope not," was the reaction of a student when Livio asked the title question at a lecture, and it's a reaction that's likely to be replicated by many unsuspecting bookshop browsers. But despite its frightening title, the book's appeal could not be broader.
I would guess that, even a decade ago, the phrase "mathematical recreation" would have been considered a contradiction in terms. Now, in the age of compulsive Sudoku puzzlers, and an increasing canon of popular mathematics books, this descriptor has become credible.
If you are interested in how medieval cathedrals came into being, and the mathematics associated with their architecture and construction, then this book is for you.
Symmetry abounds: the wallpaper, your chair, even your own body. Familiar types of symmetry include reflection in a line and rotation about a point. Creating a repeating pattern by translating a core segment to a new place, common in wallpaper, also counts as a symmetry, as does switching without the use of a mirror from an anticlockwise segment to one otherwise identical but oriented clockwise.
We've all been there. You're in a bar with a group of friends. The night draws in. The empties pile up. The conversation turns to sublime speculation and ridiculous argument. How many golf balls would you need to circle the Earth? What's the risk of being killed by a shark? How efficient is wind power? How far does your average Premiership footballer run in a game? How can we put an end to all these questions and go home?