Category Archives: Links

Minesweeper is NP-complete

Remember that old game? I had it in my second computer, a windows 95. thanks to Facebook algorithms (and I don’t often say that), I just stumbled upon something fun: an article about the mathematics of minesweeper I had read back in 2011 when I wasn’t even researching mathematics! Enjoy: Minesweeper and NP-completeness.

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The two body problem (a bunch of articles I read today)

On The Two Body Problem, blogpost on Women in Astronomy

“We Met in Grad School” in the Chronicle, with loads of interesting reader comments

Blogpost about “Advising on the two body problem”

“”Solving” the two body problem”, at the blog Tenure, She Wrote

A happy “Two-Body Problem” story, for a change!

Unusual academic paths (“Alt” or “post” academics)

An (overly?) optimistic anthropological discussion of personal benefits such as broadening of horizons which occurs thanks to hypermobile lives: Liudmila Kirpitchenko, Academic hypermobility http cosmopolitan dispositions,Journal of Intercultural Communication, ISSN 1404-1634, issue 27, November 2011.

A more balanced anthropological discussion: Scott A Cohen and Stefan Gössling (2015) A darker side of hypermobility,Environment and Planning A 2015, volume 47,

(somewhat long and rambly) blogpost about alternative (non-academic) jobs for PhD graduates

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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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The trouble with being clever

in a very roundabout way, this article about the downsides of being clever is somewhat relevant to studying mathematicians… 

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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How much own money do scientists spend on research?

Dr. Edward Hind (independent researcher) and Dr. Brett Favaro (Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s NL) are conducting a survey to examine how much of their own personal money scientists spend on their research programs, and to compare these values across stage of career.

If you would also like to know how much of their own money scientists spend on research, spread the word. And if you are a scientist yourself (in any field or career stage, provided you have worked in the past 12 months), please contribute your experiences. Here is a link to the survey which will be open until 31 May, 2015:

Informed consent – #Scispends survey

What should we teach to liberal arts students who will take only one math course?

Interesting discussion about what and how much mathematics university students on liberal arts courses in the US should know on mathoverflow – here

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An important article by Paul Mason at The Guardian today:

Private schools know how to game elite universities – state-educated kids don’t have this privilege

The argument Mason makes is that school graduates in the UK make uninformed choices about university courses. The problem isn’t necessarily scarce information, quite the contrary:

“Other opinions are available of course – and that’s the problem. This year, a quarter of a million 16-year-olds will make their A-level choices relying on hearsay, myth and information that is outdated or uncheckable. Those choices will shape their options when it comes to university – and the courses they apply for will then shape their chances of getting in.”<\blockquote>

“Why should this matter to the majority of young people, who do not aspire to go to an elite university? And to the rest of society? First, because it is creating needless inequality of opportunity and is just the most obvious example of how poor access to informal knowledge penalises state school kids. Second, because in an economy set to be dominated by information and technology, those 15,000 people who can attempt further maths each year are the equivalent of Aztec gold for the conquistadores. Their intelligence will be the raw material of the third industrial revolution.

There is no reason – other than maintaining privilege – to avoid presenting subject and course choices clearly, logically and transparently. When the system fails bright kids from non-privileged backgrounds, we all lose.”<\blockquote>

Some possible solutions perhaps:

– Better (not necessarily more) online information accessible to all students; a publicly available depository of previous student experiences and statistics on post-A-level trajectories;

– The communication between universities and schools needs to be improved: on the one hand, both universities and schools complain that the other side does not understand their difficulties and poses unreasonable demands; yet on the other hand, both sides complain that the other side is not willing to engage more fully in communication. Where is the truth? Universities have outreach programmes, plenty of information on their websites – but perhaps not the right kind?
The STEM ambassadors initiative is great, but (a) there is a need for ambassadors not only from “STEM” jobs, and also, howeevr successful they are, it’s a charity and they aren’t reaching all the schoolchildren.

– Why is it that universities aren’t more involved in designing, redesigning, updating, A-level syllabuses and monitoring their teaching at 6th form? Is it because university staff are too busy, don’t care, because they have no clue about earlier pedagogy? Or because schools don’t want universities messing into school territory and for example shifting curricula too much towards high-achievers? All viable concerns, but surely a better balance can be found, with more productive involvement and less disruptive meddling of universities into schools! I have heard colleagues involved in admissions sigh that schools just don’t always teach the kids what they really need to know – not just for the entrance exam, but more importantly, for being able to thrive in university. Thinking skills, thinking outside the box, creative and disciplined and active learning… if this really is true, then it’s horrible for both schools and universities in the UK and something has to be done.

– It seems to me that University outreach initiatives such as “Widening Participation” need to be far better developed and embedded into university work. At present, university staff mostly don’t participate – and understandably so, since it is an additional task on top of their already high workloads, and there are already penalties for spending too much time on supervising students and preparing lecture materials if you neglect research and especially publishing. At the same time, there are increasing amounts of administration to be done (as all long-serving academics will confirm, the advent of computers has NOT decreased the amount of paperwork). There is a fundamental imbalance in the way staff are assessed and appraised for job purposes. For example teaching and other “good academic citizenship” behaviour such as administrative work or pastoral care are insufficiently rewarded, whilst research is rewarded – but only through publications in “4 or 5-star journals” (yes, that’s the actual term, I’m not making it up). In this context, when academics are already stretched to do more research, and cope with teaching and admin as much as they can, and most of them routinely work overtime to accomplish their research projects and/or plan lecturers, and/or finish marking – how can we even expect anyone but the young and idealistic academics (the ones most in need of a career boost) to even consider being involved in communication with schools?

– Would it make sense to bring back grammar schools? From the few grammar schools that still exist, it seems that it is a good model… here I must let experts talk, because I know precious little about the UK secondary education system and my impression is largely anecdotal.

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