500 Billion Words

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...

How to get a good degree: Go to Bed (and get up…)...

Judging by site stats my posts on getting a good degree are quite popular, so since this is the start of the academic year I’ll talk about one of the most important elements of getting a good degree. And this is an important one: Go to bed. Now, I know the student life is supposed to involve staying up late and partying and I have nothing against that in moderation. But if you want a good degree, then go to bed. Sleep is vital for humans. No-one knows why we do it. It seems strange and wasteful to spend about a third of our lives asleep when obviously we could be out enjoying life. What is known is that lack of sleep leads to poor health and poor concentration. And concentration is vital to getting a good degree. Hence, don’t stay up mindlessly watching TV (how many repeats of Friends or Two and Half Men do you need to see?), surfing the internet (the internet will still be there tomorrow and most of it’s rubbish) or texting friends (are your texts of an Oscar Wilde standard of repartee? No? Then cut out the late night lols and omgs). How to get up in the morning Of course, a bigger problem is getting out of bed in the morning. Students are stereotypically famous for not getting up. Current popular research suggests this is due to the hormones of young people and we shouldn’t try to fight it; the school day should start later. However, if you have a large number of those unpopular 9am lectures, then here are some simple tips on getting up: Take it easy: Try 15 minutes earlier for a few days. Next try an extra 15 minutes earlier and so on...

How to get a good maths degree...

I recently taught complex analysis to our second year students. One particular problem jumped out whilst marking the exam. One question was “Define the length of a contour.” This was only worth about 2 marks and the bulk of the students got it mostly right. My point is that students’ responses can tell us something about how they see mathematics and perhaps how they do mathematics. The main mistakes were 1. Not giving enough information. 2. Not being mathematical. 3. Giving the procedure. 4. Trying to memorize without understanding. Let’s deal with these in turn (the most important is number 4!). Number 1. Not giving enough information. A good answer to “Define the length of a contour” is “Suppose that is a contour. The length of the contour is .” Instead many students slapped down . They lost a mark because they didn’t tell me what , and were. This happens a lot, students focus on the equation and forget about the surrounding information. If I did not know the definition of a contour, then the equation doesn’t tell me enough. I wouldn’t know where the , and were coming from and their relevance. 2. Not being mathematical. Another problem with definitions in general, not just this one, is that students give a hand waving definition, e.g. “It’s the actual distance that the curve moves.” This is not very mathematical and would not help anyone understand length except in an intuitive way. (In this case you could probably guess from the name that length is to do with distance!) 3. Giving the procedure. Another very common mistake with definitions is confusing the definition with a procedure used to calculate the object defined. For example, “Define the order of a pole” is often incorrectly answered...

Study Hacks Blog

It is the dream of any student: work less but be more successful. However, this dream can be a reality according to Cal Newport’s philosophy. Actually, he isn’t saying that you shouldn’t work hard – he points out that successful people often work hard – he says that you shouldn’t work so hard that your life is miserable. You should be able study hard and enjoy life. His latest blog post is relevant to maths students and probably comes a bit late for my students about to do their exams. Maybe it will provide motivation for the next academic year: http://calnewport.com/blog/2011/04/28/on-becoming-a-math-whiz-my-advice-to-a-new-mit-student/ There’s plenty of other good stuff on his blog so have a good root around if you aren’t already familiar with his...