Plus Blog

February 18, 2009
Wednesday, February 18, 2009

How many arms does a spiral galaxy have? Can you spot a galaxy with a "peanut" bulge? Or how about a galactic merger? You — yes, you — can answer these and other strange questions, along with other ordinary web users who, by working together, have proven to be just as good at galaxy-spotting as professional astronomers.

Find out how you can help classify the inhabitants of the Galaxy Zoo!


posted by Plus @ 5:21 PM


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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


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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:

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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


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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?

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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


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