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Maths lecture with Marcus du Sautoy

17 Nov 2015

On Monday the 16th November I took the students of the Further Mathematics class to see a series of three lectures at the Camden centre near King’s Cross in Holborn. The lectures took place in a large auditorium with about three hundred students and teachers. A minute’s silence was observed at 11 o’clock to pay respect to the victims of the attacks in Paris the previous Friday.

The first talk was given by Hugh Cartwright on the perils of interpreting data on global warming. He showed various graphs which seemed to prove categorically that climate change was taking place and that it was due to human activity. Then he produced other graphs which showed that not only was there no global warming but also that humans had nothing to do with the whole process. So, the main lesson was that statistics and data presentation can be very misleading.

The second talk was given by Matt Parker, also known as the stand-up Mathematician. This was very entertaining as his style of lecturing was just like a stand-up comedian. He mainly talked about four dimensions and the difficulty of being able to visualise a four dimensional object. He explained what it would be like for a being living in a two dimensional world trying to understand what a three dimensional object could be. He presented a lot of very interesting diagrams which showed what a two dimensional being would see if a three dimensional cube passed through his world. Then he explained what we, as three dimensional beings, would see if a four dimensional object passed through our world; very interesting but difficult to grasp. Continuing this theme he started off with a paper rectangle in two dimensions and folded it to make a Mobius strip which is a three dimensional object. He then showed us a three dimensional version of a Mobius strip, called a torus (often thought of as a doughnut), and then gave us an impression of how we would see a torus in four dimensions. He had even persuaded his mum to knit him a woolly hat with this shape and offered us the knitting pattern she used.

The final talk was given by the man himself: Marcus du Sautoy. As soon as he started talking it was clear that he is a real powerhouse of a mathematician. His lecture was about algorithms. He always invites students on stage to work through a process so that we can see in practice the various stages. He mentioned many algorithms but the main one he used was the one invented by Alvin Roth and Lloyd Shapley who won the Nobel prize in 2012. It’s all about match making. He invited four boys and four girls up on stage and each person represented a King or Queen of spades, hearts, diamonds or clubs. First of all he showed that if you don’t use any algorithm at all and try to match them up the result is quite poor. Nobody gets the most suitable partner. Then, he applied the algorithm and after three iterations the best matches were found. It was rather complicated and he performed the iterations a bit too quickly but we understood the general idea. Last of all he looked at the problem which often comes up in the decision maths (D1) exam, namely the Chinese postman’s dilemma. He ended up by saying that if we could find an algorithm which would find the shortest route we would win a prize of one million dollars. Maybe that would be an interesting challenge for us one lunch-time.

All in all it was a very interesting day.

Dr Geoff Higginson

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