Category Archives: Factoids

Camera shoots ray of light in slow motion

MIT 1, Universe 0!

Watch here:


The day Einstein died

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Group theory in simple English

Are you sick of academese? Or maybe your field really is so hard that the thought of explaining your research to your grandma has never even crossed your mind? Now you have a chance to explain a hard idea (e.g., your research topic) in simple words – in fact, with only the 1,000 most used words! A friend who is a group theorist has just made group theory sound awesomely simple: 

A group is a set of things with a way of putting two things together to get another thing. One type of group is all the ways of moving three things in space to a different place, and in fact if space was “bigger” we could get a bigger group by having more things to move. If we only do some but not all of these moves we can get a smaller group, but sometimes this will only be a little bit smaller than the group that we started with. I am interested in trying to find all of these slightly smaller groups in the situation where we are trying to move ten add six or ten add seven things.

And here is a longer explanation of Hilbert’s Hotel:

The House of Mr Hilbert:
Suppose that you are a person who has a big house where other people can give you money in order to come and live in a room for a short time. (click here to read the rest) …

Try it out here and post the results in the comments!

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UK women academics in 1974

This page and every sentence in it wins the prize for most depressing work-related reading of the month. I keep realising that I must have grown up on a different planet. I really hadn’t realised how recently things were shockingly horrible in what we in the East thought of as the enlightened Western Europe. For all the ills in the socialis bloc, at least scientists and engineers were, and still are, equally divided by gender… (See e.g. The chart on P.21  of this 2012 report on gender in science in the EU)

Excerpt from “The academic labour market” edited by Gareth Williams, Tessa Blackstone and David Metcalf, Elsevier, 1974 

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Women scientists in history

A scary timeline of female education:

And some of the very few women scientists in the otherwise enlightened Europe:

Beatriz Galindo (1465?-1534), Spanish Latinist, writer, humanist and teacher of Queen Isabella of Castille and her children

Juliana Morell (16 February 1594 – 26 June 1653) Spanish nun, first woman to receive a Doctor of Laws degree

Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia (1646 – 1684)Venetian philosopher who also studied mathematics, first woman to receive a doctoral degree from a university (Padua)

Laura Maria Caterina Bassi (1711 – 1778): the first woman in the world to earn a university chair in a scientific field of studies. The third woman to receive a PhD from a European university (Bologna, 1732). The first woman to earn an official teaching position, and the first female physics professor at a European university. In 1776, at the age of 65, Bassi was appointed to the chair in experimental physics by the Bologna Institute of Sciences, with her husband as a teaching assistant.

Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718 – 1799). First woman to write a mathematics handbook and the first woman appointed as a Mathematics Professor at a University

Stefania Wolicka (1851 – after 1895) – polish historian. Not a mathematician, but the first woman to earn a PhD in the modern era
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Why aren’t graduates called Spinsters of Arts/Sciences?

Reading a book* about higher education. Found an interesting quote in the historical background section. So this is why university graduates today are called BA/BSc (Bachelors of Arts/Sciences). Duh!

“…Next came the bachelors, who were advanced students and were allowed to lecture and dispute under supervision. They corresponded to and derived their names from the journeymen or bachelors, who worked for a daily wage and had not sufficient maturity to establish themselves in the trade. (Hence they were still unmarried). At the top of the profession was the master, a rank common to both universities and guilds. He was a man who had demonstrated both his skill and maturity to the satisfaction of his fellow masters. Entrance to this stage was gained after elaborate examinations, exercises in the techniques of teaching, and ceremonial investiture. Admission fell exclusively under the jurisdiction of the other full members of the university…. The three titles, master, doctor, professor, were in the Middle Ages absolutely synonymous.”

I am not the kind of feminist who would nitpick about terminology. I’m quite happy to keep words along with their historical baggage even if it’s a history of unequality (what history ISN’T a history of inequality?), as long as we are aware of what the baggage means. Much better than opening future gates to new inequalities by erasing all trace of nasty legacies today … So, I feel even better informed about the patriarchal basis of my education (and that of my ‘research subjects’. the mathematicians) now!

Burton R. Clark 1983, The Higher Education System: Academic Organization in Cross-national Perspective, P.47 citing Baldwin and Goldwaite, eds, Universities in Politics, pp.8, 19


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Math awareness month

Mathematics Awareness Month (in the USA) is held each year in April, ever since 1986. Here is more:

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:

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)'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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