Plus Blog

April 5, 2018

Our fellow maths journal Aperiodical is coordinating a distributed Wiki Edit Day on Saturday 12th May (the birthday of mathematician Florence Nightingale). They are inviting as many people as possible to join in, from wherever they are, to edit and improve the presence of female mathematicians on Wikiquote's maths quotes page, and possibly to continue editing elsewhere on Wikimedia.

The editing will happen on Saturday 12th May 2018, from 10am-3pm. Join in by loading a shared Google document from 10am on 12th May, finding things to add (and references), and making edits to the pages. Local editing sessions will be organised in different locations, and details will be shared in the doc, as well as a link to a video Hangout everyone can join in with to discuss edits.

There is more information on this Aperiodical blog post

As Florence Nightingale said:

"I attribute my success to this – I never gave or took any excuse."

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March 28, 2018

This competition is now closed. The winners have been chosen and will be announced on October 24th, 2018 at Gresham College London

From computer games to smart phones, and from the weather forecast to our solar system — mathematics is essential in describing and understanding the world around us. Have you ever wondered what the world would be like without mathematics?

Solar system

Our solar system is described by maths. Image: NASA.

Mathematics has been part of human culture for millennia. This competition is your chance to explore how mathematics has developed and achieved its status. Where does mathematics come from? How do we know it's true? What is the contribution of a particular person or culture?

The British Society for the History of Mathematics (BSHM) believes that understanding where mathematics comes from and who has contributed to the development of mathematical ideas is an important part of understanding mathematics today. BSHM (with a little help from us) invites secondary school students to explore this question and communicate their findings for a wide audience.

You could write an article (maximum 1500 words), make a short video (maximum ten minutes) or a multi-media project (maximum ten minutes).

The competition is open to all young people aged 11 to 15 and 16 to 19 who are in secondary education. A number of monetary prizes will be awarded, depending upon the quality and the number of entries. The maximum prize will be £100. Winners to be announced at the BSHM meeting at Birkbeck College on 19th May 2018, and then on Plus.

The deadline for entries is Friday, 4th May 2018. Entries should be submitted electronically using this form. For details on how to enter, rules and guidelines, visit the BSHM website.

March 8, 2018

To celebrate International Women's Day we bring you some of our favourite articles and interviews from the last year that have been written by, about, or with major input from, female mathematicians and physicists. It's been an eventful year no matter how you measure it: from quantum physics to gravitational waves!

Fighting future pandemics Julia Gog, Professor of Mathematical Biology, tells us about an innovative project her team are working on with the BBC, that combines outreach, citizen science and new mathematical research.

Listening for ripples in spacetime — We spoke to Gabriela González Professor of Physics and Astronomy and former Spokesperson of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration about the heroic efforts to detect gravitational waves.

Overbooking: How to avoid plane rage — After the headlines when United Airlines dragged a passenger off an overbooked flight, Christine Currie, an Associate Professor in Operational Research, explained the maths behind overbooking.

The beauty of maths is in the brain of the beholder Josefina Alvarez, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics, told us about a study investigating if the brain perceives mathematical beauty in the same way it perceives beauty in other forms.

Uncovering the mathematics of information Carola-Bibiane Schönlieb told us about the research into the mathematics of information that she and colleagues are conducting at the new Cantab Capital Institute for Mathematics of Information, of which she is the Director.

Quantum device solves very hard problem — We spoke to Natalia Berloff, Professor of Applied Mathematics, about her research on quantum particles that are both light and matter, and how they may help solve infamous NP hard problems.

Remembering Maryam Mirzakhani — The brilliant mathematician and Fields medallist, Maryam Mirzakhani, died in July 2017 at the age of 40. We remembered her work and the impact she had on mathematics.

Women of mathematics — We were thrilled to contribute to the Women of Mathematics photo exhibition when it was shown at the University of Cambridge. We interviewed six brilliant Cambridge mathematicians – Natalia Berloff, Nilanjana Datta, Anne-Christine Davis, Holly Krieger and Carola-Bibiane Schönlieb – about their work and their experience as mathematicians.

On the tiles — And finally Becky Warren, our colleague who runs the brilliant Hands On Maths Roadshow, showed us some of the wonderful puzzles she makes and explained what mathematics has caught her eye.

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February 14, 2018

David Spiegelhalter, one of our favourite experts on statistics, recently joined David Attenborough, Bill Bryson and other eminent contributors on the Royal Society's People of Science series. In the series Brian Cox discovers the scientific inspirations of Royal Society Fellows. Spiegelhalter chose two giants of the history of statistics: Thomas Bayes and Ronald Fisher. In the video below he explains why.

Sir David Spiegelhalter OBE is Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge and also director of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication. Here is a list of Spiegelhalter's numerous Plus articles.

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October 12, 2017

This October marks the 30th Black History Month in the UK. The maths magazine Chalkdust, has declared October as Black Mathematician Month. Throughout the month they are promoting the work of black mathematicians and talking about building a more representative mathematical community.

You can already read fascinating articles on the work of Nazar Miheisi, Edward J Farrell and Olubunmi Abidemi Fadipe-Joseph , and more will appear over the next few weeks. And Chalkdust also features an article by one of our favourite mathematicians, Nira Chamberlain.

We've been lucky enough to work with Nira several times in the past. Below is our interview with Nira where he told us about some of his experiences as a mathematician and you can read more in his career interview.

You can meet Nira in person and join in the celebrations on 30 October at the University College London's Mathematics Department – everyone is welcome and you can book your free tickets here.

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February 23, 2017

Kenneth Arrow 1921 - 2017. Image: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service, CC BY 3.0.

The Nobel Prize winning economist Kenneth J. Arrow died on Tuesday at his home in California. He was 95.

Arrow's contributions to economics were wide-ranging, but our favourite concerns something that's of immediate importance to all of us: democracy. As the recent US elections have shown yet again, the outcome of an election is not always entirely democratic. It was Hilary Clinton who won the popular vote, but Trump is president. Once you start thinking about voting systems, you soon realise that designing a good one is tricky.

So is there a perfect voting system? Arrow asked himself this question in the 1950s and found that the answer is no — even if you only make the most basic demands of the system.

Kenneth defined a voting system in a very mathematical way, as follows. There is a population of voters each of whom has a preference ranking of the candidates. A voting system takes these millions of preference rankings as input and by some method returns a single ranking of candidates as output. (If people only have one vote, then an input ranking would involve ties, as in "Clinton first, all the rest second".) The government can then be formed on the basis of this single ranking.

For a voting system to make any democratic sense, Kenneth required it to satisfy each of the following, fairly basic constraints:

  1. The system should reflect the wishes of more than just one individual (so there's no dictator).
  2. If all voters prefer candidate x to candidate y, then x should come above y in the final result (this condition is sometimes called unanimity).
  3. The voting system should always return exactly one clear final ranking (this condition is known as universality).

He also added a fourth, slightly more subtle condition:

  1. In the final result, whether one candidate is ranked above another, say x above y, should only depend on how individual voters ranked x compared to y. It shouldn't depend on how they ranked either of the two compared to a third candidate, z. Arrow called this condition independence of irrelevant alternatives.

Arrow proved mathematically that if there are three or more candidates and two or more voters, no voting system that works by taking voters' preference rankings as input and returns a single ranking as output can satisfy all the four conditions. His theorem, called Arrow's Impossibility Theorem helped to earn him the 1972 Nobel Prize in Economics.

You can find out more about the maths of voting in these Plus articles.