Author: Marianne Freiberger

Benoît Mandelbrot, the father of fractal geometry, died last Thursday at the age of 85. Born in Poland in 1924, Mandelbrot had dual French and American citizenship and spent most of his working life in the US. He died of cancer in a hospice in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Well, it goes to no-one because there isn't a Nobel Prize for maths. Some have speculated that Alfred Nobel neglected maths because his wife ran off with a mathematician, but the rumour seems to be unfounded. But whatever the reason for its non-appearance in the Nobel list, it's maths that makes the science-based Nobel subjects possible and it usually plays a fundamental role in the some of the laureates' work. Here we'll have a look at two of the prizes awarded this year, in physics and economics.

The human brain faces a difficult trade-off. On the one hand it needs to be complex to ensure high performance, and on the other it needs to minimise "wiring cost" — the sum of the length of all the connections — because communication over distance takes a lot of energy. It's a problem well-known to computer scientists. And it seems that market driven human invention and natural selection have come up with similar solutions.

What would you think if the nice café latte in your cup suddenly separated itself out into one half containing just milk and the other containing just coffee? Probably that you, or the world, have just gone crazy. There is, perhaps, a theoretical chance that after stirring the coffee all the swirling atoms in your cup just happen to find themselves in the right place for this to occur, but this chance is astronomically small.

Eron Lindenstrauss got the Fields Medal for developing tools in the area of dynamical systems and using them to crack hard problems in the seemingly unrelated area of number theory.

Researchers have unveiled the first prototypes of robots that can develop emotions and express them too. If you treat these robots well, they'll form an attachment to you, looking for hugs when they feel sad and responding to reassuring strokes when they are distressed. But how do you get emotions into machines that only understand the language of maths?

Two computer geeks claim to have calculated the number pi to 5 trillion digits — on a single desktop and in record time. That's 2.3 trillion digits more than the previous world record held by the Frenchman Fabrice Bellard.

The human genome is represented by a sequence of 3 billion As, Cs, Gs, and Ts. With such large numbers, sequencing the entire genome of a complex organism isn't just a challenge in biochemistry. It's a logistical nightmare, which can only be solved with clever algorithms.

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.

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One advantage of the UK voting system is that nobody could possibly fail to understand how it works. However, the disadvantages are well-known. Differently sized constituencies mean that the party in government doesn't necessarily have the largest share of the vote. The first-past-the-post system turns the election into a two-horse race, which leaves swathes of the population un-represented, forces tactical voting, and turns election campaigns into mud-slinging contests.

There are many alternative voting systems, but is there a perfect one? The answer, in a mathematical sense, is no.