Plus Blog

February 18, 2009
Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Finally, recognition for string theory

Image from

Better than a celebrity endorsement, string theory now has a feline spokeskitten! (Thanks Oli for letting us know the good news!)

Why not educate your animal friends with these Plus articles:

posted by Plus @ 12:07 PM


No comments yet
February 17, 2009
Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Zero is the number of yearning... review of Strange Attractors: Poems of love and mathematics

Zero is a number
of yearning.

— from "Five Poems about Zero" by Eryk Salvaggio

It's not often I get misty-eyed reading a book about mathematics, but that was just what happened when I read this, and several other poems, in the poetry collection Strange Attractors: Poems of love and mathematics.

The idea of a love poem is not new, love has inspired poets for millennia. But the combination of maths and love poetry might seem an odd mix. Despite loving maths myself, I was a little skeptical when I picked up this book, and thought it would be a tongue-in-cheek selection of witty but humorous poems about love using mathematical language and imagery. There are some funny poems giving a mathematical take on love, (I particularly liked "Valentine" by Michael Stueben), but what pleasantly surprised me was the large number of poems that seem to be really exploring human emotions.

I had no idea there would be so many poems suitable for such a collection, or that it would span so many centuries and include so many diverse contributors. The excerpt from King Solomon's "Song of songs" (which is thought to have been written about 765 BC) and Bhaskaracharya's "Lilavati" (a twelfth century Indian mathematician), the "Square Poem in Honor of Elizabeth I" (written by Henry Lok in 1597), as well as contemporary poets from nearly every continent, give the collection significant cultural depth (helpful appendices give brief biographies of both the contributors, and the mathematicians mentioned). It's a nice thought that mathematics, as well as love, is a ubiquitous experience for all of humanity.

The book is divided into three sections: romantic love, love of family and life, and love of mathematics. In the first two sections it is surprising just how powerful mathematics can be as a metaphor for our emotions and experiences. Some poems very effectively use mathematical imagery, such as the image of tangential curves ("kissing curves") in Ann Calandro's poem "Where the Kissing Never Stops":

They strive to make each other
equal zero
to reach that point
at which they will reduce to lines
and kiss...

or in Young Smith's "She Considers the Dimensions of Her Soul":

The shape of her soul is a square.
She knows this to be the case
because she often feels its corners
pressing sharp against bone...

The collection features some of the most famous love poems, such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning's measuring of love in her sonnet: "How do I love thee, let me count the ways...". One of the most interesting poems using counting is "Who Counts, Counts" by Stephanie Strickland, where the shifting status of relationships, and the bond of motherhood, was conveyed very simply by counting and recounting the people in a relationship.

Some of the poems have a mathematical structure, one is even written in the form of a proof. In some poems mathematical concepts are used as metaphors, such as Robin Chapman's sad use of the non-associativity (f(x+y) not equally f(x) + f(y)) to describe a child's experience of divorce in "Nonlinear Function".

The final section, where poets (many mathematicians) write about their love of maths, also has many examples of strong expression, and strangely enough, many of these poems seem almost less mathematical than in the previous sections. It is nice to see the passion for the subject that so many mathematicians share expressed in this unusual and open-hearted way. I think one of the strengths of such a book is that not only can it show people who are looking for poems to express love, the beauty of the language of maths, but it also might help explain some of the deep emotions mathematicians feel for their subject. I also like the duality of combining maths and poetry: that as well as taking maths to poetry lovers, it will also expose mathematicians to poetry, and perhaps as the best artistic-scientific collaborations do, allow insight on both sides.

Book details
Strange Attractors: Poems of Love and Mathematics
Edited by Sarah Glaz and JoAnne Growney
Hardback — 250 pages
A K Peters
ISBN-10: 1568813414
ISBN-13: 978-1568813417

posted by Plus @ 11:36 AM


At 2:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Book information:

Strange Attractors: Poems of love and mathematics

edited by Sarah Galz and JoAnne Growney

published by A K Peters, Ltd. in 2008

ISBN: 978-1-56881-341-7

Publisher website:

No comments yet
February 16, 2009
Monday, February 16, 2009

Post-Valentine's mathematical love

We're not sure if they've got Internet access on cloud 9, but for all the loved-up Valentines out there, as well as for those who are wondering what has gone wrong, here are some mathematical musings on love...

  • Is your relationship like a convergent series? Victoria Gould and Marcus du Sautoy discuss this and other mathematical metaphors for the human condition in our latest career interview (podcast) and article on the Complicite production A disappearing number (podcast).
  • What's your strategy for love? Hold out for The One, or try and avoid the bad ones? How long should you wait before cutting your losses and settling down with whoever comes along next? Let statistics help you live happily ever after by reading Kissing the frog: A mathematician's guide to mating.
  • We all know that love's a gamble. Delve into the application of game theory to love and find out if it's worth buying that expensive present after all.
  • There are not many concepts that are fundamental to both maths and sex, but symmetry is one of them. In maths the study of symmetry forms the basis of a vast field called group theory and can be exploited to understand the patterns inherent in nature and the abstract world. Scientists have long suspected that the symmetry of a person or animal's body is an indicator of health and strength and therefore desirability as a potential mate. So does it make us more attractive?
  • And finally, does the Golden Ratio really have anything to do with beauty?

And to make sure that your special someone doesn't forget you, how about a mathematical serenade...

posted by Plus @ 10:45 AM


No comments yet
February 10, 2009
Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The agony and ecstasy of risk statistics

Last week the chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs caused outrage by claiming that ecstasy was no more dangerous than horse riding. But what does "dangerous" really mean, and how is our perception of risk influenced by morality? David Spiegelhalter, Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge, investigates in his guest column in the Times.

David Spiegelhalter runs the Understanding Uncertainty website, which explores matters of risks and uncertainty, and also has his very own column in Plus.


posted by Plus @ 5:19 PM


At 4:42 PM, Blogger Quantum_Flux said...

Yeah, but what about riding a horse that is on ectassy though? More dangerous?

At 5:24 PM, Blogger Quantum_Flux said...

This is such a vague claim to be made, that "horseriding is as dangerous as ecstasy"

(1) Hmmmm, maybe they should make horseriding illegal then, at least without a permit (I'm assuming the horseriding data reflects a representative sample within England, although for esctasy a representative sample should be tougher to come across due to the illegality and thereby unreporting of many harmful incidents).

(2) Perhaps this data doesn't reflect spacial-locale variation either, an 18th century American Cowboy population will have less horse related accidents per horseriding capita than perhaps a 20th century English population.

(3) How can we be sure that the ecstasy related data reflects only ecstassy use as opposed to eliminating the other contributive causes such as loud music, poor choices, and other drugs being taken in combination with ecstassy?

(4) Furthermore, does it make a difference if people are horseriding (or on ecstasy) at 10PM or 10AM, or if they're on an empty or full stomach, etc?

No comments yet
February 5, 2009
Thursday, February 05, 2009

The mathematics behind the Complicite production

Mathematics takes to the stage with A disappearing number, a work by Complicite, inspired by the mathematical collaboration of Hardy and Ramanujan. Plus spoke to Victoria Gould and Marcus du Sautoy about the mathematical and creative process of developing this show.

This podcast accompanies the career podcast with Victoria and the article A disappearing number from issue 49 of Plus.

Hear more!


posted by Plus @ 3:07 PM


No comments yet
February 3, 2009
Tuesday, February 03, 2009

What would you like to know about your Universe?

This poll is now closed. The most popular question was "What happened before the Big Bang?". We will publish an article and a podcast with an answer in the middle of March. At the same time we will launch our next Universe poll, so watch this space.

Do you ever look at the night sky and wonder where it all comes from, where it is going and what we are doing right in the middle of it? Do you wonder if there's life out there, or why the sky isn't bright with all the stars that are in it?

If yes, then now's your chance to put your questions to world-leading astronomers and cosmologists, including Astronomer Royal Martin Rees and author and cosmologist John D Barrow. From now until the end of the year Plus will hold regular online polls to find out what your most burning questions are, and do our best to find an answer with the help of experts in the field. You'll be able to read and hear what they have to say in Plus articles and podcasts, and there'll be plenty of room for discussion on our blog.

Our first online poll — one of a total of seven — opens today. It will remain open for a month and we'll publish the answer to the question that proves most popular in the middle of March. This is your chance to get involved with the most fascinating science of them all (except for maths of course), and it's our contribution to the International Year of Astronomy 2009. So get voting now, and if your question isn't on the list above, send it to us in a comment on this blog, and we'll include it in the next poll. Happy voting!


posted by Plus @ 3:47 PM


At 8:10 PM, Blogger Kuldeep said...

Is the universe finite or infinite?
What curvature (positive, negative or zero) does space have?

At 8:55 PM, Anonymous John said...

If the universe is expanding, it must have some sort of boundary, I assume. If this is so, what exactly 'is' this boundary and what is beyond it!?

At 12:18 AM, Blogger Stephen said...

When are scientist going to drop the arrogant assumption that there was nothing before the big bang?
They expect us through blind faith to accept the theory that everything in the universe, matter, energy and even time, was

created with the big bang. I have been berated by many so called learned ones for even suggesting another theory, that the

big bang was an issolated incident in our local area of a universe that has always been here and goes for ever and will be here

It's only a few hundred years ago they thought the earth was flat, until we were able to see beyond the horizon. Looks like some

things never change.

clear skies

At 12:33 AM, Anonymous axisofevil said...

How do we know that the speed of light is constant in all regions of the Universe?

At 4:05 AM, Blogger Chowok said...

What is a multiverse? Is there any other Universe beyond?

At 6:44 AM, Blogger G S S Murthy said...

Human brain and what we call human mind is part of this universe. This tiny part of the universe tries to work out a scheme of things in which its observations through sensory perception fit in as neatly as possible.Idea of bigbang and theory of Everything are all parts of this scheme. Can man simulate this on a man-made machine, I mean a computer?
GSS Murthy

At 10:03 AM, Anonymous The Plus Team said...

Thanks for all the questions! If yours doesn't get answered in the course of this poll, then we'll include it in the next.

At 7:40 PM, Anonymous Twm said...

I am very interested in the hypothetical bucket in which one could float Saturn. As we know, any other of the known planets would promptly sink.

This bucket would have some very interesting Properties. To begin with, Saturn has appreciable Gravitational Attraction, so the Bucket must be in some gravitational field, or the water would presumably be 'syphoned off' to form part of Saturn's planetary mass.

The bucket would have to be at least 60000km or so deep, or Saturn would 'ground' on the bottom. So the pressure at that depth would be immense. What would be the properties of water at that depth?

At 12:19 AM, Blogger Quantum_Flux said...

Can the Big Bang be replicated on a smaller scale? Can that amount of energy be used for rocket propulsion or powering cities?

At 12:20 AM, Blogger Quantum_Flux said...

Does the Big Bang prove that perpetual motion is possible?

At 12:59 AM, Anonymous Keith Mansfield said...

If light can't (by definition) escape from a black hole, then how can gravity? If gravitational force can be transmitted across an event horizon, how is that done?

At 8:51 PM, Anonymous Raoul Kemper said...

What is dark matter and what purpose does it serve in the universe as a whole?

At 5:17 PM, Blogger apd said...

What was there before the Big Bang?

Isn't a modified version of the gravity laws a more credible explanation to the behavior of starts attributed to presence of something unknown (dark matter/dark energy)?

At 7:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is the answer to life, the universe and everything

At 9:08 PM, Blogger Plus said...

What do you get when you multiply six by nine?... hmmm....

At 1:23 PM, Blogger Shaun said...

If you look at the night sky you are looking at the past. How can the size of a telescope affect how far back in time you can see the universe?

At 9:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

why are all the planets round or oval.....why not any other shape...will these shape change or alter a few thousand million years after ??

At 6:59 AM, Blogger Quantum_Flux said...

Oh, one more why not. To what degree can electrical forces be cited as dark matter/energy sources?

At 2:19 AM, Blogger james said...

if at the time of bigbang all was energy (no mass implying no gravity) and the expansion and cooling converts energy to mass (increasing gravity) then at the end of this process when all is mass and gravity will be at its maximum, why then do we need dark matter when we still have light matter (energy) yet to be converted?

At 4:58 PM, Blogger Fivish said...

Scientist are afraid to say they dont know. Because of this they invent ludicrous theories and fiddle about with them when they cant make them fit reality. Eventually they will come up with a new theory which subsumes previous theories without the embarrasement of being totaly wrong. They are doing this with global warming, now called climate change, as the earth is actually colling!

At 8:27 PM, Anonymous Confused!!! said...

What would be the basis to traverse time, if any, if you think someday of building a time machine??? Will our watching the universe as it was some time before, play any role???

At 6:55 AM, Anonymous rowancasey said...

hi i am not a cosmologist but i would like to ask if my theory is correct I am assuming the big bang big crunch theory is true and the universe is expanding faster because the suns are still expending their outward energy as they burn out and turn into black holes expansion will slow and reverse and i am assuming that dark matter is something similar to or actually is black holes starting to form in the center am I right or do you even know?

At 10:59 AM, Anonymous The Plus Team said...

Hello Rowancasey,

you can find answers to these questions in our articles and pocasts listed here:

Happy reading!

No comments yet