What do zombies have to do with maths?

UK maths educators are going more and more overboard in their attempts to make maths popular with young people.  Consider this Halloween special by the Oxford Science blog:

Or maybe I’m just too old to understand what the hype with zombies is all about. More pure human maths for me, please.

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Why do (male) academics dress badly, and what about the women?

When I first began to move to and fro between the Social Studies and Maths and Computer Science buildings on campus, and attending various events in both (and occasionally in the hyper-fashionable Arts Faculty), I couldn’t help but notice a relieving and liberating feature of departmental life which is rather different in those different departments: fashion. Going to Maths suddenly meant I was suddenly among others who seemed to think it was ok to wear whatever they are comfortable in. It has also been nice to not have to notice what my interlocutor is wearing (or feeling obliged to pass the usual compliments about their cool new jumper or dress, or feeling rude when forgetting to do so). Fieldwork didn’t quite change the way I myself dressed – but it did made me more likely to wear the more comfortable clothes more often, compared to the slightly more complicated outfits.

However, the interesting point here is that this is a warning sign to never take my own fieldwork judgements at face value. I am clearly in the minority with my reduced appreciation or understanding of fashion, and as anything unreflected, this might cause problems.  I have since come across a number of articles (in newspapers, so far no serious research) bemoaning the state of academic dress and comparing (unfavourably for the sciences) across departments (like this recent one  by Jonathan Wolff in the Guardian), or this one expressing sheer personal anxiety about what to wear at a large anthropology conference by Carole McGranahan et al. There are also advice articles to women working in academia by Francesca Stavrakopoulou. The author refuses “to wear the male uniform” because:

“… a male academic can afford to look scruffy if he chooses: no one will question his intellectual or professional authority. Male academics who wear jeans, hoodies and t-shirts are “lads” to their students, and “good blokes” to their colleagues. Older men who wear scuffed shoes and a fraying tweed jacket, accidentally accessorized with a splodge of egg yolk down their tie, are “eccentric” or “distractedly intellectual”.  But a female academic who looks similarly casual, or scruffy, or unkempt, risks becoming the target of a range of sexist assumptions: she must be a student, or a mother distracted from the job by childcare, or a woman too old to need to bother about her appearance.”

I have to say, I have often been mistaken for a student. But it never occurred to me to think of this as a bad thing, because, well, I do look and feel like one. And because looking like a student is less effort, ergo it leaves more spare energy for work – just like Jonathan Wolff writes, “There we have it. Academics dress badly because we are so fulfilled in our work.” I actually think we are all students of our subjects, although perhaps others prefer to call themselves “academics”. It is helpful for getting to things for free, too, sometimes. Perhaps I’m not well suited to understand the fashion, or social science point of view of things, but as long as I remember that not everyone agrees with me and pay attention to the majority who don’t – for example, already several of my female interviewees in the mathematical sciences find fashion important and find it annoying that they aren’t “taken seriously” when dressed as they like –  it should be ok…

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Maths, active learning and metacognition

An interesting article about a new book which explains how we learn to learn, and how to teach students how to think: “Critical Maths for Innovative Societies: The Role of Metacognitive Pedagogies”.

“College professors often point out that their students never learnt how to learn. Derek Cabrera was surprised to find that even the “cream of the crop of our education system” was not good at dealing with novel problems in unstructured assignments. As PISA shows, across OECD countries, about one in five students is able to solve only straightforward problems – if any – provided that they refer to familiar situations. Too often, we teach students what to think but not how to think.

Yet, there is an engine we can use for that and it is called metacognition, which means “thinking about your thinking”, and regulating it. Metacognitive pedagogies improve academic achievement: content knowledge and understanding, and the ability to handle routine and unfamiliar problems. And they also boost affective outcomes, reducing anxiety and improving motivation. Struggling students greatly benefit from these pedagogies, but not at the expense of higher achievers.

Metacognition is about taking ownership of your learning and maximising it. “It turns you from being a consumer of learning to being a researcher, a co-producer, an explorer and that’s a much more exciting, exhilarating world. You discover how to learn better” Stephen Heppell argues. He also points out that metacognition makes students “do 20% better – you get an extra Friday every week”.”

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Hitler becomes a maths supervisor

P.S. This video, created by some very observant maths undergraduate, develops an already established tradition of video spoofs based on Bruno Ganz’s earth-shattering performance in the German historical film “The Downfall”.  The video surfaced on the Internetz late yesterday night and caused uncontrollable midnight laughter in our sociological-mathematical household (and, I’m told, not only in ours). Not everyday I come across such superb fieldwork materials! I have no clue how to use it in research, though, so for now I will just keep laughing, if you excuse me.

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Fieldwork and fresher’s flu

Looks like there’s been a long break on this blog. As usual, this was because I was doing research instead of blogging, but also because of the damned highlight of each year’s October: fresher’s flu. I’ve just got its 4th round.  While I’m battling the flu and having to avoid interviews for another week or two, check out the next post for some NSFW maths to entertain those who have stumbled upon this blog. You are not alone!

UFO at TU

“You are not alone!” UFO stamp at TU Berlin, spotted in August 2014.

Invisibility cloak unveiled!

Awful pun in the title, sorry! So here is the news. Scientists at Rochester have invented – well, not quite invented, but significantly improved over old versions – a device which works as an invisibility cloak. The new approach not only results in better concealment of the object, but can also use cheaper materials. In fact, you can even make your own using 4 lenses! Read the full article (from which I took the Rochester cloak building instructions and the image below) here. If you or your university has a subscription to the OpticsInfoBase journal, you can read the mathematical basis of the cloak. I love the title of the paper. I bet they enjoyed writing it.

J. C. Howell, J. B. Howell, and J. S. Choi, “Amplitude-only, passive, broadband, optical spatial cloaking of very large objects,” Appl. Opt. 53, 1958-1963 (2014), URL: http://www.opticsinfobase.org/ao/abstract.cfm?URI=ao-53-9-1958

lens diagram

  1. Purchase 2 sets of 2 lenses with different focal lengths f1 and f2 (4 lenses total, 2 with f1 focal length, and 2 with f2 focal length)
  2. Separate the first 2 lenses by the sum of their focal lengths (So f1 lens is the first lens, f2 is the 2nd lens, and they are separated by t1= f1+f2).
  3. Do the same in Step 2 for the other two lenses.
  4. Separate the two sets by t2=2 f2 (f1+ f2) / (f1 f2) apart, so that the two f2 lenses are t2 apart.

 

Earlier this year, scientists from the University of Central Florida made the news with the first large-scale invisibility cloaking device. Here is their paper in Advanced Optical Materials:

Li Gao, Youngmin Kim, Abraham Vazquez-Guardado, Kazuki Shigeta, Steven Hartanto, Daniel Franklin, Christopher J. Progler, Gregory R. Bogart, John A. Rogers, and Debashis Chanda, Negative Index Materials: Materials Selections and Growth Conditions for Large-Area, Multilayered, Visible Negative Index Metamaterials Formed by Nanotransfer Printing (Advanced Optical Materials 3/2014)http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/adom.201470019/abstract

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Potter_and_the_Philosopher's_Stone

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Crazy constructible polygons

Read on Prof Ian Stewart’s Twitter (@JoatStewart):

“Regular 618046320536701272583608037733434096317263320037227965361869850786715388113584129-gon is constructible with ruler compass & trisector

So is 756760676272923020551154471073240459834492063891235892290277703256956240171581788957704193-gon. 90-digit prime!

However, regular 11-gon is not constructible with ruler, compass, and angle-trisector. Next impossible cases 22, 23, 25, 29.

It gets crazier. Gleason conjectured there are infinitely many primes of form 2^c.3^d+1. About 9k with k digits or less”

 

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Edinburgh Scientist Fergus McInnes Missing [in Switzerland?]

An unusual and serious post.

Fergus McInnes, 51, scientist from the School of Informatics, Edinburgh University, is missing. He boarded a flight to go to a conference in Switzerland but did not check into his hotel, attend the conference, or board his return flight. He has not been seen or heard from since.

(read more)

If you have any information about Fergus McInnes’ whereabouts, please contact the police.

Why are Indians so good at code?

Cheryll Barron offers a historical explanation:

“Indian software aptitude rests on an unlikely pair of factors: an emphasis on learning by rote in Indian schools, and a facility and reverence for abstract thought. These biases of Indian education are all but mutually exclusive in the modern West, where a capacity for abstraction is closely associated with creativity and stimulating, inspirational learning. In India, learning by rote is seen by many, if not most conventional teachers, as essential grounding for creativity – like Picasso’s mastery of perspective and anatomy in his youth – and for unbounded invention and speculation.”

from: “The Indian genius

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A two-body problem (cryptic short story)

A friend wrote this short story on the two-body problem. It’s rather cryptic, but it is about love and maths…

 

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