Caterpillars see using their skin

Possibly my favourite science story of 2019 – scientists at the University of Liverpool conduct 3 experiments to show that caterpillars of the peppered moth see using their skin. Live interview with BBC Radio Oxford.

Image credit: Arjen van’t Hof, University of Liverpool

LMS Holgate Lecturer

Very happy to announce my appointment as a Holgate Lecturer with the London Mathematical Society (LMS). The position means that the LMS are supporting my outreach work for the next 4 years so all you have to do if you want me to come and give a talk/run a workshop at your school is to get in touch here.

You can find out more about the details of the scheme on the LMS website – and make sure you check out the other amazing speakers.

If you’re not already excited about the prospect of Tom Rocks Maths coming to your school then here are some examples sessions to really get you in the mood for some maths!

1. Maths v Sport (Y9 onwards)
How do you take the perfect penalty? What is the limit of human endurance? Where is the best place to attempt a world record? Maths has all of the answers and I’ll be telling you how to use it to be better at sport (results may vary).

2. Maths: it’s all Greek to me! (Y9 onwards)
You’ve probably heard of Pythagoras, Archimedes and Plato, but do you know the sins behind their stories? From murder and deceit to running naked down the street, the Ancient Greek mathematicians were anything but boring. I’ll be telling you all about their mischief – mathematical or otherwise – as I bring the history of maths to life (featuring live experiments and togas).

3. The Millennium Problems (Y10 onwards)
The seven greatest unsolved problems in mathematics, each worth a cool $1 million… In this session I’ll introduce each of the puzzles in turn and try to give you a feel for the maths that you’ll need to know if you’re planning to take one of them on.

4. Navier-Stokes Stripped (Y12 onwards)
The Navier-Stokes equations model the flow of every fluid on Earth, but yet we know very little about them. So little in fact, there is currently a $1 million prize for anyone that can help to improve our understanding of how these fascinating equations work. In this session, I’ll strip back the Navier-Stokes equations layer-by-layer to make them understandable for all… Based on my hit YouTube series ‘Equations Stripped’.

5. How to make everything about maths (Teachers)
Since completing my PhD, I have transitioned from maths researcher to maths communicator with the launch of my outreach programme ‘Tom Rocks Maths’. In this session I will discuss the most successful ways to increase engagement with maths through examples from my work with the BBC, the Naked Scientists, and from my YouTube channelwebsite and social media pages @tomrocksmaths.

Spring into action and get ahead of the competition

Wherever we look in the world, we see competition between different groups or beings. Whether it’s two animals trying to earn the right to a watering hole, people trying to assert their social influence, or simply two sports teams playing against each other, this sort of interaction appears in many different situations. As humans, we have a natural desire to rank things that are in direct competition: which is better? Who would win if they faced each other? How does their rivalry compare to others?

We want to know the answers to these questions because it makes us enjoy the competition more, and we feel that we learn more about it. Imagine being able to correctly predict who would win every football match for the rest of the season, you’d probably feel pretty pleased with yourself… But, apart from the inevitable bragging rights, being able to rank competing entities and predict outcomes is an extremely useful skill in many different areas of research, including sociology, economics and ecology.

Of course, you need a bit of maths if you’re going to rank things reliably; you can’t just trust a hunch! There are many different methods that have been used before for rankings, but a group of scientists at the Santa Fe Institute in the USA have come up with a new way of doing it using springs!

So, the ranking system is… a trampoline?! Not exactly. This ingenious method, called SpringRank, treats each interaction as a physical spring, so the model is a whole system of connected springs. Think of a football league: between each pair of teams there is a spring in each direction, and the force of each spring is determined by how many times they have beaten each other in the past. For example, Manchester United have played Liverpool 200 times, winning 80 matches and losing 65. In our spring system, this means that the spring connecting the two teams is biased towards Manchester United – it requires more force to move closer to Liverpool than it does to move towards Manchester United. With this setup, it turns out that the best ranking of the teams is found when you make the total energy in all of the springs as low as possible.

But why use springs? The bonus is that we’ve been studying springs for hundreds of years and so we know the physics behind how they work, which makes it easy to do the calculations. We can use the positions of the springs to work out the rankings of millions of different teams in just seconds! Not only is the maths simple, but it’s also very effective, especially compared to other methods currently used for ranking. In tests run by the researchers, SpringRank performed much better at ranking competitors, as well as predicting the outcomes of future clashes, than existing methods. The data set covered topics as varied as animal behaviour, faculty hiring and social support networks, demonstrating just how versatile the method can be.

This research is a wonderful example of how different areas of science can be combined to create a tool that can actually be put to use in the real world. When learning the subjects separately at school, it’s hard to imagine that you could take centuries-old ideas from physics, turn them into mathematical models, and stick them into a computer program! But here we are, able to work out who is likely to become friends (and enemies), which animals will make it through the heatwave, and whether it’s worth bragging about your favourite team before the game has even happened. So next time you’re challenged to guess the league winner, reach for SpringRank and jump ahead of the competition!

Kai Laddiman

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