It’s been a while since we had root around the collection of TED talks. Here’s one by Arthur Benjamin who seems to be more well known in the United States than he is here in the UK. If you want to emulate his tricks, then read his book with Michael Shermer, Think Like A Maths Genius. (Which, incidentally, had me in two minds about calling my own book How To Think Like a Mathematician but plans for my book were too far advanced for me to...

## Alan Turing programme (and Maths Jam)...

posted by Kevin Houston

Today will see the first MathsJam in Leeds, have a look at the MathsJam website if you want to know more about the concept. The event tonight will be at Dock Street Market on Dock Street in Leeds at 7pm. Anyhow, last night there was a documentary on Channel 4 on Alan Turing. You can watch it on their website by clicking here. My hopes were not high when the programme was introduced as a drama-documentary as I often find that the two don’t mix well. However, it worked very well in this case with the drama part mostly being conversations between Turing and a psychiatrist, Dr Franz Greenbaum. One aspect that particularly pleased me was that Turing’s paper on morphogenesis was discussed in more than passing detail. Quite often this seminal paper on how reaction-diffusion processes could explain stripes and other patterns in animals is overlooked in favour of the computing papers. This is understandable, the effect of computers in our lives has been far greater and besides the paper was probably too far ahead of its time. Only recently have mathematicians and biologists really begun to understand the ideas and even then the process is only a possible explanation of biological patterns. It has never been proved that this is what is really happening. The original paper, The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis, A. M. Turing, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, Vol. 237, No. 641. (Aug. 14, 1952), pp. 37-72, can be found at the JSTOR...

## The smallest uninteresting number...

posted by Kevin Houston

No posts last week as I was suffering from flu-like symptoms. Seems to have left me with a cough. You know, I should really write a few back-up posts in case of just this type of situation. Anyhow, I was surprised and pleased to see a bit of maths on QI, the quiz show where the idea is to be interesting rather than right. Stephen Fry asked the panel what the smallest uninteresting number was. Sandi Toksvig spotted that there could be no such thing: if there was, then the number would be interesting for the reason that it was the smallest uninteresting number. Provided you live a region that allows iPlayer access, the following link will for the next few days take you to the place in the programme: http://www.bbc.co.uk/i/b017grcc/?t=27m19s If you are unable to watch, then the definition they use for smallest uninteresting number is the smallest integer that does not appear in the The On-Line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences. The number turns out to be 12407. Of course, if you are reading this in the future, the number may be different as someone may have found a use for 12407 in a sequence. During the programme, Stephen Fry relates the story of 1729. The clip is worth watching for the audience’s reaction to the story. At this point Alan Davies mentions that he feels like Homer Simpson. A better comparison would have been Philip J. Fry, the lead character in the Simpson’s follow-up, Futurama. As the head writer had a PhD in maths Futurama contains many maths jokes and features several references to 1729. Eg, Zapp Brannigan’s ship has 1729 on it and Bender, the robot, is son number 1729 as can be seen in this picture I’ve shamelessly lifted from...

## 500 Billion Words

posted by Kevin Houston

I haven’t linked to a TED video in a while so here is a very interesting one that is not very mathematical but I’m sure is of interest to mathematicians – even if it tells us that mathematics does not lead to fame. Of particular interest is one of the speakers, Erez Lieberman Aiden, who will be familiar to reader of Cal Newport’s Study Hacks Blog as he has written about him here and here. If you don’t have time to read those (and if you are a student I strongly suggest that you do), then the short story is that Lieberman Aiden has published only six papers but has had an enormous impact because they have been good papers. And I mean good. All have been in Science or Nature and two have been cover articles. The talk in the video is about one of those, the hunt for cultural shifts using the data from Google’s controversial book digitization programme. You can read about it here in the New York Times. Unusually for TED the talk is a two-hander with Lieberman Aiden sharing the stage with Jean-Baptiste Michel. You’ve got to feel a bit sorry for Michel. He’s obviously a smart guy – he holds a post-doc position at Harvard and is a Visiting Fellow at Google – and yet is overshadowed in the media’s reception of the...