The Valknut Challenge

I’ve been lacking in time and inspiration for blogging for a while now, but hopefully will get back into it again now that some of the chaos of Semester 2 has passed. As my come-back article I wanted to write about a fantastic evening I had at the RBS Museum Lates at the National Museum of Scotland just over a week ago.

The Museum Lates happen three times a year and are a chance for adults to get into the museum after hours to look at the collections whilst enjoying a cocktail and some live music. But they are much more than that! Each Late is themed in some way, and the theme this month was ‘Vikings’ to accompany the museum’s special exhibit. So guests were encouraged to dress up as Vikings, get their faces painted, touch Viking objects, make Viking paraphernalia (but NOT horned helmets – they aren’t Viking!), listen to Viking stories and eat Viking food. It was the perfect opportunity for us to get in some stealth maths engagement…

Viking Museum Late

(From left) Joshua, Helene and Madeleine all Vikinged up and ready to go.

My co-conspirator in this project was Madeleine Shepherd (who you may remember from lots of previous projects, including the last Alice In Wonderland themed museum late and also the Mathematicians’ Shirts project), and on the night we had two lovely assistants: Helene Frossling (Madeleine’s colleague at ICMS) and Joshua Prettyman (an undergraduate on my maths outreach team). Together we presented the public with…The Valknut Challenge!

In Viking mythology, the Valknut was the special symbol of Odin, king of the gods. It consisted of three interlocking circles, but if you removed any one of the circles then the other two would fall apart and would not be linked together at all. The Valknut Challenge is: can you draw/make the symbol? If you haven’t seen this before, you should have a go before scrolling down to see the picture.

The Valknut symbol is often found on Viking stones where Odin is depicted going into battle or standing over fallen warriors. It’s not hard to see why the symbol would be synonymous with strength in battle: the three interlocking circles symbolise the strength we have in acting together which falls apart when we go it alone. The same symbol has been found in many civilisations – for example, signifying the Trinity in Christianity.

Valknut on Viking stone

The Stora Hammars stone showing a Valknut above a scene of human sacrifice and next to some warriors. Powerful stuff.

Mathematically the symbol is called the Borromean rings (named for the Italian Borromeo family who used the symbol on their coat of arms). There are actually infinitely many different ways of solving the puzzle, and the Valknut is a special case of a more general puzzle where you have n circles and have to interlink them so that removing one ring makes the rest fall apart. Such a link is called a Brunnian link and they are particularly cool topological objects. 🙂

Standard Borromean rings

The standard Borromean rings.

Non-standard Borromean rings

A different solution to the Valknut challenge.

Non-standard Borromean rings 2

And another solution!

Most people have created a Valknut/Brunnian link in the course of their lives without ever realising it. Every knot or link can be drawn as a braid, and the Valknut is actually the standard 3-stranded braid that girls do in their hair all the time. Try making one and pulling out a strand – you’ll find that the other two strands become instantly untangled. This means you can quickly make a braid and harness the power of Odin whenever you need it – handy to remember next time you find yourself in battle.

The next Museum Late will be on 17th May with the theme of ‘Dinosaurs’.  If you missed out this time around then make sure you get tickets early for the next one! Anyone have any ideas for some surreptitious Jurassic mathematics that we can do?


My new geek clock

I’m loving this new addition to my flat: a geeky maths/science clock. It was designed by myself and Albert and then built by Kate Wharmby, who is also very talented at making stained glass and has made me a lovely trefoil knot too.

Geek clock

I thought I would go through the numbers and say what they mean and why we chose them. All physical constants are in standard SI units.

    1. ℏ × 1034 = 1.05 is the reduced Planck constant; that is, the Planck constant divided by 2π. This number relates the energy of a photon to its angular velocity and is one of the basic units in quantum mechanics. Its existence means that energy only comes in discrete packets, or quanta, which was a massive discovery in 20th century physics.
    2. \sum_{i=0}^{\infty} 2^{-n} is the sum 1 + \frac{1}{2} + \frac{1}{4} + \frac{1}{8} + \dots which turns out to be exactly equal to 2. It’s an example of a geometric series and was first discussed in ancient Greece when Zeno came up with his paradoxes. He claimed that motion was impossible, because before you could get somewhere you’d have to get halfway there, but then you’d have to get halfway to the halfway point and so on. However, despite the infinite number of steps in the sequence it actually has a finite value.
    3. c × 10-8 =2.9979 is the speed of light in a vacuum, measured in metres per second. The theory of relativity says that this is constant, regardless of the observer, and that nothing in the universe can go faster than this. The fact that c is constant leads to lots of crazy consequences, such as time passing slower for moving objects and moving objects shortening in length.
    4. \int_1^5 \ln x \, dx = 4.047 is the integral (area under the curve) of the natural logarithm function between x=1 and x=5. Logarithms were invented by the Scottish mathematician John Napier and are important in many branches of maths and science. The natural logarithm is related to the mathematical constant e, which arises whenever a quantity is growing at a rate proportional to its current value; for example, compound interest.
    5. det(12n488) is the determinant of the 488th non-alternating 12-crossing knot. This was a knot which featured in my thesis, as I used new techniques to show that it had infinite order in the knot concordance group. Finding the determinant was the first step in this method. You can find tables of knotty things on the website KnotInfo, including any values which are still unknown.
    6. 29ii = 6.03 shows off the surprising fact that an imaginary number (the square root of -1) to the power of an imaginary number is actually a real number. Actually, i is equal to e^{-\frac{\pi}{2}}.
    7. \phi^{2^2} = 6.84 is the golden ratio squared and then squared again. The golden ratio arises if you want to divide a line into two parts so that the ratio of the larger to the smaller part is the same as the ratio of the larger part to the whole line. It is often described as the most aesthetically pleasing ratio, and is also the ‘most irrational’ number in the sense of being most badly approximated by rational numbers.
    8. NA.kB = 8.314 is the ideal gas constant which relates the energy of a mole of particles to its temperature. It is the product of NA, which is Avogadro’s constant (the number of particles in one mole of a substance – see 12), and kB, which is the Boltzmann constant (which relates energy of individual particles to temperature).
    9. me × 1031 = 9.109 is the rest mass of an electron which is one of the fundamental constants of physics and chemistry. It is actually impossible to weigh a stationary electron, but we can use special relativity to correct our measurements of the mass of a moving electron.
    10. g = 9.81 is the acceleration of objects in a vacuum at sea level due to Earth’s gravity. This is actually an average value, as the force of gravity varies at different points on the Earth’s surface. Things affecting the apparent or actual strength of Earth’s gravity include latitude (since the Earth is not a perfect sphere) and the local geology (since the Earth does not have uniform density). The force is weakest in Mexico City and strongest in Oslo.
    11. \frac{ \pi^e}{2} = 11.23 is a combination of everyone’s favourite mathematical constants, pi and e. These numbers are not only irrational but are transcendental, meaning that they are not the roots of any integer polynomial equation. It is still unknown if \pi^e is transcendental, although we know that e^{\pi} is.
    12. 12C = 12 is the isotope of carbon having six protons and six neutrons in its nucleus, giving it a mass of 12 atomic mass units. More importantly for chemists, IUPAC defines the mole  as being the amount of a substance containing the same number of  atoms (or molecules, electron, ions etc) as there are the number of atoms in 12g of carbon-12 (which is Avogadro’s number – see 8).

Which one was your favourite number? If you were designing your own geek clock, what numbers would you pick? Leave your answers in the comments!

Wizard or mathematician?

“You’re not a mathematician – you’re a wizard!”

This was the verdict delivered yesterday by a group of Dungeons & Dragons fans who had come to ICMS for Doors Open Day, after being treated to some maths busking by me. I also think they went away convinced that I was a geomancer instead of a geometer – I really must work on my enunciation…


Spatulamancy: the art of using a humble spatula to predict the future?

[An interesting aside, geomancy is apparently one of the seven “forbidden arts,” along with necromancy, hydromancy, aeromancy, pyromancy, chiromancy (palmistry), and spatulamancy. Ah, I love Wikipedia.]

It’s been a stressful week for me, but culminated in a totally wonderful day of maths communication yesterday. In the morning I gave the first Edinburgh masterclass of the season to a group of 82 enthusiastic 13-year-olds, and some equally enthusiastic student helpers. When I commiserated with them on having to get up early on a Saturday morning, the response was “We’d always get up early for lectures if they were as interesting as this!”. Which is lovely and flattering for me, but really makes me sad that we aren’t doing enough in university to bring our subject alive. Of course not every lecture can be as fun as a masterclass, but there are far too many researchers for whom lecturing is a chore and who never make an effort to bring enthusiasm or interest to their subject.

I digress, but there was an interesting blog post on a related theme by Peter Rowlett this week. He asked whether it was possible to pursue a career in university teaching and lecturing whilst not being a researcher – a question I have full sympathy with as someone in exactly that position. For me the story has a happy ending: after a year and a half of trying to persuade the university that a full time outreach/teaching position was a Good Thing, I have finally got my contract extended to 3 years. It is great to know that the department and university value the things I do, but I would despair of being able to find a similar position were I ever to change universities. While good teaching and public engagement are listed as promotion criteria in many places, in practice they are rarely rewarded when compared with research output.

Another side of the story is that there are many people who do public engagement in their spare time who are not recognised for it. A job title such as mine (Mathematics Engagement Officer) can count for a lot, as my friend and collaborator Madeleine Shepherd has found many times. Although we’ve worked on many projects together, with her often the brains behind the ideas, emails proposing new engagement opportunities are often sent to me and rarely to her.

It was wonderful to see ICMS, where Madeleine works, being open to the public yesterday for Doors Open Day. The building, on South College Street, is a converted church and still has an original stained glass window, among other interesting features.

Doors Open Day at ICMS, featuring Penrose tiles, chaotic pendulum and magnets, Tantrix, and me busking to three D&D fans. Click photo for more ICMS images.

This was the first year it had opened as part of Doors Open Day and we had no idea how many visitors would turn up. In the end I think the count was at 229, most of whom were lured in by the promise of maths puzzles rather than an interest in the building itself. I was only able to attend in the afternoon (due to the masterclass in the morning) and had a huge amount of fun showing people my favourite topological tricks, card tricks and mathematical puzzles. Even those of the public who proclaimed they were bad at maths went away enthused by what they had learnt and wanting to share their new knowledge with friends and family. I hope that we can run such events more frequently instead of waiting for Doors Open Day every year!

This hope is not a forlorn one, as I have big plans brewing… I am currently recruiting undergraduates and postgraduates to be on my new Maths Outreach Team (with unfortunate acronym MOT), and hope to have a team of 10 people trained up and ready to engage by the middle of October. Once they are unleashed on the unsuspecting city of Edinburgh, there will be no end to the school workshops, festival exhibitions, website articles and puzzles, public lectures and impromptu maths busking. At least, that is the plan. If you know of any maths undergrads who would be interested in this, please spread the word!

On that note, it is time for me to head off and hatch more nefarious outreach plans. Please do leave a comment if you were at Doors Open Day, my masterclass, or if you have comments on the difficulties of being rewarded for good outreach and lecturing. Until next time…

Guest Post: Topological Crystallography in Stockholm

Here I am at one of the beamlines at Petra synchrotron, at DESY, Hamburg. The tube behind me is where the beam comes from… scary!

Albert here! Some of you may recognise me from Haggis’ Twitter feed and from Haggis’ 2011 New Year’s post (along with the rest of our family!). Last week I was in Hamburg at PETRA III, a synchrotron at DESY. After some successful measurements there, I made the short hop across the Baltic Sea to the lovely city of Stockholm, for the 4th International School on Crystal Topology.

First I should say a little about what I do. I’m interested in chemistry, especially materials called Metal-Organic Frameworks (MOFs).

An example of one of the first MOFs, MOF-5. Chemists use rigid organic struts (top left) to link clusters of metal atoms (in this case four zinc atoms, bottom left) to build open framework-like materials (right).

These are a new type of material made from clusters of metal and oxygen atoms which are linked together by long rigid linkers – think of it kind of like a climbing frame. These materials are interesting as they might help to combat climate change by sieving out CO2 in a process called Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS made it into the Oxford English Dictionary recently!).

But what does this have to do with topology? Chemists simplify the structures of MOFs down to a series of rods (edges) and nodes where these rods meet (vertices) – the simplified structures are mathematical graphs. We can then see how the structure is connected together as a network, without unnecessary molecular clutter. As chemists we want a way to classify the networks of our materials for two reasons. Firstly, so we can see if similar networks have been made before by other researchers, and secondly to help us design new materials. We might, for example, find that a certain network is really good at storing CO2; using a linker molecule which holds onto CO2 really well and the right topology to form our target network, we could make a new material which is even better at capturing CO2. To classify our networks we need to use graph theory.

Charlotte Bonneau (left), Michael O’Keeffe (middle left), the person I hitched a lift to Stockholm with (middle right), Xiaodong Zou (right)

However chemists are not normally trained in graph theory, so this was the aim of the Stockholm school. The school was taught by Prof. Michael O’Keeffe (emeritus Regents’ Professor at Arizona State University), who taught us about the mathematical ideas necessary to deconstruct a crystalline network, and Dr Charlotte Bonneau (currently a full time mother to the adorable Leonie), who focussed more on the use of software to analyse crystal structures, such as systre and Topos.

During Mike’s lectures we were told about the graph isomorphism problem of determining whether two finite graphs have the same connectivity. This is of importance to chemists, as we want to be able to compare our networks to see if they have been reported before! Graph isomorphism is also a specific example of one of the million dollar maths problems, P versus NP, which asks whether every problem for which a solution can be quickly checked, may also be quickly solved by a computer. One of Mike’s collaborators, Dr Olaf Delgado-Friedrichs, has attempted to address the graph isomorphism problem in the program systre. systre uses a barycentric method to raise the symmetry of a collection of atoms in a graph to the highest symmetry representation. The barycentric representation is effectively like replacing all the edges in the graph with springs and these pulling the vertices to their weighted average positions. Although systre is able to classify most graphs, it is unable to deal with graphs where applying the barycentric approach causes two nodes to collapse into one another (a so-called collision – see picture). So unfortunately, it’s not a complete solution to P versus NP.

A graph showing a collision. When you put this into a baricentric representation, the two red nodes collapse into one another. Back to the drawing board for a solution to the graph isomorphism problem then…

The rest of the course was full of lots of useful information which will help in making new materials and further classifying old ones. The course as a whole was a lot of fun and it was great to meet such a friendly bunch of people! That’s it from me for the minute, but look out for more photos of me on Twitter at exciting scientific/mathematical locations – Albert out.

A Night in Wonderland

On 18th May I was lucky enough to get involved with my first RBS Museum Lates at the National Museum of Scotland. These events happen about 3 times a year and are a chance for the (over 18) public to come back into the museum after hours and to get cosy with the exhibits with a cocktail and live band. It’s also a chance for science (and arts!) communicators like me to run an activity and get some surreptitious education into the evening. theme for this month’s Museum Late was “A Night in Wonderland”, so there were lots of top hats, white rabbits and red queens! (See lots of photos of the event on the Museum’s Flickr page.) Knowing that Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Dodgson) was a mathematician and logician as well as nonsense-poem writer, it seemed wrong for there not to be a mathematical component to the evening so I got together with Madeleine Shepherd (from ICMS) to brainstorm some ideas…

Our first idea was to get the public to make some Fortunatus’ purses. A Fortunatus’ purse appears in the novel Sylvie and Bruno by Lewis Carroll and is based on the old tale of Fortunatus, who has a purse which replenishes itself with money as often as coins are drawn from it. If you read the book you’ll find instructions for making such a purse by sewing together the edges of 3 handkerchiefs in an unexpected way.

FortunatusPurse Step 1

‘You shall first,’ said Mein Herr, possessing himself of two of the handkerchiefs, spreading one upon the other, and holding them up by two corners, ‘you shall first join together these upper corners, the right to the right, the left to the left; and the opening between them shall be the mouth of the Purse.’

FortunatusPurse Step 2

Now, this third handkerchief,’ Mein Herr proceeded, ‘has four edges, which you can trace continuously round and round: all you need do is to join its four edges to the four edges of the opening…’

The mathematical object created is one which has no inside or outside – it is called non-orientable, and is (of course) not possible to make in 3 dimensions without part of the purse intersecting itself. Some of you may be thinking that this is a Klein Bottle, but it is actually a different creature called a Projective Plane.

However, whilst doing the practice run for the purse-making, we found that it took quite a long time, was fairly fiddly and would involve giving drunk people sharp needles. Probably not the best idea. (But we might do this in a future maths/craft event!)

So instead we came up with the “Snark Constellation Challenge”, inspired in equal parts by the Lewis Carroll poem The Hunting of the Snark and by a mathematical object in graph theory called a snark. Visitors were invited to play a game which involved colouring the lines between stars in a constellation, and were challenged to colour the lines using only 3 colours.

Petersen Graph

Can you colour the lines with 3 colours so that at each star, 3 different colours meet?

There were two games the visitors could play: working collaboratively to find a colouring of all the lines, or working competitively to be the last person to draw a valid line. Have a go at the puzzle and see if you can colour the lines before reading on!

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Edinburgh Sci Fest 2012 (Part 2)

Welcome back to part 2 of my write up of our exhibit at the Edinburgh International Science Festival. As you may remember, we were running a series of games and activities to test people’s probability skills and to see how people would react to the stats in a courtroom. In this post I will go through the solutions to the various questions we asked, so if you haven’t had a go at them yet then make sure to have a go now!

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Edinburgh Science Festival 2012

Hello maths fans!  It’s been a very busy semester for your favourite geek sheep: sorting out activities for undergrads in Innovative Learning Week, lecturing Y1 undergrads in Proofs & Problem Solving, organising business/academic networking events, doing an art/science exhibition, and running an exhibition at the Edinburgh International Science Festival. Hopefully now that I have some time, you can look forward to blog posts about all of these things. 🙂

csi-museumToday’s post is about our science festival fun. We (the School of Maths) teamed up with the School of Chemistry and went for a CSI-themed activity.The premise was that a priceless Egyptian vase had been stolen from the Museum and the visitors had to work out whodunnit. Using chemistry they had to analyse fingerprints and blood samples, and use UV and infrared data to identify substances found at the scene of the crime. After deciding on their prime suspect, they came over to the maths section, which was the courtroom. Here they had to weigh up the probabilities and statistics and then decide on whether their suspect was innocent or guilty.

Just as in real life, we didn’t reveal who actually did it, because we often don’t know for sure. And actually, we hoped that (despite all the evidence) the visitors would vote ‘Innocent’ because the evidence certainly didn’t prove anything beyond all reasonable doubt.

cocaine next to a £20 note

Most £20 notes have traces of cocaine on them.

I’ve had my heart set on doing something like this for a while because I wanted to publicise the great work that our Forensic Statisticians (Colin Aitken and Amy Wilson) are doing right here in Edinburgh. They are analysing the occurence of drugs like cocaine on banknotes to help the police decide when someone is really a drug dealer. Apparently (and don’t quote me on this) most £20 notes (like, over 80%) have got traces of cocaine on them, so the police need help in deciding when the notes have been involved in drugs crime or when they have just accidently been placed next to the ‘dirty’ notes in a shop till.

Colin has also appeared as an expert witness in a few trials and has helped to write books to educate judges and lawyers about statistics. Like the general population, judges and lawyers often have a very bad intuition about probabilities. But unlike the general public, their decisions can really affect people’s lives. The classic example is the Sally Clark case. An expert witness for the prosecution claimed that there was a 1 in 73 million chance that two cot deaths could happen naturally in the same family, and therefore that Sally must have murdered her children. Not only was this statistic wildly wrong (the actual figure is about 1 in 100,000) but the conclusion of guilt is also wrong. Neither side took into account the probability of her innocence: despite the unlikelihood of double cot death, double murder is (statistically) even more unlikely. Such a mistake is called the Prosecutor’s Fallacy. In Sally’s case, it led to her spending 3 years in prison for a crime she never committed and then committing suicide a few years after she was freed.

So anyway, the idea behind our science festival exhibit was to show people how bad they were at judging probabilities and to introduce the idea of Bayesian Statistics (which is behind things like the Prosecutor’s Fallacy). Have a go at these questions and see if you can solve them! Answers will be provided in the next blog post.

Goat on a Ferrari

The Monty Hall problem assumes you'd rather win a car than a goat. This is not true for everybody.

1) One of the most famous examples of conditional probability is called the Monty Hall problem, or the Car-Goat problem. You are on a gameshow, trying to win a car. You definitely don’t want to win a goat. There are three doors, behind which the host of the show has hidden 2 goats and a car. You choose the door which you think conceals the car. The host then opens a different door to reveal a goat. Finally, you get to choose: should you stick with your original choice of door, or should you swap? Or does it make no difference?

2) On very similar lines is the following queston. I flip two coins and tell you at least one of them is a head. What’s the chance that the other one is also showing a head?

3) In a lottery there are a 10 numbers in a bag and you win the jackpot if you correctly predict which 4 numbers get pulled out. What are the chances of winning the jackpot? What are the chances of predicting 3 out of the 4 numbers?

4) If 100 people each flip a fair coin 5 times, how many of them will we expect to flip 5 heads?

5) On the wall there is a calendar for 2012. Visitors to the museum put their birthday on the chart as they come in. After how many visitors do we expect to see the first shared birthday? (I.e. two people with the same birthday.)

confused old woman

Betty only sees what she thinks 2/3 of the time.

6) An eyewitness, Betty, says she saw a suspect leaving the scene of the crime, and that the suspect was wearing a hat. Betty is shortsighted and only correctly identifies hats 2 out of 3 times. That is, 1 time out of 3 she will think that someone is wearing a hat when they aren’t, and 1 time out of 3 she will think that someone isn’t wearing a hat when they are. If 10% of the Edinburgh population wears a hat, what are the chances that the suspect was really wearing a hat?

Needless to say, most visitors to the exhibit found these questions very difficult, but that was the point. We wanted to teach people not to trust their intuition when it comes to probability, and especially not if they are in a jury on a court case!

Many thanks to all who visited us in the Museum and played all our games with us! I hope you all had a good time and learnt something new. 🙂