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When Google Doodles Scientists

13 Jan

Ever since 1998, Google has been brightening up its homepage with “Google doodles”, playfully customised logos which celebrate a current event or the birthday of a famous person. The first ever doodle was created when the Google founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, attended the Burning Man festival and wanted to let Google users know that they were “out of office”.

Since then, the Google doodle has become a bit of a pop culture phenomenon. There have now been over 1,000 doodles, celebrating events ranging from the anniversary of the ice cream sundae to Freddie Mercury’s 65th Birthday (this one needs to be seen!).

A couple days ago, being the geek that I am, I got quite excited by a science-themed doodle – a strati-tastic version of the Google logo in celebration of Nicolas Steno, an important figure in modern geology.

So, noticing that Google keeps an archive of all of its doodles, I thought I’d find out which other scientists had been honoured by Google’s creative bods. Turns out there’s quite a lot… Continue reading

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The Myth of the 27 Club

30 Dec

A few months ago, I turned 27. Had I been a famous musician, I may well have dreaded this moment and gone into hibernation for a year, because 27 is the age of the rock star death.

The membership list of the ’27 Club’ – those musicians who met an untimely end at the age of 27 – reads like a Who’s Who of influential rock stars: Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones…and so the list goes on. A rather morbid website dedicated to the phenomenon names many more, and this year saw the addition of another high-profile member: Amy Winehouse, who tragically died last July from alcohol poisoning.

Three members of the '27 Club' (l-r): Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse

So why do so many musicians seem to crash and burn at the age of 27? Is it all just a spooky coincidence, or do rock star deaths really group around this fabled age? A team of statisticians in Germany and Australia recently set out to solve the mystery of the 27 Club once and for all. Continue reading

Making Shapes: math-art by Gemma Anderson

5 Nov

The worlds of maths and art rarely collide, but when they do, the results can be intriguing. The artist and printmaker Gemma Anderson has recently begun one such collaboration with mathematicians at London’s Imperial College who are working on a ‘periodic table of shapes’.

Gemma Anderson’s model of a rhombic dodecahedron

Just as with the famous periodic table in chemistry, the mathematicians are searching for the building blocks, or ‘elements’, of the shape world. These are shapes that cannot be divided any further, named ‘Fano varieties’ after the Italian mathematician Gino Fano. They’re the prime numbers of geometry – the purest of shapes. Continue reading

What are words when I love you like math?

26 May

Slam poet Chad Anderson performing one of his most requested poems – a mathematical ode to his favourite lady:

The king of maths documentaries

17 May

Back in 1997, Simon Singh – science writer extraordinaire and occasional Uncaged Monkey – directed a documentary about Fermat’s Last Theorem that went on to win the ‘Best Documentary’ award at the BAFTAs and an Emmy Award nomination in the States.

The documentary tells the story of the British mathematician Andrew Wiles, who devoted the best part of 10 years of his life to solving this theorem and fulfilling his childhood dream. One particularly moving passage sees Wiles on the verge of tears as he recounts the moment that the proof finally clicked:

For those who are yet to be acquainted with Monsieur Fermat (rhymes with ‘grandma’, not ‘cat’), he was a French lawyer and mathematician who lived during the 17th century. Although Fermat did a lot of other very useful maths during his lifetime, his most enduring legacy is his ‘Last Theorem’, which states that no three positive integers a, b, and c can satisfy the equation an + bn = cn for any integer value of n greater than two.

This means that there are solutions for a2b2c2 (otherwise known as Pythagoras’ theorem, that stalwart of GCSE maths), but that there are no solutions for a3b3c3, or a4b4c4, or a5b5c5, and so on until infinity. The theorem itself is therefore remarkably simple – the proof less so. Scribbling in the margin of one of his textbooks, Fermat claimed that he had found the proof but that it was too lengthy to write down, unwittingly banishing his theorem to the Dingy Dungeons of Unsolved Problems.

Andrew Wiles presenting his proof of Fermat's Last Theorem during a lecture in 1993

Andrew Wiles’ proof came 358 years after the theorem was first conjectured by Fermat. Interestingly, because Wiles used mathematical techniques developed in the 20th century, his proof must have been different from that of Fermat. In fact, most mathematicians today doubt that Fermat had a full proof of his theorem (i.e. for all values of n).

The story of Wiles, his colleagues, and their relentless drive to understand one of math’s greatest mysteries is worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster, encompassing heroes, rivals, treasure, a suicide, and plenty of (non-evil) geniuses. The full 45-minute documentary can be viewed online here, and if anyone knows of any equally awesome maths-themed documentaries/books out there, I’m all ears!

[Watch] Fermat’s Last Theorem (1997 documentary)

Book review: Logicomix

2 Apr

Logicomix is a Greek book which charts the history of mathematical logic during the 19th and 20th centuries. Although this prospect may sound as enticing as a piranha pedicure, please bear with me – for this is no ordinary book about maths. There’s mystery! There’s suspense! There’s even some romance!

Logicomix has two key features which helped to propel it towards the summit of bestseller charts when it was released in 2009. Firstly, the history of logic is recounted as an enthralling tale about the men who devoted themselves to this mathematical quest. Secondly, the story is presented in a beautifully-drawn comic book form – think Tintin if he swapped his dog for an abacus.

The comic’s superhero is Bertrand Russell: philosopher, logician and all-round superbrain, whose speech to an American university in 1939 acts as the story’s backbone. Beginning with his early life at Pembroke Lodge, Russell describes his own mathematical journey and the great minds that he meets along the way.

Bertrand Russell’s Eureka moment…discovering a paradox in set theory

Logicomix works well both as a general history of logic and as a stand-alone tale about the lives of some extraordinary men: this is not just a book for mathematicians. Logic is a complex subject, and the authors do their best to make it accessible to the uninitiated reader. This was the first time I’d come across a lot of these concepts (e.g. set theory and Russell’s paradox), but the lucid illustrations helped a great deal. The book also takes regular breathers from the main storyline to illustrate discussions between the authors, Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou.

A recurring theme throughout Logicomix is the apparent connection between logic and madness, not the first time that this has been noticed:

“It cannot be a complete coincidence that several outstanding logicians of the twentieth century found shelter in asylums at some time in their lives: Cantor, Zermelo, Gödel, Peano, and Post are some.” (Gian-Carlo Rota, Italian mathematician)

Among these, Cantor and Gödel play a central role in Logicomix. Georg Cantor suffered from chronic depression and spent much of his later life in sanatoriums, and Kurt Gödel died from starvation due to an obsessive fear of being poisoned. Bertrand Russell himself was no stranger to mental instability: he revealed in his autobiography that a lonely adolescence led to him to contemplate suicide and, later in life, his eldest son was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Russell and Hyde

It’s this moving, challenging theme that gives Logicomix it’s depth and leaves a lasting impression. It was touching to read about the actual mathematicians responsible for the proofs and equations; their trials, successes, and seemingly endless thirst for mathematical truth. I heartily recommend Logicomix to anyone who has a passing interest in maths but is discouraged by dusty textbooks and chalky blackboards.

A slice of musical π

21 Mar

I’m a bit late to the party here (Pi Day was last Monday), but I only just came across this video and it’s too lovely not to post.

Austin-based musician Michael John Blake has recorded a musical homage to everyone’s favourite mathematical constant by assigning a number to each note of the scale and playing π (to 31 decimal places). Although the video’s been taken down from YouTube (due to a copyright claim!), it’s still available to watch via New Scientist:

It starts off quite sparsely, but by the 2:30 mark it’s morphed into a pocket symphony that Sufjan Stevens would be proud of. Next up: a dubstep version of the Planck constant?

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