Mathematics Celebration at the Royal Institution

Just had rather a full day in London, a lot of it spent at the Royal Institution (Ri).

Earlier in the year my daughter attended a series of Saturday Mathematics Masterclasses for Year 8 & 9 students at the University of Surrey. These were organised locally but under the aegis of the Ri, and today she went up to a Mathematics June Celebration for attendees of these Masterclasses, with me for company. The talks were given in the lecture theatre at the Ri, which is best known for the Christmas Lectures held there each year.

There were two lectures in the morning – first up was Prof. Chris Budd (University of Bath). He talked about some of the practical problems he has put his mathematical knowledge to solving, each of the examples he gave having an animal link. He was employed by Artis Zoo in Amsterdam to work out how to keep their giant aquarium’s temperature down, and he produced a formula that could be used to predict the water temperature if any of the variables were altered; he was subsequently employed by Bristol Zoo to work out why, if a penguin egg is incubated by its mother it will have a >90% likelihood of hatching successfully, whereas eggs in an artificial incubator had a <50% chance. He then talked about crowd behaviour, showing that the same mathematical techniques can be used to predict starling flock behaviour and movement of crowds of people. Moving on to bees, an ability to monitor bee behaviour in hives was needed, but when using scanning equipment (eg CAT scanner) the radiation doses needed to produce meaningful images were lethal to the bees; he devised a means of solving tomography equations rapidly using advanced mathematical algorithms which produced a definition where it is not only possible to identify individual bees, the resolution is such that mites on the bees can be seen, and processes in the bees’ digestive tracts can be seen. Lastly he discussed origami, in particular that produced by Robert Lang and Erik Demaine.

Next was The John Crank Memorial Lecture, given by Prof. Alan Davies. John Crank used to give talks in the Maths Masterclasses about mechanics, and this talk ran through subjects such as Newton’s Laws of Motion and the conservation of momentum, and vectors, using demonstrations such as John Crank himself would have used – including a swing hanging from the ceiling of the lecture theatre.

Knowing the building, I was out the door, down the stairs and into the excellent café for lunch before anyone else, and just as well, as the queue which immediately formed behind me was rather lengthy.

In the afternoon came Dr. Colin Wright giving a talk called Patterns Fail, but Proofs are Forever. This was about finding, checking, and proving patterns in numbers, and showing that intuition, like patterns, can fail. Who’d have thought that someone talking about squares, roots, and prime numbers, prime pairs, Pascal’s Triangle, Pell’s Equation, and the Collatz Conjecture for over an hour could get a lecture theatre full of young teenagers going like a pantomime audience?

When we’d finished I got my daughter onto a train at Victoria Station, and then with about four hours to spare I became a flâneur – I took me off down the hot streets, past Buckingham Palace and through St James’s Park to Trafalgar Square and then into the National Portrait Gallery (I imagine they wish that they weren’t covered with the BP Portrait Award exhibition banners at the moment). Here I spent some time in the company of a large number of people, including among many others, Tobias Smollett, John Evelyn, Samuel Pepys, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, Mrs Thrale, Fanny Burney, Horace Walpole, and Alexander Pope.

And then it was through Leicester Square, into Chinatown for a bit of a wander, then down Piccadilly and back to the Royal Institution for the Friday Evening Discourse  delivered by Prof. V S Ramachandran.

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