Author: Marianne Freiberger

Plus bumped into an old friend at the International Congress of Mathematicians this year: Keith Mansfield is the author of the Johnny Mackintosh series and commissioning editor for mathematics at Oxford University Press at the same time. In this interview he tells us how his he's built a career around his two talents, writing and maths.

Statistics are emotive — to some they are just lies, to others perplexing, some fear their power to reduce us all to a single number, while yet others (politicians and journalists especially) like to endow them with qualities like "damning" or "deathly". So what are (or should it be "is"?) statistics all about? And what do we need to be wary of? This little comic-style book (from the Introducing series) provides some friendly answers in 176 pages and a handy A6 format.

A group of school students-turned-researchers has delivered new data that will help scientists stem the spread of infectious diseases. A study designed by the students reveals social contact patterns among primary schools students. This type of information is crucial in mathematical models of how diseases spread, which can be used to test the effects of interventions like vaccination and school closures. The study was based on specially designed questionnaires which were handed out to primary schools and achieved an unprecedented response rate of nearly 90%.

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.