Plus Blog

December 8, 2014

In June this year five mathematicians turned into millionaires when they were awarded the Breakthrough Prize set up by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and internet entrepreneur Yuri Milner. Simon Donaldson, Maxim Kontsevich, Jacob Lurie, Terry Tao and Richard Taylor each received £1.8m. That's more than the £930,000 that's awarded for the Nobel prize and should make up for the fact neither of the five is likely to ever to receive a Nobel: there isn't one for mathematics.

Back in November the five winners gave a lectures at the Breakthrough Prize Symposium, which have been filmed for you to watch. We especially recommend Terence Tao's talk on collaboration in maths (mathematicians seem to be getting more sociable):

Richard Taylor's talk about some beautiful number theory (does get a little technical later but starts very accessibly):

And Jacob Lurie's talk on analogy and abstractions in maths, involving some impossible shapes:

Simon Donaldson and Maxim Kontsevich's talks are a little more technical, but still worth a look if you're a bit more advanced in maths. Just click on the links!

December 8, 2014

Time travel anyone? Human-eating aliens? Exploding Suns? If that sounds good to you, then Keith Mansfield's series of three Johnny Mackintosh books is what you need. And it doesn't matter how old you are. The hero of the books is thirteen-year-old Johnny Mackintosh, who is busy with football and school work when he picks up signals from extraterrestrials and is catapulted into an adventure that culminates in a mission to save the Earth. Which means that those books are great for anyone aged from about 10 upwards with a taste for adventure and sic-fi — and an interest in mind-bending concepts from real science, which are woven into the plot from the start.

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Maths and science related books for children that are fun as well us instructive are rare, so we'd like to mention another couple that have gone down very well with our own offspring. Richard Schwartz's Really big numbers and You can count on monsters are beautifully illustrated books that give kids from around 6 to 8 and intuitive understanding of our number system and prime numbers (respectively). So there's no excuse not to give some maths to your younger friends and family this Christmas!

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December 7, 2014

What's your favourite number? If it's 7 then you're not alone. Alex Bellos, one of our favourite maths authors, conducted a survey this year to find the world's favourite number. After polling more than 30,000 people from around the world, he found that the winner was ... 7!

To find out more about the poll, see or read Alex's book Alex through the looking glass. We also highly recommend Alex's adventures in number land.

Happy reading!

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December 6, 2014

The square root of half the number of a swarm of bees is gone to a shrub of jasmine; and so are eight-ninth of the whole swarm: a female is buzzing to one remaining male that is humming within a lotus flower in which he is confined, having been allured to it by its fragrance at night. Say, lovely woman, the number of bees.

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If only all maths questions could be that poetic! We haven't made this one up, rather it comes from the twelfth-century book Lilavati ("The beautiful"), written by the Indian mathematician Bhaskara. According to legend, Bhaskara had a beautiful daughter whose horoscope predicted she was to remain unmarried and childless. Not wanting to do without grandchildren, Bhaskara decided to defy destiny and built a water clock to determine an "auspicious moment" at which his daughter was to get married. But the girl couldn't resist a peak at the clock — a pearl from her dress fell into it and clogged up the hole, so the auspicious moment could never come. To console her, Bhaskara wrote her a maths book (lucky girl!) and named it after her: Lilavati. It's a beautiful book which would make a great present for anyone who likes maths and history.

We came across Lilavati while writing our book Numericon, and it wasn't the only historical marvel we found. Other highlights were John Napier's 1614 book The description of the wonderful canon of logarithms and Claude Shannon's revolutionary 1948 paper A mathematical theory of communication, which laid the foundations for computers as we know them. Happy reading!

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December 5, 2014
book cover

We can't really remember the last Christmas because this time last year we were very busy writing our book Numericon: A journey through the hidden lives of numbers. The book is a trip through the world of maths via the familiar stepping stones of numbers. If you like what you read on Plus then maybe you would also like Numericon — and thanks to the good people at Quercus, it does look very pretty too!

To get a taste of the kind of stories that are in the book, have a look at these Plus articles:

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December 4, 2014

You know the scene… You're all tired and emotional from overindulging at Christmas lunch. It's still two hours til the Doctor Who Christmas special so you decide to play a game to while away the time. How would you like to ensure that you always beat your sister and annoying cousin Geoffrey? Dear readers, we present to you the Grime dice invented by our enigmatic friend James Grime.

These dice are special because although the green die is likely to beat the red die, the red to beat the yellow, the yellow to beat the blue and the blue to beat the purple, the purple die has its chance to shine in the Sun and tends to beat the green! If this sounds confusing, it works in a similar way to the familiar game rock-paper-scissors, or the slightly less well-known rock-paper-scissors-lizard-spock.This is because both games are non-transitive. You can read all about them in James' lovely article or watch his explanation below.

You can find out more about non-transitive games in the Plus articles Winning odds and Let 'em roll.

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