From aliens to bees via tattoos…

A short review of intern Joe Double’s work with Tom Rocks Maths over the summer of 2018. Written for the OUS East Kent branch who provided funding for the project. 

‘First of all, I must thank you again for the grant, and for the warmth and friendliness at your event; it was an absolute delight to give my presentation and talk to your members, as it has been interacting with you in general.

I had the opportunity to work with one of my tutors over the summer to produce pieces for a general audience about complex mathematical topics. Without the help of the OUS East Kent group, I couldn’t have taken up this opportunity – with their grant’s help, I was able to afford to live in Oxford through a large part of the summer, allowing me to work in close contact with my tutor and use his studio for creating the videos and audio pieces I worked on. The OUSEK grant can be put to use far more flexibly than those from bigger schemes (which always have preconditions to meet about how the project will apply to industry, say), so I couldn’t recommend applying more if you have an idea for a project for your time at Oxford which is on the unusual side!’

Pieces I produced during the project:

Why do Bees Build Hexagons? Honeycomb Conjecture explained by Thomas Hales

A video I edited of Tom (my tutor) interviewing Thomas Hales about the mathematics behind beehives.

Would Alien (Non-Euclidean) Geometry Break Our Brains?

My main video, written, filmed and edited by me, about demystifying non-Euclidean geometry.

Take me to your chalkboard

My main audio piece, where I interview Professor Adrian Moore (also of St Hugh’s) about what philosophy can tell us about how aliens might do maths.

Maths proves that maths isn’t boring

An article about Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, and how they show maths is always risky.

Getting tattooed for science…

An audio piece I edited about a tattoo Tom got of the Platonic solids.

Alien maths – we’re counting on it

An article about how we use the mathematics of prime numbers to send messages to the stars.

Play Nice!

An article about a game theory paper which could amongst other things help stop deforestation.

The original article was published on the OUS East Kent website here.

Why do Bees Build Hexagons? Honeycomb Conjecture explained by Thomas Hales

Mathematician Thomas Hales explains the Honeycomb Conjecture in the context of bees. Hales proved that the hexagon tiling (hexagonal honeycomb) is the most efficient way to maximise area whilst minimising perimeter.

Produced by Tom Rocks Maths intern Joe Double, with assistance from Tom Crawford. Thanks to the Oxford University Society East Kent Branch for funding the placement and to the Isaac Newton Institute for arranging the interview.

Would Alien (Non-Euclidean) Geometry Break Our Brains?

The author H. P. Lovecraft often described his fictional alien worlds as having ‘Non-Euclidean Geometry’, but what exactly is this? And would it really break our brains?

 

Produced by Tom Rocks Maths intern Joe Double, with assistance from Tom Crawford. Thanks to the Oxford University Society East Kent Branch for funding the placement.

Take me to your chalkboard

Is alien maths different from ours? And if it is, will they be able to understand the messages that we are sending into space? My summer intern Joe Double speaks to philosopher Professor Adrian Moore from BBC Radio 4’s ‘a history of the infinite’ to find out…

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

Alien maths – we’re counting on it

Are we alone in the universe? The possibility that we aren’t has preoccupied us as a species for much of recent history, and one way or another we need to know. The problem is, there is a lot of space, and only so fast you can move around in it, so popping over to our nearest neighbouring star for a quick look around is off the table. We simply don’t know how to communicate or travel faster than light. Nor have we picked up any signals which are identifiable as any sort of message from little green men.

Therefore, perhaps our best chance of making contact with an alien species is to announce ourselves to the universe. If we send out messages to promising-seeming parts of space in the hope that someone will be there to receive them, we might just get a response.

But supposing our signals reach alien ears (or freaky antenna things or whatever), what hope do we have of them being understood? Sure, we might make signals which are recognised as deliberate (and not mistaken for more literal ‘messages from the stars’), but how will they get anything across to aliens whose language is entirely unknown to us?

Scientists in the ‘70s were asking themselves these very questions, and the most promising approach they came up with to get around this problem was one which used maths. In fact, it used an ingenious trick dating back all the way to the Ancient Greeks. The fruit of their labour, broadcast in 1974, was called the Arecibo message.

So, what is it? First off, the Arecibo designers gave up on the hope of sending a written message the aliens could read. Better to stick with pictures – you have to assume aliens will be pretty low down on the reading tree. But this still leaves a conundrum.

When you’re sending a message to space, you have to send a binary signal – a series of ‘1’s and ‘0’s (aka bits) which you hope will start to mean something when it’s processed on the other end. This is precisely how sending pictures over the internet or between computers works too – your message is turned into bits, beamed to the other computer, and then turned back.

And herein lies the problem; the aliens receiving the binary signal won’t have any idea what they’re supposed to do with the bits or how to piece the message back together to make a picture again. You’ve posted them a Lego set but no instructions, and even though they’ve got the bricks there’s no way they’ll figure out whether it was supposed to be built into a race car or a yellow castle. After all, they might not even know what those are!

The way around this is to make the process for turning the message into a picture as simple as possible, so the aliens will be able to guess it. And the way you turn the bits into a picture really is very simple – just write them out in a 23×73 grid, and colour in any square with a ‘1’ in it. Below is what you get (with added colour-coding – see below for what the different parts mean).

aricebo

White, top: The numbers 1 to 10, written in binary

Purple, top: The atomic numbers for the elements in DNA

Green: The nucleotides of our DNA

Blue/white, mid: A representation of the double helix of DNA. The middle column also says how may nucleotides are in it.

Red: A representation of a human with the world’s pointiest head, with the average height of a man to the left, and the population to the right.

Yellow: A representation of the solar system and the sizes of the planets, with Earth highlighted

Purple, bottom: A curved parabolic mirror like the one used to send the message, with two purple beams of light being reflected onto the mirror’s focus, and the telescope’s diameter shown in blue at the bottom.

Image credit: Arne Nordmann 

But how, you might ask, are the aliens supposed to figure out the 23×73 dimensions of the grid? Here is where Ancient Greek maths comes to save us.

The Arecibo message is 1679 bits long. That sounds random, but it is anything but – 1679 is actually the product of two numbers, 23 and 73. Sound familiar? That’s the dimensions of the picture! It’s precisely the fact that 1679 equals 23 times 73 that lets you write out the 1679 bits in a 23×73 grid.

You might be wondering why we used such weird numbers for the sizing. Couldn’t we have chosen nicer, rounder numbers for the picture, like 50×100 say? No. If we did that, the aliens might make a mistake like writing out the bits in a 5×1000 grid or a 500×10 grid, and this would still work numbers-wise because 50×100 = 5×1000 = 500×10.

The key here is that unlike 50 and 100, 23 and 73 are prime numbers. Primes are numbers which can only be divided by one and themselves, like 3 and 5. And most importantly, any number can be split up into primes in a unique way – for instance, 15 is 3×5, and there is no other way to get 15 by multiplying together prime numbers. Likewise, there is no other way to get 1679 than as 23 times 73. So, it is impossible for the aliens to make a mistake when they have to draw out the grid. The Lego set you posted may have no instructions, but you were careful to include parts which can only go together the right way.

An Ancient Greek called Euclid knew this key fact, that numbers split uniquely into primes, over two thousand years ago. The Arecibo designers are banking on the aliens being at least as good with numbers as he was, to be able to decipher the message. Given these are aliens who are capable of picking up a radio signal from space, it seems like a pretty safe bet that they can manage better than an ancient society which believed women have fewer teeth than men because a . It’s a gamble, and it relies on assumptions that the maths we’re interested in is what all species will be interested in – but then what part of blindly shooting intergalactic friend requests into space in the hope someone we’d want to know finds them wasn’t going to be a gamble?

Joe Double

Play Nice!

Whoever said having fun is more important than winning was not a game theorist. Game theorists are mathematicians who study games, and how to win them. But they aren’t just interested in Snakes and Ladders – game theory also involves studying ‘games’ like nuclear standoffs, trade wars and even the competition of species as they evolve.

New research from the Institute of Science and Technology in Austria (http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0277-x) might help us to use game theory for environmental good. Their findings look at perhaps the single most important problem we face in looking after the environment – ‘the tragedy of the commons’.

The tragedy of the commons plays out all around us, and relates to situations where everybody stands to benefit from damaging a useful shared resource. Everybody in the office exploits the ‘commons’ of the biscuit tin by taking a biscuit, but nobody can be bothered to go out and buy a new packet to keep the tin full. Eventually, the tin is empty, and everyone has to endure life without biscuits whilst someone looks for more. Such pointless suffering could have been avoided if only someone had acted sooner!

In a more serious setting, the tragedy of the commons can lead to catastrophic results. Take deforestation – the shrinking of the world’s forests as we use trees faster than they can grow back. It is in the individual interests of each logging company to spend all their time chopping down trees (which makes them money) and to waste none of it replanting them (which doesn’t). At least, in the short term. But over time, this clearly won’t work – the ‘commons’ of the world’s forests will be so damaged that everyone will lose out. Bad news for all you atmosphere fans out there.

The new research uses game theory to study the tragedy of the commons, to try and understand what we can do to prevent it. To stick with the logging example, the researchers treat logging companies as players competing in a series of very simple games, over and over, learning each other’s tactics. Each game is just a matter of choosing one of two options: Chop down trees without bothering to replant them, or take the time to replant them as well. Each time the choice is made, the company gets a reward depending on what they picked; they will get a bigger reward if they don’t use any of their time replanting. It looks like companies that are perfectly happy to drop-kick Dr Seuss’ orange defender-of-the-trees, the Lorax, are going to do better than their greener rivals.

At least, initially. The key to the new research is that in it, the games that have already been played affect the rewards up for grabs in the next game. If you keep choosing not to replant trees, then you may do better than your opponents in each game, but you’ll gradually make the rewards smaller and smaller as you start to run out of trees to cut down. So, you can’t just think about the profits to be won in today’s game – you have to think about what you’ll be playing for in tomorrow’s game too.

The researchers found that this makes a big difference to how companies will play. If previous games made no difference to the current game, then companies which don’t replant trees would do better than their replanting rivals. But, given that failing to replant the trees you cut down means worse prizes in the future, the companies which do replant end up doing a lot better than those that don’t bother. In other words, it pays to play nice.

The one catch to this is that the prizes have to get significantly worse when you choose not to replant. So, in practical terms, these findings suggest ways to make the ‘game’ of logging less environmentally devastating – by changing the rules. For instance, governments could pass laws which force any companies failing to replant trees to pay an increased tax on any future trees they cut down (or maybe pay for the Lorax’s extensive pension plan). This makes logging more like the game the researchers studied, where past choices quickly and significantly affect future rewards. So based on the researchers’ findings, such a law would make sure that doing the right thing and replanting trees is the better choice.

Yes, game theory is about winning. But by figuring out which rules reward the sort of people who go out and buy more biscuits for the tin, we can make sure the ‘winning tactic’ for the world’s most dangerous games is to play nice.

Joe Double

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