Welcome to the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications (IMA) blog. The IMA is the UK's learned and professional society for mathematics and its applications. We promote mathematics research, education and careers, and the use of mathematics in business, industry and commerce. Among our activities we produce academic journals, organise conferences and engage with government.

In this blog we will publish mathematical articles and news to reflect the interests of our members who come from a multiplicity of different organisations including university academics, industrial mathematicians, financiers, school teachers, scientists, civil servants etc.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Favourite numbers, and other nonsense

Alex Bellos is asking people for their favourite numbers. This is an international survey in which people are asked whether they have a favourite number or not and, if they do, the reasons for their choice, plus, optionally, a few minor demographic details. Alex is getting some press for this, with recent appearances on the Today programme and other radio programmes.

On the Math/Maths Podcast recently, Samuel Hansen and I had a chat with James Grime and Samuel spoke with Alex Bellos about favourite numbers. These items caused Christian Perfect to get in touch and he joined us on the most recent episode to give, in his words, a robust defence of having a favourite number. At the recent Maths in the City awards event Christian had asked Marcus du Sautoy what his favourite number was and he said he didn't have one until the press kept asking him for his. This led us into a discussion about the media. I find it irritating that a radio presenter has a mathematician on their show and feels "what is your favourite number?" is an appropriate question. I regard it as silly. Christian said he didn't think it was a silly question because people have favourite all-sorts-of-things. Samuel said, while it was a silly question, he felt it was a decent opening question from someone who didn't understand mathematics. What do you think? I hope you will give your view in the comments below this post.

Part of what I worry about is the proximity of this sort of question to asking mathematicians on the spot questions like, "what is 33 squared?" I feel this has very little to do with mathematics and should be discouraged. Recently I took a puzzles stall to a local science fair and someone commented that one of the puzzles was "proper maths" because it involved numbers. I said I had specifically avoided puzzles that involved arithmetic because there's so much more to mathematics than that.

Next, I saw Christian was speaking on Twitter with Edmund Harriss about a recent blog post Edmund had written on imparting meaning to numbers. In this, Edmund gives a defence of numerology, writing of it as a game which allows space for creativity, one that may mean you accidentally stumble on something meaningful. (Go and read what Edmund says. I'll wait.) I don't disagree with what Edmund says but positive effects and harmless fun aren't my problem with numerology.

I probably don't need to say on a mathematical blog but I don't believe in numerology. This is the process of extracting a number from some context, through some seemingly arbitrary calculation, and then assigning meaning to that number in an attempt to understand the context or make a prediction (perhaps from some cosmic ordering of the universe). I'm tempted to feel that while it is having a positive effect and sometimes even encouraging people to feel better about their lives it's probably tolerable. It isn't hurting anyone. Often, though, the negative consequences seem like to lead to unhappiness or financial loss. Your name derives a particular number? Well then you're in for a cruel fate, or are destined to be a terrible person. Not that you can help what you are called (advice I have read for making these 'calculations' has it that it is only the name on your birth certificate that counts). If you made this calculation and took seriously that you were destined to be denied happiness, prone to addiction or compelled to violence, I can only imagine what this must do to a person. There are other such negative effects. The stock market closed at a value with particular digits? A huge crash must be coming and you should sell your shares immediately, no matter the loss. This is your birth date? Then your true sole mate will have this birth date, and since this isn't the birthday of your current girlfriend, you'd better leave her. (You're happy being with her? Well that isn't really the point.)

Another aspect, I worry, is the possibility of engagement with this sort of thinking contributing to others sorts of poor numerical thinking skills. If numbers have this mystical property, people may find them mystifying. "Three times as likely", you say? That's very likely then! "95% certain to happen", there's no way that won't happen; but a 1 in 20 chance of winning, wow, that could be me! And so on. I worry that being loose with the meaning assigned to numbers in different contexts, even in a meaningless and harmless way, may lead to being loose with numbers in other, more damaging contexts. As Edmund points out, we should play with numbers and not be afraid of them but if we assign meaning to a numerical measure we must remember that meaning when playing and take care when comparing numbers from different contexts.

So, do I think Alex's experiment is silly and should be avoided? Well, no. I think his is an interesting experiment precisely for the reasons he is carrying it out. Not to determine if there is some great cosmic significance in numerical ordering, but as a sociological experiment to investigate the cultural effects of our relationship with meaningless numbers. So go, now, and fill out the survey. It genuinely will only take a minute and you are contributing to an interesting experiment.

Please share your thoughts about this post by clicking on the comments option below.
Peter Rowlett blogs at Travels in a Mathematical World.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Facebook: London University Maths Societies - IMA

Some time ago Peter Rowlett and I set up an IMA presence on Facebook called London University Maths Societies - IMA. The purpose of this page is to publicise mathematical events and meetings happening in the London area that are of interest to London based maths students. An added benefit is that it enables maths students from different universities to network and thus gain support /ideas for Maths Society activities.

We now have a new volunteer who has agreed to take over the administration of this page. James Howe will be graduating from the University of Greenwich this year and is hoping to take up a place on a Masters course in Cryptography at Royal Holloway. He has agreed to update the page regularly.

Please advertise this page to anyone involved in a London University Maths Society. People can email me (n.bradshaw@gre.ac.uk) if they want an event publicised and I will forward these to James.

Friday, 10 June 2011

100 and counting in the land of Twitter

I'm sure you will have seen that the IMA has a Twitter account (http://twitter.com/IMAmaths). Well today it celebrated its 100th Tweet!

The twitter feed has been used as a mechanism to quickly let people know of many things: 

to highlight some maths:

Interesting Maths: 130 is the only integer that is the sum of its first four divisors squared: 1^2 + 2^2 + 5^2 + 10^2 = 130. RT

to highlight mathematics that will be of interest to an event in the coming year:

Can we predict how many medals the UK might win in 2012, and is hosting the Olympics an advantage? RT  

to highlight that people want to know what YOUR favourite number is:

Almost 5000 entries so far in favourite number survey. If you haven't voted yet, please do: RT @alexbellos

to highlight IMA branch events:

Two branch talks coming up. Mon 21st Delineating a Sundial in Bath and Wed 23rd The Golden Section by Richard Simpson in Leicester.

to highlight IMA council events:

IMA Councillors are gathering in Birmingham for the Strategy Review weekend. Loads to discuss!

to highlight that others have talked about work of the IMA: 

There's great ideas for maths in IMA's new Mathematics Matters - energy, optical fibres, networks and more! @mathsinthecity

to highlight funding opportunities:

Funding opportunity through the National HE STEM Programme: RT

and finally, our 100th tweet - to highlight free tools for teaching mathematics and conferences where you can gain CPD on using such tools: 
Geogebra - excellent free tool for teaching maths. Their conference in Austria: (or ) 

So, hopefully it can be seen that the IMA is making good use of modern technology, such as Twitter, to keep the world informed of IMA and related news.