2018 Abel Laureate Robert Langlands

The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters kindly provided me with a scholarship to attend the Abel Prize week in Oslo earlier this year where I interviewed the 2018 Abel Laureate Robert Langlands.

In the first of a series of videos documenting my experience, Robert describes how he came to do Mathematics at university…

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How can you show geometrically that 3 < π < 4?

Approximating Pi was a favourite pastime of many ancient mathematicians, none more so than Archimedes. Using his polygon approximation method we can get whole number bounds of 3 and 4 for the universal constant, with only high-school level geometry.

This is the latest question in the I Love Mathematics series where I answer the questions sent in and voted for by YOU. To vote for the next question that you want answered next remember to ‘like’ my Facebook page here.

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Equations Stripped: Normal Distribution

Stripping back the most important equations in maths so that everyone can understand…

The Normal Distribution is one of the most important in the world of probability, modelling everything from height and weight to salaries and number of offspring. It is used by advertisers to better target their products and by pharmaceutical companies to test the success of new drugs. It seems to fit almost any set of data, which is what makes it SO incredibly important…

You can watch all of the Equations Stripped series here.

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Funbers 21

Funbers has reached the age of adulthood as the series turns 21 today! Twenty-one is a popular number in gambling, sports and politics, as well as being the number of shots fired in a ceremonial gun salute. To find out why you’ll have to listen to the latest episode below…

You can listen to all of the Funbers episodes from BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and BBC Radio Oxford here.

Tom Rocks Maths Episode 08

The final episode in season 1 of Tom Rocks Maths on Oxide Radio – Oxford University’s student radio station – with very special guests Jon and Nick discussing everything from the number of stickers needed to cover the Earth, to different types of infinity, via a new name for the world’s smallest number. Plus, a mammoth quiz to end the season in style and music from Nirvana and Soundgarden. This is maths, but not as you know it…

Arithmophobia – the fear of maths

New research shows that most parents can’t help their kids with maths homework because they have a fear of numbers. Here’s me being asked about the problem (and setting the presenters a farm animal themed maths puzzle) along with Martin Upton of the Open University on BBC Radio Scotland…

Funbers 20

From the number of children of composer Johann Sebastian Bach, to the number of championships won by Manchester United, its fair to say that 20 gets around. Then there’s the 1920’s, seen as a time of boom and bust with the creation of jazz music followed by the great depression. Not to mention the Mayan counting system which uses base 20…

You can find all of the episodes in the Funbers series with BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and BBC Radio Oxford here.

Do roast potatoes give you cancer?

The UK Foods Standard Agency issued a health warning in 2017 about the chemical acrylamide – found in starchy foods such as bread and potatoes – saying that it may cause cancer. The warning coincides with the launch of a new health initiative called ‘go for gold’ which encourages us to only cook foods to a golden yellow, rather than brown or black, to help to reduce the amount of acrylamide. I spoke to Jasmine Just at Cancer Research UK…

  • Acrylamide is produced naturally by starchy foods when they are cooked at high temperatures for a long period of time, such as when baked, fried, roasted or toasted.
  • It is created by the Maillard reaction that occurs between sugars and amino acids in the presence of water, which is also responsible for the brown colour and roasted taste.
  •  A number of animal studies have found that acrylamide has the potential to damage our DNA which can lead to cancer, but the same process has yet to be established in humans.
  • The risk is described as ‘probable’ but is certainly much less than that from smoking, obesity and alcohol.
  • The advice from Cancer Research UK is to maintain a healthy balanced diet, follow the cooking recommendations for baked or roasted goods, and to not store potatoes in the fridge as this increases the potential for acrylamide to develop when they are cooked.

You can listen to the full interview for the Naked Scientists here.

Cannibals and hats

Time for the next puzzle in the new feature from Tom Rocks Maths – check out the question below and send your answers to @tomrocksmaths on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or via the contact form on my website. The answer to the last puzzle can be found here.

You are walking through the jungle with two friends when all of a sudden you are attacked by a group of cannibals. Fortunately, they do not eat you straightaway, but instead devise a puzzle that you must solve to avoid being eaten. The setup is as follows:

  • You are each tied to a pole such that you can only see forwards. The poles are placed in a line such that the person at the back can see the two people in front of them, the person in the middle can see one person in front of them, and the person at the front cannot see anyone else. See diagram below.

Screen Shot 2018-09-19 at 13.25.56

  • The cannibals produce five hats: 3 are black and 2 are white. You are all then blindfolded and a hat is placed on each persons head at random. The other two hats are hidden.
  • The blindfolds are removed and you are told that you will be set free provided that one of the group can correctly guess the colour of the hat that they are wearing. An incorrect guess will cause you all to be eaten.
  • The person at the back says that they do not know the colour of their hat. The person in the middle says that they also do not now the colour of their hat. Finally, the person at the front says that they DO know the colour of their hat.

The questions is: what colour hat is the person at the front wearing and how did they know the answer?

The answer will be posted in a few weeks along with the next puzzle – good luck!

Maths proves that maths isn’t boring

If all the maths you’d ever seen was at school, then you’d be forgiven for thinking numbers were boring things that only a cold calculating robot could truly love. But, there is a mathematical proof that you’d be wrong: Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. It comes from a weird part of maths history which ended with a guy called Kurt Gödel proving that to do maths, you have to take thrill-seeking risks in a way a mindless robot never could, no matter how smart it was.

The weirdness begins with philosophers deciding to have a go at maths. Philosophers love (and envy) maths because they love certainty. No coincidence that Descartes, the guy you have to thank for x-y graphs, was also the genius who proved to himself that he actually existed and wasn’t just a dream (after all, who else would be the one worrying about being a dream?). Maths is great for worriers like him, because there’s no question of who is right and who is wrong – show a mathematician a watertight proof of your claim and they’ll stop arguing with you and go away (disclaimer: this may not to work with maths teachers…).

However, being philosophers, they eventually found a reason to worry again. After all, maths proofs can’t just start from nothing, they need some assumptions. If these are wrong, then the proof is no good. Most of the time, the assumptions will have proofs of their own, but as anyone who has argued with a child will know, eventually the buck has to stop somewhere. (“Why can’t I play Mario?” “Because it’s your bedtime.” “Why is it bedtime?!” “BECAUSE I SAY SO!”) Otherwise, you go on giving explanations forever.

The way this usually works for maths, is mathematicians agree on some excruciatingly obvious facts to leave unproved, called axioms. Think “1+1=2”, but then even more obvious than that (in fact, Bertrand Russell spent hundreds of pages proving that 1+1=2 from these stupidly basic facts!). This means that mathematicians can go about happily proving stuff from their axioms, and stop worrying. Peak boring maths.

But the philosophers still weren’t happy. Mostly, it was because the mathematicians massively screwed up their first go at thinking of obvious ‘facts’. How massively? The ‘facts’ they chose turned out to be nonsense. We know this because they told us things which flat-out contradicted each other. You could use them to ‘prove’ anything you like – and the opposite at the same time. You could ‘prove’ that God exists, and that He doesn’t – and no matter which one of those you think is true, we can all agree that they can’t both be right! In other words, the axioms the mathematicians chose were inconsistent.

Philosophers’ trust in maths was shattered (after all, it was their job to prove ridiculous stuff). Before they could trust another axiom ever again, they wanted some cast-iron proof that they weren’t going to be taken for another ride by the new axioms. But where could this proof start off? If we had to come up with a whole other list of axioms for it, then we’d need a proof for them too… This was all a bit of a headache.

The only way out the mathematicians and philosophers could see was to look for a proof that the new axioms were consistent, using only those new axioms themselves. This turned out to be very, very hard. In fact (and this is where Gödel steps in) it turned out to be impossible.

Cue Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. It says that any axioms that you can think of are either inconsistent – nonsense – or aren’t good enough to answer all of your maths questions. And, sadly, one of those questions has to be whether the axioms are inconsistent. In short, all good axioms are incomplete.

This may sound bad, but it’s really an exciting thing. It means that if you want to do maths, you really do have to take big risks, and be prepared to see your whole house of cards fall down in one big inconsistent pile of nonsense at any time. That takes serious nerve. It also means mathematicians have the best job security on the planet. If you could just write down axioms and get proof after proof out of them, like a production line, then you could easily make a mindless robot or a glorified calculator sit down and do it. But thanks to Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, we know for sure that will never happen. Maths needs a creative touch – a willingness to stick your neck out and try new axioms just to see what will happen – that no robot we can build will ever have.

Joe Double

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