A song for Pi Day

If you’re reading this blog then you probably already know that today is Pi Day. In honour of the occasion, here’s a video in which our former student Chris Smith hymns the joys of \pi — with the assistance of his Year 1 class and to what may be a rather familiar tune:

Chris is a maths teacher at Grange Academy in Kilmarnock. I’m grateful to him for permission to post this link and to Stephen Wilson bringing it to my attention!


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EMS Popular Lecture: Maths and Sport

This year’s EMS Popular Lecture will take place on Friday 21 March in Edinburgh. Professor John Barrow will talk about “Maths and Sport”:

We will reveal some of the many ways in which mathematics helps us understand and improve sporting performance. Running, throwing, cycling, jumping, and weightlifting are among the examples we will take a look at from a new perspective. Along the way we will also see how Usain Bolt can break his world 100m record, investigate some odd scoring systems and see how delay differential equations help us understand American football.

(Personally, I doubt that even delay differential equations will ever explain American football to me, but I’m happy to give Prof. Barrow the benefit of the doubt…)

The lecture will take place at 4.30 p.m., in Lecture Theatre 3 of Appleton Tower, University of Edinburgh; tea will be served outside from 4.00 p.m. All are welcome, and there’s no charge for admission.

Previous lectures in this series have included Dr David Bedford on “Ants, Bricks, Bugles and Infinity” and Dr Colin Wright on the mathematics of juggling. We’ve had very good reports from those who’ve attended these events — it’s worth making the trek along the M8 for the occasion!


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Maths makes your brain light up… but why?

By now you may have spotted the news story that the BBC headlined as “Mathematics: Why the brain sees maths as beauty”. As usual with science reporting, the headline doesn’t quite capture what the story’s about. The story’s based on a recently published paper by Zeki, Romaya, Benincase and Atiyah titled “The experience of mathematical beauty and its neural correlates”, and the key result of the study it describes is that when mathematicians look at an equation they regard as “beautiful”, there is activity in the same part of the brain that “lights up” when we look at other beautiful objects. Informally, we can conclude that mathematical beauty is experienced in a similar way to other forms of beauty — and perhaps that maths isn’t such an abnormal pleasure after all…

The famous dead salmon experiment should make us sceptical about reading too much into neuroimaging, but in justice to these researchers they seem to have been very careful in their analysis and they’re also careful not to overstate what they claim. Two aspects of the work, apart from the headline result, might be of particular interest to mathematicians. One is the question of which equations were regarded as particularly beautiful; the other is the relationship between understanding an equation and appreciating its beauty. Continue reading

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RSS event: statistics and the referendum

Here at DoF we try to stay away from politics, or at least from the sort of politics that might get us accused of lobbying. However, even we have noticed that a vote is due to take place in September that might be of some importance for our wee country (or our wee corner of a bigger country, if you prefer). So have the Royal Statistical Society, and they’re putting on an event at the Parliament in Edinburgh on the afternoon of March 26. It will look at statistical issues brought into focus by the independence debate, including those concerning the economy and health as well as the opinion polls themselves. It’s open to all, but registration (via the RSS Glasgow events page) is essential.


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Two forthcoming IMA seminars

If you’re interested in applications of mathematics, you might want to check out two upcoming IMA seminars, one in Edinburgh and one in Glasgow. On 20 February in Edinburgh, Prof. Murray Campbell will talk on “Applications of Mathematics in understanding the creation and perception of musical sounds”, and on 11 March in Glasgow, Dr Andrew Fletcher will talk on “The Mathematics of Astronomy”. Both talks are open to all comers, whether IMA members or not. More details are available on the IMA website.


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Wit and heuristics in crosswords and mathematics

In a recent post on the SIAM blog, Professor Des Higham discusses cryptic crosswords and the reasons why they appeal to so many mathematicians of his acquaintance. I’m one of those mathematicians, having tried my hand both at solving and at compiling crosswords, and Des’s article got me thinking a little more about where their appeal really lies. Clearly there’s the fact that mathematicians, in general, simply like solving puzzles; indeed, the boundaries between recreational puzzles and “genuine” mathematics can sometimes become so blurred as to be non-existent, as in the early work on gambling or the Königsberg bridges problem. But can we, I wondered, go a bit further than this and look at crossword-solving through the lens of mathematical thinking, or vice versa? Continue reading

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Chain reaction forces

Here’s a weird little phenomenon that should appeal to all of us who think we understand Newtonian mechanics… Continue reading

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RSS seminar: statistics making an impact

John Pullinger, the president of the Royal Statistical Society, will be giving a seminar in the Department on Friday 31 January. He has a lengthy career in the civil service as a statistician and currently works at the House of Commons, so it should be an interesting insight into the use of statistics in and by government! Continue reading

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Quotation for the new year

For anyone who is currently contemplating their January exam revision through bleary eyes and wondering what the point of their maths degree was supposed to be, here’s a possible answer from the lawyer and philosopher Francis Bacon:

In the mathematics I can report no deficience, except it be that men do not sufficiently understand this excellent use of the pure mathematics, in that they do remedy and cure many defects in the wit and faculties intellectual.  For if the wit be too dull, they sharpen it; if too wandering, they fix it; if too inherent in the sense, they abstract it.  So that as tennis is a game of no use in itself, but of great use in respect it maketh a quick eye and a body ready to put itself into all postures, so in the mathematics that use which is collateral and intervenient is no less worthy than that which is principal and intended.

[The Advancement of Learning, 1605, section VIII(2)]

Happy New Year! Have fun, but I hope your “wit and faculties intellectual” are thoroughly remedied by the time you return to campus…


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Links: more on the mathematics of music

For those of you who read our earlier article on the mathematics behind music and want to know more, here are a couple of links that might well interest you.

Amazingly mathematical music is an online article from Washington University in St Louis, which explores some of the mathematical patterns to be found in both musical harmonies and rhythms. It’s well illustrated (if that’s the word) with sound clips including the infamous perpetually ascending stairs illusion, barbershop choruses and Tuvan throat singing — well worth checking out! It’s accompanied by a podcast interview with David Wright, who is both the chair of the Mathematics Department at Washington University and a very successful a capella choir director.

Hat tip (and jazz hand) to the member of Edinburgh’s Rolling Hills Chorus who supplied the link!


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