Plus Blog

June 25, 2010

You say potato, and I say potahto.....

You can forget the spuds, as the far more important math/maths debate may finally be settled with Peter Rowlett's new Math/Maths Podcast: 5136 miles of mathematics. It's a conversation about mathematics between the UK and USA. Peter in Nottingham calls Samuel Hansen in Las Vegas and the pair chat about math and maths that has been in the news, that they've noticed and that has happened to them. The latest episode talks about something close to everyone's hears (or ears) — just why are those vuvuzelas at the world cup sound so annoying. They also discuss putting relativity to the test, the Game of Life and taking maths to the streets.

Peter also produces the excellent Travels in a mathematical world podcast for the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, and the History of Maths and X video podcasts. (Some say 'vodcasts', I say 'I don't think that one has made it into the lingo yet'!)

Listen to the latest episodes of Math/Maths Podcast, Travels in a mathematical world and watch the latest History of Maths and X.

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June 15, 2010

Our sister site NRICH is celebrating the connections between maths and art with a special issue containing hands-on activities, challenges and articles to get your creative juices flowing. We particularly like the painting by functions challenge, which invites you to imitate computer graphic artists by representing your favourite image using mathematical shapes and functions.

But there's lots of other stuff too, from celtic knots to origami. There are activities for all age and ability ranges — why not have a look?

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June 1, 2010

We've all struggled with knots. As anyone who owns an MP3 player or mobile phone knows, anything but the most careful winding of the headphone cord or power cable can result in a hopeless mess of tangles.

Knots are more than simple irritations, they can actually pose a threat to life. A single knot can reduce the breaking strength of climbing rope by up to 50%. Spontaneous knot formation in umbilical cords can quadruple the risk of fetal mortality. Spontaneous knotting in DNA leads to faulty gene transcription and an increase in the rate of potentially dangerous mutations.

Despite this, remarkably little is known about the formation of knots — or how to prevent them. This is why the University of Aston is proposing a mass experiment to fill in some of the gaps in the science of knots and address a mathematical conjecture. Researchers are looking for groups of keen students in schools who want to involve themselves in active data gathering and interpretation and to contribute to a genuine piece of novel science.

Your school's involvement and effort need not be extensive. The experiment can be carried out in school, in a class environment, with minimal resources (several lengths of string), and typically involving an hour or so per week for two or three weeks. It could form part of a national curriculum case study in Key Stage 3 or 4 to use mathematics to solve problems, or as an open ended mathematical investigation.

The results of this major experiment will be announced at an open public talk at the forthcoming British Science Festival hosted at Aston University in September 2010. If you are interested, please register by contacting the Knot Experiment Coordinator, Vicky Bond by email ( or post (The Knot Experiment, Aston University, Aston Triangle, Birmingham B4 7ET).

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May 24, 2010

Martin Gardner, champion of recreational mathematics, died on Saturday the 22nd of May, aged 95. Gardner delved into recreational maths in the 1950s when he started writing his Mathematical games column for the Scientific American, which he kept up for 25 years. Many books resulted from his passion for mathematical puzzles and brainteasers, but he also wrote extensively on other subjects, producing annotated versions of Alice in wonderland and Through the lookinglass, debunkings of pseudoscientific myths, religion, and also tried his hand at fiction. He'll be sadly missed by puzzlers around the world.

Some of Gardner's books, and books inspired by him, have been reviewed on Plus:

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May 4, 2010

Two A-level students could win the trip of a lifetime, joining NASA to look for life at the edge of space.

As part of their education programme, NESTA is offering two A-level students the opportunity to take part in a research trip to NASA and the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, USA. They will be joining three NESTA scientists who been working to discover what kinds of life exist at the extreme edge of the atmosphere. Together with a NASA astrobiology team, they will launch a robot 40 kilometres into the stratosphere on a powerful rocket.

Details of the competition challenge and how to enter can be found on the NESTA website. But note that the deadline is tight, due to the amount of time it takes to get security clearance to enter the NASA base the entries need to be back by 24 May 2010. But take this as a good sign — a tight deadline may mean fewer applications and you might have a greater chance of success than you think!

So good luck, and see you in the stratosphere!

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April 28, 2010

Did aliens help prehistoric Britons found the ancient Woolworths civilisation? And what does tying your shoe laces have to do with DNA? Find out with this year's popular lectures organised by the London Mathematical Society. Matt Parker of Queen Mary, University of London, will explore how seemingly incredible results can actually be meaningless random patterns, and Dorothy Buck of Imperial College, London, will look at how mathematical knot theory helps to understand DNA.

When and where: 7pm, 30th of June 2010 in London and 6.30pm, 29th of September 2010 in Birmingham
London venue: Institute of Education, 20 Bedford Way, London WC1H 0AL
Birmingham venue: University of Birmingham, University Road West, Birmingham B15 2

Tickets are free but please book a ticket by the 25th of June and 24th of September respectively from Lee-Anne Parker, London Mathematical Society, De Morgan House, 57-58 Russell Square, London, WC1B 4HS (email:

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