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.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

A maths afternoon in Nottingham: game shows and sport

Some of the audience waiting to enter the Maths Inspiration show
On Thursday I spent an enjoyable afternoon with Rob Eastaway in Nottingham. I attended the Maths Inspiration show at the Nottingham Playhouse, which featured talks by Chris Budd (IMA Vice President) on man-made climate change (is it really happening? The section of the audience near me thought so but Chris told me he heard quite a lot of "no"s), Mike Fletcher on game shows and Steve Mould on various topics. Helen Pilcher was acting as compere and Rob was in charge behind the scenes.
All the talks were excellent and it was pleasing to see a 700 seater theatre sold out with years 11, 12 and 13 for a show about mathematics (see photo above). I found Mike Fletcher's talk particularly interesting. He discussed game shows from the point of view of a recent news story, which we covered on the Math/Maths Podcast episode 88, that several game shows are being investigated by the Gambling Commission as possibly not containing enough skill to be operated without a gambling licence.

Mike took us through Play Your Cards Right, apparently due for a relaunch and one of the shows mentioned in the Gambling Commission story. I thought predicting whether the next card will be higher or lower in face value than the current card involved minimal skill, but Mike made a convincing argument otherwise. There's a lot more to the game than I realised because you can at times choose to swap the card you are playing for another from the deck or force your opponent to play, and all the cards are chosen from a single deck.

Showing various aspects of strategy, involving basic and conditional probabilities, Mike said if you played the game mathematically you could expect go home with the car about 3 times in 10. Statistically, he said, contestants win the car about 1 time in 10, which I think is a fairly convincing indication that there is a skill involved that people are generally lacking, but which can be learned.

In the evening Rob Eastaway gave his talk 'From Lampard to the Olympics' based on his book with John Haigh The Hidden Maths of Sport (review at Plus). This was an interesting and enjoyable talk, despite my relative dis-interest in sport, and well attended by a capacity audience of nearly 70. Rob made a point of avoiding discussion purely of the relatively well know use of statistics in sport. He gave examples of various mathematical topics in cricket, football, rugby, darts, tennis, basketball, athletics and American football. I don't want to give away the details, but you should look out for Rob speaking near you or pick up a copy of his book for further details.

Rob Eastaway doing a live 'ball game' based demo at his talk.
The next East Midlands Branch talk will be The Mathematics Magic Show by Peter McOwan on Wednesday 16 May 2012 at the University of Leicester. Peter is a researcher in computer vision with an amateur interest in magic, a combination that has led to research into visual illusions and outreach work with mathematics and magic. The meeting is preceded by a short AGM at 7.10pm (for those who are interested) before the talk at 7.30pm. No charge is made to attend meetings, non-IMA members are welcome.

Update (24/03/2012): Updated list of sports covered in Rob's talk, thanks to Mike Black on Twitter for filling in the gaps in my memory.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Mathematics Matters - a crucial contribution to the country's economy

Yesterday, 15th March 2012, I had the opportunity to attend the Mathematics Matters seminar hosted by the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee in collaboration with the Council for Mathematical Sciences. The aim of the event was to promote the role played by mathematics and mathematicians in society.

The session began with Prof. Sir Adrian Smith (standing in for an apologetic David Willetts MP). Prof Smith began by saying that David Willetts and the government are well aware of the importance of mathematics and the part it plays in key national and strategic priorities. It was pointed out that whilst maths is becoming a more popular subject to study at university we are still not producing enough graduates to satisfy demand.

Prof. David Spiegelhalter spoke next on his role in educating the public and press in how to use statistics correctly. This was partly based on the recent tabloid headlines concerning scares over red meat. David also talked about the mathematics of risk and how the national risk register has changed to incorporate new risks such as disruption caused by volcanic ash.

Malcolm MacCallum, Director of the Heilbronn Institute in Bristol, gave a fascinating talk about Tutte and Flowers' contribution to the deciphering of messages encrypted by the Tunny machine using Colossus.

After a break for refreshments the session resumed with Deirdre Hollingsworth presenting work on the modelling of epidemics and the use of vaccination. She continued with a mathematical model showing how the use of bed-nets and interior spraying can significantly reduce the spread of malaria amongst children in Africa.

The final talk was from Professor Jared Tanner, who just managed to arrive in time from fog-bound Edinburgh, about the mathematics used to fill in missing data in photographs. He showed how this had implications in tracking movement and taking MRI scans of young children.

The session was summed up by Stephen Timms MP and followed by a short time of discussion during which the following points were raised:

  • There is a need to increase public awareness of the use of mathematics and to encourage more to study it beyond A-level;

  • There is no parliamentary group for mathematics;

  • Because of the nature of the subject it is not always possible to foresee the possible impact of research.

    This was a very enjoyable morning that I hope will improve awareness of the need to increase the numbers of undergraduates and post-graduate mathematicians in our universities.
  • Thursday, 15 March 2012

    Pi day at Kingswood School

    Yesterday was Pi day (the 14th day of the 3rd month - 3.14 if you're using that dating system). Plus Magazine have a roundup of some pi-themed material. I celebrated with a blog post How to calculate π.

    Meanwhile, Garrod Musto, IMA Council member and Head of Mathematics at Kingswood School in Bath, enjoyed pi day with his students. One of his year 10 students created a pi day poem which Garrod sent to me to share via this blog.
    The best smelling food has its own day,
    A day when Mr Musto brought in cup cakes on a tray,
    If you still don’t know the date I’ll continue with the clues,
    I’ll carry on going with my poem chocolates the last thing I’d want to lose,
    What’s the sexiest number in Australians eyes?
    What number goes around as a symbol for a disguise?
    It looks like a table with a curly leg,
    Or if you turn it round it looks like a peg,
    Its 3.14 backwards if you take a look,
    William Shanks found the first 707 digits no matter how many years it took,
    The first 144 digits all add up to six hundred and sixty six,
    To screw up completely only one number has to be a miss,
    People drove themselves mad trying to figure it out,
    They had no way of cheating if they were in doubt,
    The first million decimal places consist of 99,959 zeros, 99,758 1s, 100,026 2s,
    William Shanks lost a few numbers for him to lose,
    The biggest number so powerful alone,
    The biggest number I’ve even know,
    You still don’t know the date,
    On which all mathematical geniuses celebrate,
    So many people taken the problem to their grave,
    Try and remember them if you’re brave,
    Go ahead and give it a Try,
    Remember the thousands of numbers which all make pie

    Monday, 5 March 2012

    David Nelson on mathematical dictionaries

    On Friday, the East Midlands Branch welcomed David Nelson for a talk "Two Dictionaries of Mathematics, 1679 and 1989" at the University of Nottingham.

    I was lucky enough to spend a little time with David before and after his talk. He was full of anecdotes from his varied career (including the time he convinced a young man named Ian Stewart to write a book about chaos). He was interviewed in 2010 by Terry Edwards for the IMA members' publication Mathematics Today. (Those with copies will find this interview printed in two parts in vol. 46, iss. 6, pp. 292-295 and vol. 47, iss. 1, pp. 32-35.) This records David as:
    A mathematician, publishing editor (including the Penguin Dictionary of Mathematics), musician, educationalist and in the context of mathematics, a psychologist and historian.
    In his talk, David spoke about Joseph Moxon’s Mathematicks made Easie: or, a Mathematical Dictionary Explaining the Terms of Art and Difficult Phrases used in Arithmetick, Geometry, Astronomy, Astrology, and other Mathematical Sciences (1679), the first mathematical dictionary to be published in English. You can view some pages from this book at Abebooks.co.uk (although the pricetag, at £895, will be a little high for most!). The pictures are from the second edition, much enlarged in 1692 following Moxon's death (also, despite his title, the version David showed in his talk).

    Wikipedia reports (mostly confirmed by my memory of David's talk):
    Joseph Moxon (1627-1700) was a London dealer and printer, specialising in mathematical books and instruments, a globe maker, amateur in the mechanical arts, hydrographer to Charles II, and Fellow of the Royal Society, the first tradesman to be so elected. He was the first to produce a dictionary devoted to mathematics in the English language.
    David used this dictionary to take us on a tour of early dictionaries of mathematics (in English and otherwise).

    The second dictionary in David's talk was one he edited, the Penguin Dictionary of Mathematics, now in its greatly expanded fourth edition. David explained some of the process of attracting contributions and putting together such an undertaking.

    On the subject of mathematical reference, before the talk I wondered idly on Twitter: "These days, what would you use to look up an unknown mathematical term or concept?" Early replies came in for Wikipedia, Wolfram Alpha, Twitter and "The Princeton companion to Mathematics", so I set up a poll. This is wholly unscientific, not least because it was effectively a poll of Twitter users, but the results (100 responses) were:
    • Do a web search: 35%;
    • Wolfram Alpha: 13%;
    • Wikipedia: 28%;
    • Ask on a social network eg Twitter: 5%;
    • Look in a book: 16%;
    • Other: 3%.
    The most common response was to do a web search or look on Wikipedia. David addressed this point in his talk, admitting that he does use Wikipedia at times and that the availability of such online tools has affected sales of the book in more recent editions. I was surprised that as many as 16% responding to my poll would consult a book. David said that many people had told him they still keep a copy of the Penguin dictionary on their desks. Actually, given the availability of curated definitions, written by experts and edited for style, plus the serendipity of stumbling across other definitions while searching, I left the talk fairly well convinced of the value of a printed dictionary as well.

    The next IMA East Midlands Branch talk will be The Hidden Maths of Sport by Rob Eastaway on 22nd March 2012, also at the University of Nottingham. Further Branch talks are available via the IMA website.