News from the world of maths: The BA Festival of Science - day 3

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The BA Festival of Science - day 3

The evening of day 2 promised to make day 3 of the science festival very long for night-owl science journalists. I attended the Association of British Science Writers reception, which was a great affair - hardly surprising given the £400 bar tab, unlimited wine on top of this and free food. It was great to meet some well-known British science writers from UK newspapers, and observe the drinking habits of others!

My first stop on day 3 of the Science Festival was to speak to Dr Quentin Atkinson, a post-doctoral research fellow in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Reading, about his research into the evolution of Indo-European languages. He used statistical modelling techniques borrowed from evolutionary biology to date the age of the Indo-European language family and so test between the two main competing theories of Indo-European origins - that of the Kurgan horsemen and of the Anatolian farming hypotheses.

The modelling involved the use of Bayesian networks and instead of looking at how a gene might have evolved over time, he looked at certain words across the Indo-European languages and found where splits between language groups might have occurred. He looked at 200 words such as "mother", "father" and "rain" across 87 languages and found that the original Indo-European language split around 8700 years ago.

I interviewed Dr Reiden Twarock of York University on the geometric properties of viruses. This is the headline mathematics event of the festival, and tonight is accompanied by a reception sponsored by the More Maths Grads project. Dr Twarock is a thoroughly lovely and engaging lady who is using group theory and geometry to build models of how viruses form. These mathematical tools allow her to zoom in on the mechanisms responsible for virus structure and assembly. The resulting insights can then spark new ideas for the development of new anti-viral drugs. This interview will inform future news and features on Plus.

Throughout the day I chatted to a number of people regarding their posters, including some about optimisation, train timetabling, mathematical modelling of sun-spots and Bayesian modelling of Pacific Island cultural movement. These, again, will all appear as Plus news items.

Lastly I chatted to Dr Anthony Sudbery about all sorts of topics with regard to quantum computing. Parallel worlds, unbreakable codes and entangled particles were just some of topics that I pretended to know about ... .

So, now I'm off to rest my brain and then attend the mathematics function tonight. Watch our podcast and news feed for more information on these above topics over the next few weeks.