Monday, 25 July 2011

Family fun day at the Royal Institution

This week's blog post takes the form of a cheeky advertisement for the Royal Institution's family fun days.

Myself and other Mathemagicians have been there a few times now and we run mathematical puzzles and games that are all based on a specific theme given by the institute.

Previously, we have run mathematics puzzles based on food. Here, we considered the one-, two- and three-dimensional cutting problems. We also ran a load of weighing problems like the one I wrote about a few weeks ago.

Along with the Alchemists, we also attended the family fun day on forensics. We constructed a puzzle based on ideas from propositional logic. The puzzle was so successful that it even appeared in a Nature network blog. Have a go at cracking the mystery and, do not forget, there may be more than one possible suspect.

Me entertaining and educating the public in the ways of logic.

This coming Saturday, 30 July 2011, the day is all about waves and we have some great experiments lined up!

  • We will be showing how the current generation of 3D works using polarised light.
  • I have constructed a Doppler effect machine (I'm very proud of this).
  • What shape do water waves make in different containers?
  • Finally, (if we can get it to work) we will be demonstrating the interference phenomena of light using the Young's slit experiment.
And that is just what we will be doing! There will also be lectures throughout the day and a whole host of other experiments based on waves.

Come along and bring the family, there will surely be something to interest you. For more information see the Royal Institution's family fun day page.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Arts vs Science

A couple of years ago a debate took place in Oxford, the title of which was "Poetry is beautiful, but science is what matters". An evocative title I'm sure you'll agree. However, what I personally liked about the debate was how it was advertised, as shown in the above picture.

Upon a background of equations you have a smooth, regal, Einstein with an angelic glow to show support for science. On the left, in support of the "beauty" of poetry, is an elderly, wrinkled gentleman, smoking a cigarette with unkempt hair.

Now, this may have been done completely by accident, but I just love how biased this picture comes across in its advertising of the event.

[Edit based on the excellent suggestion of Christian Perfect.] Interestingly it was an internet debate so you can read the whole set of arguments here:

In summary, the motion was defeated 62% to 38%. As you might expect, the debate never really got around to stating which field matters more. Instead, the battle was over semantics. What does "matter" mean? What does science mean? Etc.

Personally, I don't subscribe to the whole arts vs science utility debate. As Richard Feynman once said,
"Physics is like sex. Sure, it may give some practical results, but that's not why we do it."

P.S. If you know who the poet is in the figure please say so in a comment below. I would love to know who it is.

P.P.S. I've just been informed that it is W. H. Auden. Isn't the internet wonderful?

Monday, 11 July 2011

Diffusing zombies.

As mentioned in a previous post, I  have written a mathematical article on zombiism as an infectious disease. Since Robert Smith? et al. had already done this already you maybe wondering what we added to the zombie theory.

Ask yourself the following question. What are zombies known for? You may come up with a long list of properties, but personally I can think of two defining characteristics:
  • they prey on humans;
  • the move slowly and unsteadily.
Although Robert et al. covered the first one very well they had ignored zombie movement. Now, although the speed of zombie movement is arguable, as recently they've started to run (and even ride motorbikes), we decided to stick with the slow moving variety as they are easier to understand.

So, how do we model zombie movement? Well, we based their movement on the idea of a "drunkard's walk"; the agent lurches to and fro in a random fashion with no bias in direction. Of course, you may argue that zombies head directly towards humans, which would be true. And, although we could mathematically model this, it is simpler to assume random movement. Thus, we can think of our equations portraying the earlier stages of a zombie infestation, i.e. when the zombies first arise, they will be very confused and will be moving around randomly.

From this assumption we can model the zombie population as a diffusive substance. Now diffusion has two primary properties. Firstly, the agents move without directional bias and, secondly, the zombies move from places of high density to places of low density. This is shown in the figure above and the movie below which illustrates how a population of zombies all starting at the left hand side would move across the domain.

So what can this formulation tell us? Firstly, it implies that running away is better than trying to slow a zombie down. The reason behind this is that by doubling your distance between yourself and a zombie, you multiply the first meeting time by four. However, if you slow the zombie down by half, then you only multiply the first meeting time by two. Thus, here is my advice for today. If you see a zombie...

Monday, 4 July 2011

Mathematics Genealogy Project.

Although, legitimately, I can only trace mine back to 1885 to Roland Weitzenbock, a polish mathematician, who worked on invariant theory and corresponded with Albert Einstein over the unified field theory. Roland did teach Otakar Boruvka, who can be traced right back to such great names as Gauss, Euler and Bernoulli.

Below is my mathematical genealogy. For an actual readable version, click on on the picture to go to the high resolution version on Picasa.

If you're interested in discovering your own mathematical genealogy. Go to for a fully searchable interface.