Hannah Fry: Is life really that complex?...

Mathematics talks at TED are rather rare so I was keen to link a recent talk from TEDxUCl by Hannah Fry which was about the applications of mathematics to complex problems such as human behaviour. After watching it I hummed and hawed. On the one hand this is a very well presented and explained talk (and this is even more impressive as the speaker is a fairly newly-minted PhD). On the other hand, it doesn’t feature much maths and crucially, for me at least, I wasn’t sure that anything has been proved. It wasn’t clear to me that any models have been developed. The wording at the end is fairly vague. Saying “Once we have done this…” leaves open the possibility that it has not been done yet. She also says “we can almost begin to talk about…” which is again too vague. Anyhow, in the end I decided to link to it. It’s only 10 minutes long and does give you some idea where things are headed. The end of the talk is mostly about predicting crime, something I looked into a few years ago when a local policeman contacted the School of Maths for help after watching the TV programme Numbers about a crime fighting mathematician. Unfortunately I was unable to help him with his enquiries as at the time the mathematical models for crime prevention and detection were very poor. The current video sort of claims they have been improved. I...

The origin of x in maths...

I’m still wrestling with the fallout from marking exams. Despite this, I found time to watch a short TED video posted recently that features Terry Moore explaining why x is used as an unknown in mathematics. Watch the video – only 4 minutes – or jump to the spoilers below if you want to know more. The main idea is that the we use x because the Spanish used (chi) as the first sound of the Arabic word for “something” because they couldn’t say the correct “sh” sound. I recollect a similar argument made somewhere else with slightly different details, though, sadly, I cannot remember them precisely, nor their location. I was unable to track down references at the time to verify this argument and so dismissed it as a Just So Story. Since it has resurfaced it would be interesting to see evidence. Does anyone know of any? My reason for asking is that I’ve spent the last few years learning about Greek mathematics and I am interested in how it has been transmitted to us via the Arabic scholars and scientists. So far I’ve only read the popular accounts, Science and Islam: A History by Ehsan Masood and Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science by Jim Al-Khalili. The latter is good but spends the first few chapters explaining the history of Islam and various empires. Furthermore, one of the first bits, maybe the first bit, of science to be explained in depth is Eratosthenes’ measurement of the Earth, i.e., a high point of Hellenistic science. Obviously providing a context is important in a book but I still feel as though I don’t know much about the science from the Arabic world between the end of the Greek era and the beginning...

William Noel at TED on the Archimedes Codex...

Regular readers will know that I’m interested in the history of mathematics and am a fan of Archimedes. Well, here’s another video on the Archimedes Codex, this time by William Noel at TED rather than one by his coauthor, Reviel...

Mathematics of History...

I teach a course on the History of Mathematics but today’s post concerns a TED talk on the Mathematics of History. This very short talk by Jean-Baptiste Michel serves as a follow up to the one given with Erez Lieberman Aiden on What we learned from 5 million books. The idea is that we can use mathematics to understand history. Unfortunately, the talk is too short to develop a coherent argument and the examples given are not exactly new so I’m not yet convinced that they have something. It should be interesting to see whether this develops...

Khan Academy videos: Instructive or destructive?...

Over the last few weeks I’ve been thinking about producing more videos. I’ve certainly fallen behind my planned schedule of producing them – too many other tasks get in the way! Anyhow, I have to produce some so that my school can complete a project for HE-STEM. As part of this I’ve had to consider what makes a good video and for me one of the most interesting debates about videos in education has been triggered by the huge success of Salman Khan’s video series. You can see him explain the history and the philosophy behind it in the following TED video: Looks good doesn’t it? However, his videos have been strongly criticized. This is not surprising, educators were always going to object to an ex-hedge fund manager – backed by Bill Gates and with no educational training – coming in and saying “This is how you do it”. Nonetheless, many of their criticisms have foundation. I’m particularly against the “gamification” of education. Whilst games can be a useful tool in education when you wrap all learning in a game, then students lose sight of the importance of education; they see it just as collecting points for their scorecard. Audrey Watters gives a good explanation of the arguments against Khan and various links in her post The Wrath Against Khan which arose as in response to an article in Wired on the Khan Academy. (Aside: I think that video’s threat to teaching jobs is greatly exaggerated. When the printing press was invented people probably said “No more need for teachers, you can learn from a book”. Every new technology is predicted to revolutionize teaching and to cause the disappearance of the bulk of teaching jobs. People said it about radio, they said it about...

Mathemagic of Arthur Benjamin...

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...