Plus Blog

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

Due to popular demand, we're revisiting our poll to find your favourite fictional mathematician.

It is quite difficult to compile a list of fictional mathematicians. Scientists are often portrayed in films — usually as mad — but there are very few who are specialised mathematicians. Here at Plus, we have come up with a list that we think covers most well-known fictional mathematicians, although it is debatable whether some are even mathematicians at all! We are asking for your opinion — who is your favourite?

Have we missed yours off the list? Please leave a comment and let us know. We will write a biography of the character who wins the poll.

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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March 24, 2010

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Last week the Clay Mathematics Institute announced that Grigoriy Perelman has won the Millennium Prize for his proof of the century old Poincaré Conjecture. And almost as soon as it was announced the speculation began as to whether Perelman would accept the prize, and the $US 1,000,000 of prize money.

The Poincaré Conjecture is a question essentially about the nature of shapes in space. Mathematicians have long understood the nature of every possible 2D surface in 3D space. For example the surface of a sphere, such as the outside of a ball, is completely characterised by being simply connected — it has no edge, and any loop on the surface can be slid off without being cut or torn. And these two properties are true not matter how much a sphere is squashed or stretched out of shape. However they aren't true for any other kind of 2D surface, for example the surface of a doughnut: a loop through the centre hole of a donut can't be removed without being cut. That is because a doughnut is not the same, topologically speaking, as a sphere.

Poincaré proposed that all 3D spheres can be characterised by the same two properties. However for over a century the result remained unproven despite the efforts of some of the best mathematical minds. The problem was seen as so important that it was included in the list of seven Millennium Problems chosen by the Clay Institute in 2000. The solution to any of these Millennium Problems would be a monumental advancement in mathematics, and the Clay Institute offered a prize of $US 1,000,000 for the solution for each.

In 2003 Perelman surpised the mathematical world by posting a proof of a much wider conjecture online. He claimed to have proved Thurston's Geometrisation Conjecture, that characterised every 3D surface. The Poincaré Conjecture would be proven true as a consequence of this wider result.

After much examination, discussion and exposition, the mathematical community accepted that Perelman had proved the Poincaré conjecture and he was awarded the Fields Medal in 2006, the highest prize in mathematics. Controversially Perelman declined to accept the prize, the first person to ever do so. He withdrew from mathematics and now lives a reclusive life in the outskirts of St Petersburg.

Now that Perelman's work has survived several years of critical review and has been accepted by the mathematical world the Clay Institute has awarded him the Millennium Prize for his proof of the Poincaré Conjecture, the first of the Millennium Problems to be solved. However most people in the mathematical community expect that, like the Fields medal, Perelman will not accept this prize or the prize money. Despite some reports in the media, the Clay Institute told Plus that they had been in contact with Perelman and that "he said he would think about it".

Whether or not Perelman's decides to accept the Millennium Prize at a ceremony in June, his enormous contributions to mathematics will be celebrated for many years, and we hope that he is able to live his life happily in whatever way he chooses. It might seem hard for most of us to understand how someone could refuse such wealth and fame but, as Marcus du Sautoy explained to BBC Radio 4's The World Tonight, for some people other things are more important:

"I think there is something noble in that he values solving a mathematical problem above the glory of being in the limelight and winning prizes and getting vast sums of money. There is something rather nice about Perelman's choice to just enjoy the mathematics."

You can read more about the Poincaré Conjecture and the Clay Millennium Problems on Plus, and you can read more about his award, including his original papers at the Clay Mathematics Institute.

posted by Plus @ 9:26 AM