7th December, 2011
1. I’m on Google+ a lot these days. It’s now definitely my social medium of choice. Come and join in!
2. Coming out of discussions on G+, I cowrote a piece with John Baez on Babylonian mathematics and the square root of 2, which is now up on John’s blog Azimuth. (I can’t resist adding that John was also kind enough to write a flattering review of Maths 1001.)
3. And by no means least… I have a new book out! It’s called The Maths Handbook. I’ve been chatting about it, and maths in general, with Daniel Fraser on the Quercus Couch.
28th July, 2011
I have a feature article in this week’s New Scientist magazine, about the Continuum Hypothesis, set theory, and Hugh Woodin’s Ultimate L. It’s in the shops, or here. [£]
24th June, 2011
21st June, 2011
A mathematician confided
That the Möbius strip is one-sided
And you’ll get quite a laugh
If you cut one in half
For it stays in one piece, undivided!
A mathematician named Klein
Found the Möbius Loop quite divine
Said he, “If you glue
The edges of two
You get a weird bottle like mine!”
The topological part of my brain
Finds Möbius strips quite a strain
But I make you this pledge:
I’ll glue one at its edge
And build a real projective plane
Any more? (Or can anyone give me attributions for the Anons?)
9th June, 2011
the confused heap of destructive disinformation known as “the mathematics curriculum”
then I strongly encourage you to put that right.
The focus of Lockhart’s ire is mathematics in the US school system, but it translates without difficulty to the UK and probably a great many other places.
Lockhart doesn’t diagnose the cause of this mathematical malady, but I will offer one thought: the take-over of exam results as the be-all and end-all of educational attainment.
If you fancy discussing this issue further, there’s a webinar on the topic over at MathFuture this evening, hosted by David Wees and Richard DeMerchant.
6th June, 2011
A. B-san, may I aks you a question?
B. Please do.
A. Thank you. Are you an idiot?
B. That question is hardly of the intellectual calibre that I have come to expect from you, but I shall answer it nevertheless. No, A-san, I am not an idiot.
A. Are you entirely sure? I believe that I can demonstrate that you are indeed an idiot.
B. Are my trousers unbuttoned? Have I forgotten your birthday? If I have made some careless mistake you could tell me kindly rather than with insults.
A. Other than being somewhat old and ill-fitting, your trousers are fine. And my birthday is not for 3 months, as I believe you know. I do not have any such mistake in mind. Rather, I claim that I can demonstrate that you are an idiot using only this pen and paper. What is more, you will be forced by your own words to accept it. May I try?
B. I suppose so.
A. Very well. I shall write a sentence on this paper, and you must tell me whether or not you believe it.
B. What if I don’t know?
A. If you don’t know, then say you don’t believe it.
B. Hmm. It’s going to be one of those sentences which asserts its own falsity, isn’t it? Like that Cretan who said “all Cretans always lie”. Utterances like that can’t sensibly be called either true or false.
A. A good point, but my sentence is fully capable of supporting a truth value. Indeed, I shall attempt to persuade you that the sentence is true. And very likely I shall succeed. Nevertheless you will continue to insist that you do not believe it.
B. What? You say I will be convinced of your sentence’s truth, but at the same time I will refuse to believe it? That would indeed make me a supreme idiot.
A. Exactly! [Writes something down and hands it to B.]
B. [Reads] “Only idiots believe this sentence.”
A. So, do you believe it?
B. If I believe it, then I must be an idiot.
B. But I maintain that I am not an idiot. So, no, A-san, I do not believe this sentence.
A. That’s what I said when I first read it. And that’s what C-san and D-san said too. In fact, I expect your reaction is the same as that of any intelligent person.
B. I agree. Anyone who read that sentence and declared that they believed it would be a self-admitted idiot.
A. In other words, B-san, you are saying that only idiots believe that sentence.
A. Ok! Now read it again.
B. [Reads it again. Thinks.] Bollocks.
A. And B-san?
A. Your trousers are undone.
16th May, 2011
It was hosted over at Mathfuture, by Maria Droujkova. My aim in the talk was to give a very brisk overview of how several different families of wonderful, complex shapes all arise from juggling a very small number of simple criteria. I’m separately uploading the slides for my presentation here [pdf]. They are quite rough and ready, without any detailed explanations, or even any pictures – I used Stella for those. But it does sketch the central story (which I also covered in this blogpost). I may spruce them up one day, if I give the same talk again.
I found the whole thing a thoroughly enjoyable experience, and the Elluminate technology worked extremely smoothly. The format allowed me to talk while sharing my whole desktop with the audience, with the optimal result of people being able to hear my voice and watch everything I was doing, without having to endure looking at my face. And we could all do it from the comfort of our living rooms! This is sort of thing the internet was intended for, isn’t it?
15th May, 2011
(This is a rather selfish list in that it’s about how the issues relate to me. There was lots interesting discussion and speculation about the future of science & media & science media, as well as some fascinating stuff from Simon Singh on his experience of libel law, and from Adam Wishart on ethics. But on all these topics I don’t have much to add to what others have already said.)
Lesson 1: I am not a science journalist. I suppose that subconsciously I have always secretly suspected this, but it is useful to have it confirmed. My interest in science is in science, much less in the attendant politics. I want to help demystify it, report on exciting developments to people who would otherwise not hear about them, and generally spread the word about how wonderful it is. Meanwhile, a journalist’s job is to “hold scientists to account” and generally “cause mischief”. I don’t wish to sound cynical: plenty of good arguments were made for the importance of these activities, but they had the side-effect of convincing me that that’s not where my future lies.
So what am I? A “science communicator” perhaps. I’d even accept “science curator, guide, navigator or sense-maker”, as John Naughton put it. Actually I’ve often thought of myself as more of a “translator” of technical ideas into everyday language.
Lesson 2: The Science versus Religion debate has gone downhill since the days of Bertrand Russell. Like most of the crowd, I was slightly taken aback that the session on “Impact of Science Journalism on Culture and Society” was entirely devoted to booting around the old, deflated football of the compatibility of science and God.
I do think there are interesting things which can still be said about this, at the sociological and historical levels. But in terms of the metaphyical implications of any particular piece of science (whether that be the human genome or the latest multiverse speculation), I view the whole subject as a black hole best avoided. You can bat such questions back and forth for ever, after which everyone grumpily reverts to their starting positions. Namely, all reasonable people peg their preferred philosophical outlook to whatever the science currently says, while the maniacs deny it outright.
Lesson 3: People, things, and ideas. The most controversial moment of the day was when Andrew Brown declared that “People are more interested in stories about people than they are in stories about things”.
I work in mathematics, which isn’t even about things. It’s about ideas. This puts me at least two steps removed from anything anyone cares about. Like many people present, I think, my immediate reaction was one of defensiveness. On the face of it, the statement is false: as David Adam from Nature pointed out, things such as cosmic background radiation can generate a surprising amount of interest. Andrew replied that this is ultimately a story about people, as it concerns the origins of humanity. This struck me as a bit of a cop-out, since all of science is – by definition – the study of the situation in which we find ourselves, and hence ultimately about us, if you like.
Still, there is food for thought in Andrew’s remark. Some things (or ideas) are of interest for the way they relate to aspects of people’s direct experience. The never-ending stories of scientists finding a gene for obesity or campanology testify to this. Other ideas are interesting for their mind-expansion value: plenty of people derive pleasure from wild and wacky ideas. Dark matter & Higgs boson detection constantly attract headlines, even though they fall completely outside anyone’s daily life. This is – mostly, I think – where mathematics fits in, Grigori Perelman’s proof of the Poincare conjecture being a good recent example.
That example does qualify an interesting story about a person in a much more direct sense, though, since Perelman is such an unusual character.
The most interesting stories of all should, therefore, concern wild theories which also relate to our daily experience. Can mathematics hope to qualify? Yes! It could be argued that the P=?NP question, for example, lives exactly here. (For the hat-trick, all that remains is for it to be resolved by an extraordinarily strange individual.)
Lesson 4: The view from the other side. It was valuable to hear about the science book business from publisher turned writer Christopher Potter and literary agent Peter Tallack (disclaimer: he’s my agent). It’s clear that in all areas, the trend is away from paper towards electronic media. My impression though, is that this is happening faster in the world of journalism than in books. Relatedly, I sense that while journalists are – rightly or wrongly – feeling threatened by bloggers, book-writers have a slightly more secure position. While people might write blogposts for free as a hobby, they’re likely to continue to want money to write books. The upshot was that Peter’s “five reasons to be cheerful” pretty well had their desired effect, and it was certainly nice to end the day on an optimistic note.
Lesson 5: It really is time I got a twitter account. Well on that, at any rate, I can report progress. The only thing now is to work out what to do with it.
Overall, a thought-provoking day, and lovely to meet people including Andy Extance and Stuart Clark. So, many thanks to the organisers & sponsors including Bluesci magazine and the Public Library of Science.
9th May, 2011
This Saturday (14th May 2011) I shall be involved in my first ever webinar, generally chatting about my work and a few interesting bits of mathematics with Maria Droujkova, and anyone else who shows up.
To get in, you’ll need to download Elluminate, which provides the virtual seminar room where we can share images, text, and voices. It’s free and easy to install, and well worth having a look at, even if you’ve no interest in me…
(NB. Comments on this blog remain disabled for technical reasons my web-master explains: “There is an admin account but I can’t immediately find what the password is. I will look harder. I definitely will have written it down on a scrap of paper somewhere under my bed etc.”)
27th April, 2011
Having shamefully neglected this blog (and indeed having been enjoying a holiday in Hungary), I came back yesterday to find it overflowing with thousands of comments flogging fake Rolexes (or should that be Rolices?).
I’ve disabled comments as a temporary measure, while I fiddle around trying to install a spam-catcher. I hope I didn’t delete any real people’s comments during the clean-up operation, but if you notice anything missing, please let me know.
Meanwhile, here’s a video clip of British comedian Kenneth Williams talking about medicine. But I think his comment is equally applicable to many areas of science, and not least to mathematics: