Tuesday 25 December 2012

Isaac Newton 25 December 1642 – 20 March 1727

Isaac Newton, 1689
Christmas Day 2012 marks the 370th anniversary of the birth of Sir Isaac Newton, arguably England's greatest ever mathematician. His achievements in maths and the sciences are wide-ranging and monumental.

Newton made seminal discoveries in several areas of science, and was considered the leading scientist of his era. His study of optics included using a prism to show white light could be split into a spectrum of colours. The statement of his three laws of motion are fundamental in the study of mechanics. He was the first to suggest that the moon is falling in a circle around the earth, under the same influence of gravity as a falling apple, as described by his law of universal gravitation.

As a mathematician, Newton devised infinitesimal calculus to make the calculations needed in his studies, which he published in his greatest work, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687. In the development of differential and integral calculus, Newton shares credit with the German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz, who made similar discoveries independently, at around the same time. In the late 17th century, the two men were locked, for some time, in a bitter dispute around these developments, with Newton accusing the German of plagiarism and worse. It is notation more similar to that adopted by Leibniz that is used in modern-day calculus.

Newton's theory of gravitation survived intact until the early 20th century, when Einstein's work on relativity modified, extended or supplanted it to some extent.

The dispute with Leibniz casts a shadow over the great man's life. There was, however, an element of modesty, when he wrote to another rival, Robert Hooke, "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."

Isaac Newton's work was remarkable, ground-breaking and wide-ranging. No doubt many others will continue to stand on Newton's own shoulders, in the extraordinary mathematical discoveries that, no doubt, the future will hold.

Thursday 20 December 2012

Turing Competition

There has been a lot of interest in code-breaking recently - cryptography to use the posh word. You may remember the secret message attached to a pigeon's leg, found mysteriously in somebody's chimney, a message that still baffles cryptographers 70 years after it was written.

Alan Turing was one of the finest British code-breakers during World War II. Some of his work, along with the work of others at Bletchley Park, is supposed to have shortened the war by perhaps 2 years.

After the war, Turing went to Manchester University, where he helped to develop one of the country's first computers. To celebrate his life and work, Manchester University are running a code-breaking competition to begin in the New Year.

The competition is open to secondary school pupils up to Year 11 (England and Wales), S4 (Scotland) or Year 12 (Northern Ireland). It runs from January to April 2013 and is based on a story that runs in six episodes. In each episode there is a new code-breaking challenge to solve.

To enter the competition, you will need a team of pupils. The website features a discussion forum and a leaderboard. Prizes are Amazon vouchers, with members of the winning team receiving £30 of vouchers each and a trophy for the school.

If you think you're up to the Turing Challenge, have a go and good luck!

Wednesday 12 December 2012

Competition: Maths Writers Wanted

Ever wanted to be a writer? Do you have something good, important or amusing to say about maths or maths education? Here's a chance to prove your flair for the written word in a competition organised by Plus Magazine and the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications. The competition has been launched to celebrate 50 years of the IMA.

The winning article, and possibly some of the runners-up, will be published in a forthcoming book provisionally named fifty.

You can choose to write on a topic in any one of the following categories:
  • The best maths of the last fifty years, including strange or interesting biography;
  • Popular maths: sport, arts (prose, poetry and visual media), social science;
  • Maths at work: medicine, finance, the environment, government;
  • Quirky maths, humour, spoof and magic;
  • Philosophy/psychology of maths, maths in education.

The article should appeal to readers of popular science books, and those with any interest in mathematics. It should be aimed at an international audience. But it is vitally important that the article should avoid over-simplification.

Any questions concerning the competition should be emailed to 50book@ima.org.uk .
Any format for the document will be accepted. Please submit your article by email to IMA50@maths.cam.ac.uk by 15 January 2013 with 'competition entry' as the email subject. More details can be found on the Plus website.

Thursday 6 December 2012

MathsBank Advent Calendar

The MathsBank Advent Calendar is well underway.

Check out Peter's Christmas card collection that is getting out of control on Day 4.
Or the strange expanding present beneath the Christmas tree on 5.
There are also some mathematical tips on staying sober at the office Christmas party on Day 3.

Keep opening those doors for more festive fun. And see how many of the problems you can answer correctly before Christmas Eve.