News from the world of maths: BA Festival of Science - days 1 and 2

Monday, September 10, 2007

BA Festival of Science - days 1 and 2

The BA Festival of Science is the UK's foremost celebration of science, engineering and technology and its impact on our society. This year the festival has made its way to York, and I (Marc West) am here on behalf of Plus to enjoy the sciencey goodness and bring you the latest news from the world of mathematics.

The festival is not solely based on maths - indeed, talks and events focusing on maths alone are few and far between, and certainly none of the activities on the first 2 days of the conference centred on it. This does not mean, however, that maths has played no part in the talks.

I spoke to former UK Olympian, and now Professor at Liverpool John Moores University, Greg Whyte about his research into the limits of human performance. You will hear this interview when the next edition of the Plus podcast is released. He was tempted into this work in part because of what he called a "ridiculous" piece of work published in the esteemed journal Nature in the 1990s.

This work postulated that come the year 2050, women would be running as quickly as men, and would then power on past and run even quicker, leaving men in their wake. The reasoning behind this statement was fairly simple. If you plotted the speeds of world record runs by females in the 1500 m, and then plotted the same graph for the males, linear regression on both sets of data would result in their trendlines crossing near 2050. This was because the decrease in the women's world record has been comparatively more than the men's.

A view of the data, and a slight amount of lateral thinking spots the mistake. To start with, it is not a surprise that the female world record speed should fall by more than the men's given that females take longer to run the distance. Secondly, linear regression is completely the wrong type of fit for the data. Professor Whyte fitted a polynomial "s" curve, which showed that the period in which the greatest amount of change made to the world record speed was in the 1960s and 70s - he postulated that this was because of drug usage among athletes.

Whyte also performed his modelling on other running distances and on swimming speeds and found that over almost all distances the difference between males and females remained at around 10%.

Other events that I have seen include a performance by children's science author Nick Arnold, and a talk hosted by Professor Robert Winston about his life. I was intrigued to know he dabbled with the idea of becoming a theatre director after university. He was passionate in his arguments that IVF has now been priced far too highly by private companies making a large profit. His current research is looking into genetically manipulating large animals so that their organs can be used in humans.

I am now off to enjoy one of the many parties and functions that the "press badge" gets you in to!

See you tomorrow,

Marc