The idea that economics is all about the markets has been challenged by this year's award of the Nobel Prize in Economics. One half of the prize has gone to the political scientist Elinor Ostrom for showing that natural resources, like fish stocks or woodlands, can be commonly owned and still managed successfully. The other half of the prize has been awarded to the economist Oliver E.
Williamson for demonstrating that the internal structures of firms and companies can be better at resolving conflicts than the open market. The award of the prize shows that economic theory can shed light not just on hard business transactions, but also on other forms of social organisation.
This year's Nobel Prize in Physics has gone to three scientists for developing the technology that makes Plus possible. Charles K. Kao has received one half of the prize for developing the optical fibres that transmit information throughout the world. The other half of the prize is shared by Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith for developing the digital camera's electronic eye, known
as the CCD sensor.
Information is transmitted over the internet using light. A flashing laser beam is directed through optical fibres, with the flashes encoding the 0s and 1s that make up digital information. This process works because when the light beam hits the glass walls of the fibre, it bounces off and is moved forward. Optical fibres had been used even before the invention of the laser, for example by
doctors to look into people's stomachs, but they were only capable of transmitting information over very short distances, as the light quickly leaked away when travelling through the fibre. When Charles Kao started working in the field in the 1960s, his aim was to improve the technology so that all of 1% of light would arrive at the end of a 1km long cable. Today, due to Kao's work and the
generation of scientists he inspired, this number has increased to 95%! As a result, the network of optical glass fibres that spans the Earth today is over 1 billion km long. If you wrapped that length around the Earth, you would span it more than 25 000 times.
Light also plays an important role in the work of the other two prize recipients. Boyle and Smith were trying to develop larger memory capacity for computers, when they realised that Albert Einstein's photoelectric effect could be put to good use. According to this effect, electrons can be "knocked about" using light. Boyle and Smith realised that by knocking electrons out of light
sensitive cells sitting in a silicone plate, they could transform an optical image into electric signals, which in turn could be turned into digital information. By 1975 Boyle and Smith had used their invention to construct a digital video camera which was good enough to manage TV broadcasts. In 1995, the first ever fully functioning digital camera was produced, and the rest is history. And
although the CCD sensor has recently been challenged by another piece of technology, the complementary metal oxide semiconductor, bets are still on as to which of the two will rule the future.
A leading polar researcher has warned that the Arctic may be ice-free during the summer in 20 years' time, with most of the thinning of the ice taking place over the next 10 years. Professor Peter Wadhams of the Polar Ocean Physics Group at the University of Cambridge was speaking at a meeting which announced the results of the Catlin Arctic Survey, an expedition to the Arctic which took place earlier this year with the aim of measuring ice thickness. The polar explorers, led by Pen Hadow, found that ice floes were on average only 1.8m thick. Once the ridges between ice floes are included, the average thickness rises to 4.8m, but the results are still worrying.
"The Catlin Arctic Survey data supports the new consensus view - based on seasonal variation of ice extent and thickness, changes in temperatures, winds and especially ice composition - that the Arctic will be ice-free in summer within about 20 years, and that much of the decrease will be happening within 10 years," Wadhams told the BBC. The exact impact of an ice-free Arctic on the global
climate system is unknown, but scientists know that the lack of ice may accelerate global warming, as less sunlight is reflected back into space, slow down the gulf stream, which is responsible for the relatively mild climate in North-Western Europe, and dramatically change the marine eco-system.
Earlier this year Plus collaborated with Arctic Survey Education to produce a set of teaching resources exploring the science behind the survey. The resources look at climate and sea ice models, GPS and cartography, how to predict future climate trends, and how to present statistical evidence. To find out more about maths and the Arctic, read
the Plus article Maths and climate change: The melting Arctic, which is based on an interview with Peter Wadhams. You can find out more about Wadhams's latest announcement on the BBC website.
Buses may be safer than babies, at least when it comes to swine flu. Preliminary results from an online flu survey suggest that contact with children poses one of the greatest swine flu risk factors, while the use of public transport seems surprisingly safe.
Plus will soon bring you a package of articles on the maths behind swine flu. But first we would like to know what you think has been the best source of information about swine flu? Did the media do well reporting on the virus? What about government information? Or did you go and see your GP to find out what to do about swine flu? Please let us know by voting in this quick poll, or tell
us in more detail what information you found useful, or a nuisance, by leaving a comment on this blog.
Autumn is upon us, and as every year we're anxiously pondering what winter might have in store. According to the Met Office's tentative forecast based on early indications, we're in for a milder winter than last year, with rainfall at or above average. A more definitive forecast is due out in
November, but it wouldn't be surprising if the people at the Met Office were a tad nervous about putting their necks out once again. Their April forecast, stating that the UK was "odds-on for a barbecue summer", sent British tempers flaring when July turned out to be one of the wettest on record. In response to
the miserable weather, and mounting criticism, the Met Office revealed in August that its earlier optimism had been based on a 65% probability of a hot dry summer, and insisted that it had explained at the time that this forecast did "not rule out the chances of seeing some heavy downpours at times". Too right,
you might say, since the overall rainfall for summer 2009 turned out to be 40% above the historical average.
To be fair, the Met's barbecue debacle was down to a failure to communicate its predictions clearly, rather than predictive incompetence.... Read more!
The monthly Maths-Art seminars at the London Knowledge Lab, that explore the connections between mathematics and art, arose out of the Bridges Conference held in London in 2006. In the next seminar, Richard
Henry, an artist and teacher with a specialism in Islamic geometric tiling, will talk about practical geometry and the language of symmetry in Islamic art.
"My work draws considerable inspiration from Islamic art, its history, craft techniques and geometrical ideas," says Henry. "I have a deep interest in the mystical philosophy that underlies the art and how this influences the design of Islamic buildings, with their special sense of sublime tranquility that is often experienced. In explaining these I will present images from an extensive field
study that I carried out in Iran. I will also discuss the occurrence of non-periodic tilings in medieval Iranian designs, and how these are related to the modern mathematical theory of Penrose tilings."
The methods Henry uses to create his beautiful images are based on some of the earliest geometric methods used in mathematics: "I am particularly interested in practical geometrical methods, using compass and straight edge, for pattern construction for artists and craftspeople, and have explored these in my own works in painting, print and tile-mosaic. In this talk I will illustrate some of
these methods for setting out patterns."
The seminar is on Tuesday 13 October 2009, from 6-7.30pm, at the London Knowledge Lab, 23-29 Emerald St, London, WC1N 3QS (travel information & maps). Everyone is welcome and no reservation required, but an email to firstname.lastname@example.org would be appreciated for planning purposes.