Posts Tagged 'Social attitudes'

The Rise and Rise of Women in Mathematics

Sonya-Kovalevskaya

Sonya Kovalevskya (1850-1891)

The influential collection of biographical essays by Eric Temple Bell, Men of Mathematics, was published in 1937. It covered the lives of about forty mathematicians, from ancient times to the beginning of the twentieth century. The book inspired many boys to become mathematicians. However, it seems unlikely that it inspired many girls: the only woman to get more than a passing mention was Sofia Kovalevskaya, a brilliant Russian mathematician and the first woman to obtain a doctorate in mathematics [TM163 or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

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Face Recognition

As you pass through an airport, you are photographed several times by security systems. Face recognition systems can identify you by comparing your digital image to faces stored in a database. This form of identification is gaining popularity, allowing you to access online banking without a PIN or password.  [see TM146, or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

Face-Detection

Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, answering a question. Face detection indicated by squares.

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The Citizens’ Assembly: Why do 10 Counties have no Members?

Recently, the Irish Government established the Citizens’ Assembly, a body of 99 citizens that will consider a number of constitutional issues. The Assembly meets on Saturday to continue its deliberations on the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which concerns the ban on abortion. It will report to the Oireachtas (Parliament) on this issue in June [TM106 or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

citizensassembly-logo

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The Mathematics of Voting

Selection of leaders by voting has a history reaching back to the Athenian democracy. Elections are essentially arithmetical exercises, but they involve more than simple counting, and have some subtle mathematical aspects [TM085, or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

Rock-Paper-Scissors

Rock-paper-scissors, a zero-sum game. There is a cyclic relationship: rock beats paper, paper beats scissors and scissors beats rock [Image: Wikimedia Commons].

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You Can Do Maths

Bragging about mathematical ineptitude is not cool. There is nothing admirable about ignorance and incompetence. Moreover, everyone thinks mathematically all the time, even if they are not aware of it. Can we all do maths? Yes, we can!  [See this week’s That’s Maths column (TM064) or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

Topological map of the London Underground network

When you use a map of the underground network, you are doing topology.

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Invention or Discovery?

Is mathematics invented or discovered? As many great mathematicians have considered this question without fully resolving it, there is little likelihood that I can provide a complete answer here. But let me pose a possible answer in the form of a conjecture:

        Conjecture: Definitions are invented. Theorems are discovered.

The goal is to prove this conjecture, or to refute it. Below, some arguments in support of the conjecture are presented. Continue reading ‘Invention or Discovery?’

Beauty is the First Test

This week, That’s Maths in The Irish Times (TM048: Search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com) is about the beauty of mathematics.

Indra's Indigo, detail of a  patchwork quilt by accomplished textile artist Janice Gunner.

Indra’s Indigo, detail of patchwork quilt by textile artist Janice Gunner.

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The Future of Society: Prosperity or Collapse?

The article in this week’s That’s Maths column in the Irish Times ( TM045 ) is about a mathematical model to simulate the future of society.

 Our extravagant lifestyle is draining the Earth’s natural resources. Population is climbing and climate change looms ever larger. Is the collapse of society imminent?

The historical precedents are ominous. Many civilizations have ended abruptly with drastic population reductions and centuries of oblivion. The fall of the Roman, Han, Mayan and Gupta Empires show that advanced and sophisticated civilisations can be fragile and impermanent. There are many causes, but over-consumption of resources and inequalities within society are primary.

Quo-Vadimus

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Population Projections

The Population Division of the United Nations marked 31 October 2011 as the “Day of Seven Billion”. While that was a publicity gambit, world population is now above this figure and climbing. The global ecosystem is seriously stressed, and climate change is greatly aggravated by the expanding population. Accurate estimates of growth are essential for assessing our future well-being. This week, That’s Maths in The Irish Times ( TM034  ) is about population growth over this century. Continue reading ‘Population Projections’

The Two Cultures

The Two Cultures

Of course I’ve heard of Beethoven, but who is this guy Gauss?

The “Two Cultures”, introduced by the British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow in an influential Rede Lecture in 1959, are still relevant.

Ludwig von Beethoven and Carl Friedrich Gauss were at the height of their creativity in the early nineteenth century. Beethoven’s music, often of great subtlety and intricacy, is accessible even to those of us with limited knowledge and understanding of it. Gauss, the master of mathematicians, produced results of singular genius, great utility and deep aesthetic appeal. But, although the brilliance and beauty of his work is recognized and admired by experts, it is hidden from most of us, requiring much background knowledge and technical facility for its true appreciation.

There is a stark contrast here. There are many parallels between music and mathematics: both are concerned with structure, symmetry and pattern, but music is accessible to all while maths presents greater obstacles. Perhaps it’s a left versus right brain issue. Music gets into the soul on a high-speed emotional autobahn, while maths has to follow a rational, step-by-step route. Music has instant appeal; maths takes time.

It is regrettable that public attitudes to mathematics are predominantly unsympathetic. The beauty of maths can be difficult to appreciate, and its significance in our lives is often underestimated. But mathematics is an essential thread in the fabric of modern society. We all benefit from the power of maths to model our world and enable technological advances. It is arguable that the work of Gauss has a greater impact on our daily lives than the magnificent creations of Beethoven.


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