Archive for the ‘Travelling’ Category

Orkney and beyond

I used to believe that planes always landed on runways.

Orkney has a way of stopping you from taking things for granted.

oisf-logoI was up to speak for the second time at the Orkney International Science Festival, which is organised by Howie Firth – one of the most enthusiastic men I have ever met. He has a way of making you feel that each thing you say is the most interesting thing he’s ever heard. So it was with his usual infectious enthusiasm that I was invited up to speak about Botanica Mathematica and the links between maths and knitting.

With true Orcadian hospitality, Howie’s invitation didn’t mean that I came up to give my talk and then had to leave immediately after, but was an opportunity to have a holiday and time to explore the islands. Last year my companion Albert and I investigated the Mainland, seeing the amazing neolithic site of Skara Brae (the best-preserved prehistoric site I’ve ever seen), the stone circles of Brodgar and Stenness and the amazing coastline at Yesnaby. This year, it was time to venture further afield…

Orkney Map with North RonaldsayThe weather forecast had promised an overcast but dry and mild day for flying to North Ronaldsay. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Morning broke to gale force winds and torrential rain, neither of which eased up for the entire day. Apparently a storm system had come in from the north east, bringing vengeance on Orkney and Shetland but leaving the rest of the UK to enjoy beautiful warm sunshine. Sigh.

To say that I was scared of the impending flight was an understatement. It was basically a flying minibus – notionally with 9 seats, but one of those seats being next to the pilot. The pilot in our case was Rebecca Simpson, a cheerful blonde woman of about 30 , who seemed amused at the terrified looks on our faces. We had a 30-second safety briefing, were told to buckle our seatbelts and then the propellers went to full throttle.

I can easily say that the flights that day were the best I have ever been on. The plane needed hardly any runway before it was in the air, buffeted by the winds and quickly gaining height to give us a spectacular view of the azure blue of Orkney’s various harbours. Our first stop was Papa Westray, which is mainly famous for having the shortest scheduled flight in the world – less than 2 minutes over to the neighbouring island of Westray – which comes with its own certificate.

The "airport" at Papa Westray

The “airport” at Papa Westray

Despite my lack of certificate, I was glad that I was on the longer flight from Kirkwall, with time to enjoy the views and the feel the force of the weather blowing us around. Our landing on Papa Westray really showed off Rebecca’s skill; the winds forcing us to approach the runway facing about 45 degrees away from it, but turning at just the last moment to achieve a perfect landing. I was also incredibly amused at Papa Westray’s “airport” – bascially just someone’s house.

Five minutes later we had landed on North Ronaldsay, and were gratefully met by Tommy Muir, who was going to give us a tour of the island. Our original intention was to have a day of hiking about the island, but the weather meant that we didn’t want to be outside for more than a few minutes at a time, and were glad of the shelter of his van!

(C) Lis Burke

Seaweed eating sheep

North Ronaldsay is about 3 miles long and is mainly famed for two things: having the tallest land-based lighthouse in the UK, and for having seaweed eating sheep. In 1832 a dyke was built around the island and the native sheep were exiled there to make space on the island for more lucrative breeds of sheep and cow. The hardy creatures learnt how to survive on the seaweed and became renowned for their resilience, intelligence, tasty meat and soft wool. (Indeed, few sheep breeds have their own sheep fellowship!)

North Ronaldsay once had as many as 500 people living on it; today there are no more than 50. Climate change has meant that the land is no longer suitable for growing crops on, and so people have left as they realise there is no work for them to do. There is a school there, but only one child to attend it – teachers are flown in from the mainland to provide art, sports and history lessons. Some tourists do come, seeking the tranquility and remoteness of the place, and often to watch the seals and birds on the coast. Last year there was apparently a walrus who visited the island!

Despite a wet and windy day, we were sad to leave and were determined to visit again on a sunnier day.

Me with our amazing pilot Rebecca

Me with our amazing pilot Rebecca Simpson

Rebecca was there with her plane to take us home, and this time there was a dog occupying one of seats! He seemed completely nonplussed by the turbulence of the plane – he’d probably been on more flights in his life than me! Our stop in Sanday on the way home was another adventure. The direction of the wind made landing on the runway very difficult, so Rebecca simply landed at right-angles to the runway, into a field instead! She seemed to love the challenge of the weather conditions, but told us afterwards that the winds were quite mild compared to what she’d had to deal with before.

Back in Kirkwall airport, the giant runway with all its lights seemed far too easy for Rebecca, and we knew that no flight we ever took would be quite as exciting again. My talk on Monday night was well received and I’m hopeful of getting some new binary bonsais and hyperbolic chanterelles to add to our collection. The hospitality and enthusiasm of everyone I’ve met in Orkney has meant that I will no doubt be back for many years to come, always finding a new adventure and wonders to explore.

And, if this story has inspired you to visit Orkney and talk about science, get in touch with Howie and he’ll no doubt be eager to have you visit to speak at his science festival!

Holiday in the Highlands

Photo by Floris Boerwinkel (a great name!)

Where do you think this is?

Palm trees, pristine white beaches, turquoise blue water…and sheep. If such a scenario sounds like your idea of heaven, you need to get yourself to the western highlands of Scotland. Yes, Scotland. And no, I haven’t embarked on an alternative career as a travel agent – I’ve just had a fantastic holiday up there and and finding it difficult to keep my enthusiasm to myself.

Well, I say ‘just’, but I’ve been back for weeks now. It’s taken me this long to adjust to being around people again. One of the great things about the Highlands is that there are more sheep than people. Not only that, but these sheep are exceptionally brave, talented and heroic. They will race down mountains at a 60 degree angle. They will climb over intricate rock formations in search of the tastiest seaweed on the beach. And, if they so wish, they will stand in the middle of the road regardless of whether any human-driven vehicle is racing towards them. Usually just around a sharp bend. Incredible. I wish I had such bravery sometimes. You should have seen my terror at the simple prospect of needing a shower at the end of my holiday.

But enough about me and my brethren. The north-west of Scotland has some of the most awe-inspiring and beautiful countryside I’ve seen in the UK, combined with magnificent rock formations and crazy geological phenomena. If possible, take a geologist with you on your travels, as I did, so that you can enjoy their geo-erotic tales of cleavage, orogenies and thrusts.

Albert and Treebor in the car

Albert dozes while Treebor enjoys the journey

My travelling companion, Albert, is officially a chemist but is secretly a wannabe geologist. He didn’t have so much to say at the beginning of the trip, as we travelled north out of Edinburgh, through the Cairngorms, past Inverness and then north-west to Ullapool. The first bit of excitement we had was as we turned off the A835 onto a single-track lane (the first of many!) towards Loch Lurgainn. Out of nowhere popped two surprising things: the mountain Stac Pollaidh, and a stowaway passenger called Treebor!

Treebor was only a month old, having been born as part of the Botanica Mathematica project to knit/crochet mathematical plant forms. He is what we call a binary tree, with his branches ever splitting off into two.  He had hidden away in our car, desperate to explore the great outdoors with us, despite being told he was too young. Before we could stop him he was racing up a mountain and hiding in the long grass – can you spot him in the picture below?!

Treebor runs up Stac Pollaidh in the long grass

Treebor runs up Stac Pollaidh in the long grass. Can you see him?

As I say, Stac Pollaidh (pronounced “Stack Polly”) is a surprising mountain, rising by itself out of nowhere from the surrounding landscape. Its peak is eroded in a very distinctive way as a result of being above the ice during the last ice age. This makes it an example of a ‘nunatak’ (presumably pronounced “nun attack”) and a favourite with climbers. It took us so long to find Treebor (have you found him yet?) that we abandoned walking all the way up the mountain and instead enjoyed the view for a while. After lunch on a (windy!) beach at Reiff, overlooking the Summer Isles, and a coffee at a wee pub in Altandhu, we drove north again past Loch Ra and Loch Vatachan (which sound like two evil nemeses!) and walked to the Inverkirkaig Falls, from where another impressive nunatak, Suilven, can be seen. Suilven dominates the local landscape, overlooking the town of Lochinver where we stayed the night.

Old Man of Stoer

Old Man of Stoer rock formation

After a good night’s sleep, we continued the drive north, along a single track road with blind summits, crazy bends, kamikaze sheep and amazing views over white beaches. Albert also has a bit of a thing for lighthouses, so we made the pilgrimmage to Stoer Head Lighthouse which was built in 1870 by the Stevensons. More interesting to me was the walk along the coast to a rock in the sea called the “Old Man of Stoer”. To me, it looked quite like a constipated monkey’s head than an old man. Why is there never a rock that looks like a sheep’s head?

Heading back to Ullapool along the A837, the geologist travelling with you will never forgive you if you don’t stop at the visitor centre at  Knockan Crag, the scene of one of the greatest discoveries in geology! A logical assumption in geology is that rocks are laid down in sequence with the youngest at the top and the oldest at the bottom. The puzzle at Knockan Crag though, was that the oldest rocks were on top and this lead to a heated argument…

It took two Scottish scientists, John Horne and Benjamin Peach, to (a) stand by their belief in the ages of the rocks, whilst many others tried to prove they had got it wrong, and most importantly (b) explain how the older rocks could have come to be above the younger ones. The answer was a previously unknown structure called a Thrust Fault. In this case the Moine Thrust, which was formed during the collision of two continents, when one sheet of rock was pushed over the other, kind of like a pile of paper being pushed over another pile.

At the visitor centre even more amazing facts were revealed to me:
– Once upon a time Scotland lived near the south pole, moving up to the equator and becoming a baking desert for a while.
– During this time it was part of a continent with Greenland and North America.
– Scotland and England collided about 400 million years ago, making the original ‘union’ of the countries. The forces involved created mountains like Ben Nevis and the Cairngorms and created the Moine Thrust.
– Around 60 million years ago the Atlantic started to be created, pushing Scotland eastwards and creating many volcanoes, like those on the Isles of Skye, Rhum and Mull.
– When the North Sea was created, Scotland very nearly broke away from England, but Scandanavia got pushed aside instead. (Our one true chance of independence and we blew it!)

[For more on Scottish geological history, visit or]

Bedtime stories don’t get much better than that! Not being able to tear Albert away from the Moine Thrust, we followed it all the way down to Skye over the next few days of the holiday. I insisted on making a detour to the wonderfully named “Isle of Ewe”, although this caused some consternation when I had to break it to Albert that I didn’t actually (love him). Skye is another place that is full of a huge variety of landscapes, from the Red and Black Cuillin mountains, to the majestic rock formations of the Quirang range and the tall cliffs out at Neist point where, of course, there was another Stevenson lighthouse we had to visit. It was great for young Treebor with his short attention span.


I said there would be palm trees, right?

I must also not forget to recommend the picturesque village of Plockton, which is well worth spending the night at on your way to Skye. Not only has it got a great name, palm trees, a beautiful loch and friendly people, but it has the best restaurant we ate at all week: Plockton Shores. Seriously, go there. Nuff said.

Sigh. Remembering my holiday I feel sad once again to be back in a busy city, which feels like a completely different country to the remote majesty of those mountains and lochs. Hopefully I will be back soon. In the meantime, I am busy getting on with a few knitting projects – stay tuned to find out more!

Happy New Year!

Today is Twelfth Night, the end of Christmas, and the Christian feast day of Epiphany.  It seems like a good day to stop the partying and take stock of what has been happening over the festive season.

When I last left you, you were wondering whether Albert would ever make it to Buxton and whether we’d be able to get Michael and Julia to become friends.  But with my genius self in charge, how could anything go wrong?

(That was a rhetorical question, by the way.)

Here was the plan:

1) Engineer a ‘surprise’ meeting between Michael and Julia in some cafe.  (With all the things they have in common, this meeting alone would be sufficient to cause them to become best friends and want to meet again.)

2) Michael would then invite Julia to Buxton for New Year. (Inevitable given that Buxton is so pretty and Julia is complaining of not having seen hilly countryside for some time.)

3) Julia tells Michael how much she would love to meet all his sheep, forcing him to take them to Buxton with him.

4) Julia then takes me along to Buxton too, and….PARTY.

Easy, right?  Humans are totally predictable.

Except that I was nearly thwarted at the very first hurdle.  I told Albert to bring Michael to Black Medicine, which is a very friendly laid back coffee shop not far from the station.  I had betted on this being one of Julia’s favourite places, and on her wanting to go to it after her morning masterclass was finished.  What I hadn’t betted on was that she’d also be wanting food and company, so I was quite horrified when she texted a friend to meet her and headed instead for the St Giles Cafe on the Royal Mile.  Luckily for me, the bad snowy weather meant that the cafe was completely full up, as was the next one she tried, so she had to settle for Black Medicine after all. Phew.  In the meantime, Michael was ignoring Albert and heading to Anteaques to stock up on more tea for Christmas.  Thankfully, the bad weather once again made Black Medicine (in its proximity to the station) seem like a much better idea, and so they ended up in the same place at the same table after all.

Australian pirate

Australian pirate John Skelton with Baggis

The rest of the plan went pretty much according to, er, plan!  Michael was enthralled by knot theory and Julia wanted to hear more about using crystallography for carbon capture, so new year in Buxton was inevitable.  Baggis decided to come along too, which was not such a good idea because the poor thing is prone to getting involved with the wrong kind of people.  For example, he was nearly captured by this Australian pirate (see pic) down on the south coast of England!

Let me tell you a bit about Buxton, in case you’ve never been there.  It is a little spa town not too far from Manchester, just on the edge of the Peak District.  You might have heard of it from its most famous export: Buxton water.  I would advise not paying loads of money for the bottled stuff, and instead rocking up to the town with some empty containers, for you can get the tasty liquid at St Ann’s Well in the middle of Buxton.  The well and the hot geothermal waters were both thought to have healing properties, and have been visitor attractions for a few hundred years.  Buxton became even more popular in the 1780s, when the Duke of Devonshire built a beautiful crescent (modelled on the Royal Crescent in Bath) and a giant dome – at the time the largest in the world.  And you’ll never believe what it was built for… Stables!  Gee, people love their horses even more than their sheep.  Inexplicable, that.

It remains for me to tell you about our amazing New Year’s Eve party and all the new sheepy friends I’ve made.  Here’s a group pic of all of us in the middle of our celebrations:

Group photo

New Year's sheepy party!

Starting from the front, we have our three childish troublemakers: Giovanni, Maxwell and Albert. (Sadly no McHaggis.)  They had spent the evening playing with GeoMag and were very proud of their Platonic solid sculptures.

Young sheep

Troublemakers with their GeoMag sculptures

Then there were the draught excluder sheep, one of whom (Maximillian) has an easy life on the back of a sofa (much like our own friend Draggis) whilst the other one (unnamed!!) has a hard life guarding the front door and being trampled on all the time.  It was no wonder he wanted to get dressed up and console himself with a stiff drink.

Draught-excluder sheep

Enjoying the night off with a whisky

Another of our working sheep is called Goggle, and he is a doorstop.  Or so he says – I think that perhaps he might be so heavy just because he has been stealing mince pies every night when all the humans have gone to bed.  After a few glasses of port he decided to wear the Christmas decorations as earrings, which attracted the admiration of the rest of the gang:

Admiring the bauble

Admiring the bauble on Goggle

I particularly like the picture below of Baggis, Fernilee and I admiring our beautiful reflections.  Fernilee is the one in the green scarf.  He is named after a local reservoir, and only narrowly escaped being called Errwood instead (which is a much less pretty name).

Beautiful reflection

Beautiful reflection: Baggis, Haggis and Fernilee

It was really wonderful to make so many new friends, and I hope that they will be able to visit me in Edinburgh sometime soon.

Until then, it is time again to concentrate on the thesis and on communicating my love of maths to the general public.  Next week signals the beginning of mine and Julia’s Open Studies course on “How Mathematical Ideas Shaped the World”, so I shall keep you updated on how that is going. (Don’t forget to sign up for it if you live in Edinburgh and haven’t done so!)  The thesis is in the final stages of its long and drawn-out life and will hopefully be finished before I get Alzheimers and forget what on earth it’s about.

Fingers crossed on this portentious day for an epiphany about modulo 3 matrices…

Happy New Year everyone!

[P.S. Credit goes to MW for photography and JC for the lovely sheep outfits.]

Stranded: Cologne, Bonn and the Arithmeum

McHaggis reporting here!  I have had quite a successful week – all my prayers to the Sheep gods were answered.  Do you know Julia would have gone all the way to Holland for just a weekend and then come straight home without letting me explore the wonders of Cologne and Bonn?  I couldn’t let her do that.  So I appealed to the gods for a little bit of snow so that her flight would be delayed by a couple of days, and whaddya know, we got delayed by a whole week! SCORE.

Airport friend

My Hungarian-Yugoslavian friend Geza

Of course, Julia wasn’t very happy about this at first.  There was lots of queuing to be done at Cologne/Bonn airport in order to re-book the flights, but I just took this as an opportunity to make new friends.  The photo on the left is a man called Geza, some sort of airport manager, who turned out to be half-Hungarian and half-Yugoslavian.  This precipitated some unexpected Hungarian conversation between him and Julia.  We also made friends with another of the stranded passengers: a man who works for Vogue in London.  The value of his shoes, jacket and ‘man-bag’ alone could have allowed us to hire a private jet home!  But I was more disappointed that we didn’t manage to convince him to come and give the maths department a fashion makeover.  Or, even better, turn ‘maths geek’ into the next fashion statement.  There is opportunity yet: we have his phone number!

Haggis' New Friend

My evil genius friend: name?

Cologne and Bonn were very beautiful cities and had great atmospheres with the Christmas markets going on.  It was at the Bonn Christmas market that I made another sheepy friend (which made a change after all those humans at the airport).  I haven’t worked out what to call him yet, but his character seems to be that of an evil genius.  Can anyone out there suggest a good name?

Bonn is quite a mecca for mathematicians at the moment, with not one, but THREE places to study the subject. Topologists are in a special heaven, with one of those institutes named after a topologist (Hausdorff) and another founded by one (Hirzebruch).  What was even more exciting to me was that the town has its very own mathematics museum, called the Arithmeum, and it was to there that I made a pilgrimmage on Saturday.

Well, perhaps it is stretching the truth slightly to call it a ‘mathematics museum’.  It is a museum about arithmetic, about the art of calculation.  Actually, one of my criticisms of the museum would be that it does not do enough to explain and expand upon the mathematics needed for calculational devices, of which there are lots of interesting things to say.  They do remedy this by having a series of evening lectures and children’s programmes, and another facet of the museum is that it is a gallery for art that has been inspired by mathematics.  I definitely think that if anyone is in the area that they should pay a visit, because there is something for everyone’s taste and interests.


A selection of abacuses

So, what did I find there?  The Arithmeum starts off with the earliest calculational devices: counters and abacuses (or abaci).  Abacuses were used by all ancient civilised societies: Sumerians, Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, the Chinese and Indians, and they are still in use today in Far Eastern countries such as Korea and Japan.  You can see in the (white) middle abacus that a modern calculator and ancient abacus are used together!  People who learn the abacus are often  faster at calculating than modern computers, and not only that, but I learnt from Alex Bellos at the MathsJam that a person using an abacus uses a different part of the brain than that used for language.  This means they can be playing word games whilst adding up three-figure numbers: see this amazing video for proof.

Napier's bones

Napier's bones: a 17th century laptop?

Another device to help people do quick multiplication was invented by a Scotsman: Napier’s bones.  This is a rather ingenious set of rods which basically gives all the times tables from 1 to 9, and this in turn allows people to do long multiplication, division and even the extraction of square roots.  Read the linked Wikipedia article for the details!  My companion at the museum, Carl, remarked that the pocket set of ‘bones’ shown on the right here was like an ancient version of the laptop.

Mechanical devices to do addition and subtraction were already quite difficult to make: it was Wilhelm Schickard in 1623 who first designed a system of gears that was able to ‘carry’ digits, so that after turning a wheel from 0 through 9, the next gear along would be engaged to create the number 10.  Multiplication and division required machines to also be able to shift the digits left and right, and the world had to wait for the genius of Leibniz for such a machine to be invented.  The Stepped Reckoner, as it was known, was designed in 1672 but was so far ahead of its time that the gearwork needed could not be built to the precision that was required.

Cake calculator

Cake-shaped calculator

I particularly liked this mechanical calculator, which reminded me of a birthday cake.  My apologies: I can’t remember which European emperor it was made for or by whom!

Mechanical calculators changed little in the following 250 years except for their design and size.  It was lots of fun in the museum getting to go around and push all the buttons and levers on the various contraptions!  Modern computers are extremely boring in comparison.  Modern computers also don’t have such wonderful names; I particularly liked the ‘Mercedes-Euklid’ modelMercedes-Euklid(which sadly wasn’t doing calculations mod 29!).

Difference Engine

Babbage's Difference Engine

Despite this article already being so long, it would not be complete without a quick mention of Charles Babbage.  This was a man who was also ahead of his time: he designed the world’s first programmable computer in 1822, called the Difference Engine, which was not fully built until 2000.  His partner in crime was a lady called Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron, who wrote the world’s first computer program, designed for the Difference Engine.  Babbage called Ada “the Enchantress of Numbers”, although there was never a romantic relationship between them (as far as we know).

That’s it from me today. Farewell my friends, until my next adventure!

[P.S. Julia wishes to thank those people who helped to entertain her in Germany and get her home: Andrew Ranicki, her mum and sister, Carl McTague, Michael Wharmby (aka Sheep Man – more on him in another post), and all the people she met at Cologne/Bonn airport.]

[P.P.S. A note from Haggis: my apologies for never having blogged about the MathsJam.  Julia always claims she is too busy with other things to help me write an article. Tsk. You just can’t get the staff around here.]

How to talk maths in public

On the 8th and 9th June I was in Manchester taking part in the conference “How to talk maths in public“.  It was a fantastic two days, and great to match up the faces with all the names I’ve been following on Twitter.  In order that you may also look upon the delightful faces of Britain’s top maths communicators, I dutifully took photos and will present them to you in the course of this article.

The first two talks at the conference were given by people who need no introduction, since I have blogged about them before: Ian Stewart and Marcus du Sautoy.  Ian has worked in public engagement for over 20 years, writing over 70 books and working heavily with the media, especially radio.  For him, the aim in outreach is to raise awareness of mathematics as much as understanding.  It’s about making the public aware that mathematicians are doing something; that mathematics wasn’t all finished 100 years ago.  Nowadays most maths goes unappreciated, with computer science taking the credit for modern technological advances.  Marcus was only able to attend the conference via video link, since he was in Paris at a ceremony which was to give Grigory Perelman the prize for solving the Poincaré Conjecture.  (This conjecture was one of seven ‘Millennium Prizes” worth $1 million, set by the Clay Mathematics Institute in 2000.  It is the first to have been solved.  In the end, it turned out Marcus would have been better off in Manchester, since Perelman never turned up to collect his prize!) Marcus chatted a bit about what it’s like to work in television, having made quite a few shows himself (including The Story of Maths and Horizon), and about the difficulties of making a maths program that doesn’t ‘dumb down’ the content too much.  How much ‘proper’ maths should we be putting on national television?

Steve Humble

Steve Humble, aka Dr Maths

My first photo introduction is of Steve Humble, aka Dr Maths.  Steve publishes a regular column in the Evening Chronicle, a newspaper in the north-east of England.  People can write in asking him maths questions and he does his best to answer them!  His day-job is working for The National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM), which, as the name suggests, is an organisation to provide support, resources and inspiration to maths teachers.  Steve also organises “Maths in the Malls” – a maths trail that runs in a shopping centre in Gateshead, and has been so popular that it’s now a permanent fixture.

(Dr Maths is actually coming to our very own Edinburgh this weekend, to do a Royal Institution Masterclass!)

Rob Eastaway

Rob Eastaway

Next up is Rob Eastaway, who is a great populariser of mathematics.  He’s written lots of books (“Why do Buses come in Threes”, “Maths for Mums and Dads”), is a former puzzle-writer for New Scientist magazine and nowadays works on running Maths Inspiration.  Maths Inspiration consists of a series of fun and entertaining public lectures, which are as much entertaining theatre as they are entertaining maths.  It’s been responsible for inspiring thousands of students and teachers since it started back in 2006.

Peter Rowlett

Peter Rowlett

At the end of the first day’s lectures, it was time for the event which is the most important part of any conference: the dinner!  At a public engagement conference things were likely to be more lively than average, and indeed each table were given a series of questions that they had to answer and report back on.  Peter Rowlett was responsible for taking notes on our table, answering questions like “What’s the hardest sum you’ve ever done?” and “What do you think is the sexiest piece of maths?” (I still like ∫exy).  The best answers, however, came from the neighbouring table.  When asked “Why should we learn algebra?” they came up with and performed a whole song: “Algebra made the Radio Star” which pretty much earned them a standing ovation!

Matt Parker

Matt Parker

The fun was not yet over though.  Our after dinner speaker was Matt Parker, known to some as a stand-up mathematician.  Matt won the People’s Choice Award at the national FameLab competition in 2009, and has been wowing the world with his brand of maths comedy ever since.  Of course in Manchester he had a very sympathetic audience.  There are few situations in which someone can cut up a piece of paper, hold it up saying “it’s a square!” and have the audience whooping and clapping like crazy!  Matt’s going to be coming to Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival, in which he has a show called Your Days are Numbered about the maths of death.  Tickets went on sale today and I wholeheartedly recommend everyone to go along.  In fact, if you ever see Matt giving a show anywhere, go to it!  You won’t be disappointed.

Simon Singh

Simon Singh

No public engagement conference on maths would be complete without the most famous dude in the industry: Simon Singh. Simon made his name writing the best-selling book Fermat’s Last Theorem and making the accompanying Horizon documentary. Since then he’s written more books, made more tv shows, and done more radio programmes than you could shake a flock of sheep at. He came along to Manchester to show us some good and bad examples of maths communication in the media, and to be a mentor on our competition: The ex factor.

Hmm, “what is this crazy-sounding competition?”, I hear you ask.  It was loosely based on the traditional X-Factor format: people were split into different categories, with each team getting a mentor, and then they had to perform in front of a panel of judges.  The different categories we had were TV, Radio, Writing, Busking, and Live Show.  I (and Julia) ended up in the TV category – the one we were dreading most!  Our mentor was Toby Murcott, a freelance journalist and radio producer who worked for the BBC for 7 years, and our task was to produce a show where three panellists got grilled from questions by the studio audience.  The questions were pretty difficult, including “Why should taxpayers fund maths?” and “Why does the country need mathematicians?”.  In the morning I think Toby was despairing at our long and rambling answers, which we had to fit into only 4 minutes, but he somehow managed to prod us into shape in time for the recording.

When it came to time for the judging, I had no idea how the judges would ever choose a winner.  All the teams were really brilliant (some of the radio shows I thought were especially professional) and it was hard to compare across the different types of media.  So it was an extra-special shock when Julia’s team (which also comprised Hazel Kendrick and  Louise Walker) scooped the top prize! (And I can’t even claim any credit for the win, since I wasn’t allowed to be filmed…)

With that grand finale, it was time for the conference to get wrapped up and for us to head home.  But before I sign off, there’s one more mathematician I can’t leave out of this article.

Colin Wright

Colin Wright

Colin Wright is an industrial mathematician, working for a company that deals with a sort of air-traffic control for ships.  He’s given hundreds of maths talks up and down the country, of which the most popular is his one about juggling.  In the conference coffee breaks, he managed to keep a group of us spell-bound by teaching us how to tie our shoelaces and fold our t-shirts.  Simple things!  If you ever see this guy coming to give a talk in your area, I very much recommend that you should go!

And I’m afraid that’s it for today. Hope you liked hearing about this wonderful set of mathematicians, and I hope that you get to be inspired by them someday.  The future of maths public engagement is looking rosier than ever before!

McHaggis explores Hungary

McHaggis seems to have got a penchant for travelling, because this time when Julia headed off to Hungary he needed no prompting to jump in the suitcase for a free ride.  Preoccupied as I was with Graeme’s departure (he has a new job in Bristol; who’s going to be my photographer now??) I forgot to remind McHaggis to look out for mathematical objects, so I’m afraid there won’t be any in this blog post.

First stop on the tourist trail (which is only going to consist of two places!) was Esztergom, the ancient capital city of Hungary.  That is, it was the capital city up until the 13th century, when King Béla IV took a trip down the Danube and decided he liked Buda more.  Esztergom has a special place in the hearts of the Hungarian people, since it is here that their first king, Saint Stephen, was born and crowned.  As you would expect from such an old capital city, there is a big palace (built on the remains of the old castle) and a big church (actually the largest in all of Hungary), but the town itself is small and quiet.

Esztergom basilica and castle

Esztergom basilica and castle

While the humans were busy gaping at golden treasures in the museum and climbing to the roof of the basilica, McHaggis  was sitting up on a rock and gazing at the land on the other side of the Danube.

McHaggis and the Danube

What's on the other side?

It’s true, the grass was greener on this side of the water.  But McHaggis knew something that most of you readers probably don’t know.  He knew why the other side was so wildy different from this side.  He knew why he would risk his sheepy life to get across that bridge.  He knew…that the other side was Slovakia!  Yes, a chance to increase his country count once again!  It was an opportunity he could not bear to miss out on.

And so it was, with the humans weary from their climbings and explorings, that McHaggis persuaded them to carry him over the Mária Valéria bridge, over the border into another world.  You probably want some proof that he was really there, right?  He figured you might say that, so he got Julia to risk her life by walking into the middle of the road for some photos.

In Hungary

On the Hungarian side...

In Slovakia

...and on the Slovakian side!

One interesting thing that McHaggis spotted on the bridge was the insignias of the two countries.  On the Hungarian side there was an image of a pearly white castle with turrets and spires.  On the Slovakian side there was an image of…a chicken.  He knew which country he was glad to be sleeping in that night!

The next day it was time for a journey eastwards to a town called Eger: home of Eger Castle and Egri Bikavér (“Bulls’ blood” wine).  It’s there that Julia’s Hungarian family lives, and she was there to celebrate the marriage of one of her favourite cousins.  McHaggis was quite happy to tag along, since Eger is a beautiful little city: full of history, impressive churches, tasty ice cream, and most of all, cheap wine!  It is a happy bustling place, especially at the beginning of summer when it is a tourist destination for many Hungarians, as well as alcohol-seeking westerners.

The reason that Eger, as well as Esztergom, has a place in the hearts of Hungarians is because it was the scene of a famous siege.  Turks had invaded Hungary in the early part of the 16th century and quickly managed to secure most of the big cities, including Budapest.  When they got to Eger, they figured that taking the castle would be a breeze: they had 150,000 men, compared with a measly 2,000 defending the city.  However, they hadn’t counted on the military skills of Captain István Dobó and the patriotic fervour of the defenders.  Even the women pitched in to help, pouring boiling tar onto the heads of anyone who was foolish enough to try scaling the castle walls.  After 39 days the Turks gave in, although they were to return for another (successful) try in 40 years’ time.  The story of the Eger siege was immortalised in a book called Egri csillagok (“The stars of Eger”) by Géza Gárdonyi,  written in 1899 and now compulsory reading material for every Hungarian schoolchild.

Zsiros kenyer

A lucky escape...

Of course, no visit to Eger would be complete without a foray into the Szépasszonyvölgy (“The Valley of the Beautiful Woman”), where the local wine is brewed and sold.  The red wine is called “Bulls’ Blood”, because the castle defenders were drinking it during the siege and it stained their beards and armour red, leading the Turks to believe that the Hungarians were drinking the blood of bulls.  In the wine valley today, the tradition is that first you should eat zsíros kényér (literally “greasy bread”), which is made by heating a piece of meat over a fire and letting the fat drip into the bread.  Unfortunately, McHaggis got a little too close to some shady characters and was in danger of being roasted himself!

However, the day ended happily for all concerned.  Well…all except for our sheepy hero, who had quite a hangover to contend with in the morning!

Drunk McHaggis

Happy sheep

Mathevatican adventures

When I heard that my flatmate Julia was heading off to spend a week in Rome, I devised a cunning plan.  I got my son McHaggis to hide in her suitcase with instructions to find interesting mathematical sites when he got to the Italian capital.  This brilliant idea was inspired by my other flatmate Graeme, who has been writing a series of articles on Sosauce about ‘mathematical tourism‘, and by Marcus du Sautoy, who is currently designing a mathematical walking tour of London.  Surely in Rome, one of the oldest capitals in the world, there would be a hoard of mathematical treasures to explore?


Pantheon - the height is perfectly equal to the radius of the dome

On a first flick through the guide book, the pickings actually seemed pretty slim.  The only thing that caught my eye was the Pantheon, which is the best-preserved of the ancient buildings in Rome.  It was built in 27BC by Marcus Agrippa, and rebuilt in the subsequent couple of centuries because of some unfortunate fires.  The word Pantheon means ‘all the gods’, and the giant dome was intended to symbolise the dome of the heavens.  Giant indeed it is: its span of 43.2m made it the largest in the world until 1420, and it still remains the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.  It is perfectly hemispherical, and more interestingly, the height from the floor to the apex is exactly 43.2m, meaning that the interior fits perfectly into a cube.  At the top of the dome is a circular aperture nearly 9m in diameter, which surely could have been used as a sort of sundial if the architect had thought about it a bit.

So, some interesting dimensions there, but nothing to really get the mathematical tastebuds juicing.  Then one day I got a message back from McHaggis, saying that he was in the Vatican City and was very excited by two discoveries.

St Peter's Square

St Peter's Square, Vatican City

The first, and main one, was that the plaza in front of St Peter’s Basilica is designed as a perfect ellipse, with fountains at the two focus points, and a giant obelisk in the centre.  In fact (according to Wikipedia) there was originally just the obelisk and one fountain outside the basilica, and the architect (Gian Lorenzo Bernini) had to decide what shape to make the plaza.  He originally thought of having a rectangle (but it would have necessitated demolition of some buildings) and then having a trapezoid (but it would have made the front façade of the church look too wide).  So in the end he decided to build an ellipse, with the curving arms symbolising the welcoming arms of the Catholic church.  Of course, he then had to build another fountain to sit at the other focus point, which he did just five years before he died.

In contrast to the under-used central hole of the Pantheon, people did realise the time-keeping uses of the central obelisk of the plaza.  In 1817 they built a circle of stones around the obelisk that could be used to tell the time of day.

The second thing that McHaggis noticed was that inside St Peter’s Basilica (a very beautiful church, and one of the most important sacred sites for Christians) there was a clock with only 6 numbers!

mod 6 clock

6-hour clock

Mathematicians love using clocks with only a few numbers on them, although usually they prefer clocks with prime numbers of numbers on them.  They call it doing modular arithmetic: for example, on this clock 1+4=5 (like normal) but 2+5 = 1 (if you don’t believe me, count 5 numbers around from the number two!).  If you’ve only got a few numbers to worry about, it makes the whole business of mathematics a lot easier to deal with.  And mathematicians are nothing if not lazy, as I think was mentioned in a previous post.  So, yes, this clock was very exciting. 🙂

As a thanks to McHaggis for exploring Rome for me, I’ve agreed to put a photo of him up to prove that he was really in Rome.  Here’s him on the foot of (what was) a giant statue of Constantine the Great.

McHaggis in Rome

McHaggis in Rome

You go, son.