Articles

 Until you understand the basics of functions and algebra, the thought that a number can be predicted is a surprising one. And of course `magic' and `being surprised' are often the same thing. Rob Eastaway shows us how mathemagicians trade off the fact that you can usually predict precisely the outcome of doing something in mathematics, but only if you know the secret beforehand. Over the past one hundred years, mathematics has been used to understand and predict the spread of diseases, relating important public-health questions to basic infection parameters. Matthew Keeling describes some of the mathematical developments that have improved our understanding and predictive ability. There are many sorts of games played in a "bunco booth", where a trickster or sleight-of-hand expert tries to relieve you of your money by getting you to place bets - on which cup the ball is under, for instance, or where the queen of spades is. Lots of these games can be analysed using probability theory, and it soon becomes obvious that the games are tipped heavily in favour of the trickster! The idea is this. To start with, you will choose an envelope at random, say by tossing a coin, and look at its contents, which is a cheque for some number - say n. (By randomising like this, you can be sure I haven't subconsciously induced you to prefer one envelope or the other.) You want to make sure that the bigger the number is, the more likely you are to keep it, in other words, the less likely you are to swap. Why can't human beings walk as fast as they run? And why do we prefer to break into a run rather than walk above a certain speed? Using mathematical modelling, R. McNeill Alexander finds some answers. Arguably, the exponential function crops up more than any other when using mathematics to describe the physical world. In the first of two articles on physical phenomena which obey exponential laws, Ian Garbett discusses light attenuation - the way in which light decreases in intensity as it passes through a medium.