David Singerman: X + Y the movie

[To appear in the LMS Newsletter]

There are now an increasing number of movies where mathematics plays an important role. Usually we are let down by the parts featuring the maths because the makers of the film have little knowledge about our subject. So it is a real pleasure to review x+y a beautiful film where the mathematics is carefully done but not in a way that will put off a non-mathematical audience. The director is Morgan Matthews who also made the BBC4 documentary Beautiful Young Minds about the Mathematical Olympiad and the film is clearly based on this documentary. This documentary can be seen on Youtube.

The main character is Nathan. From the BBC synopsis

Preferring to hide in the safety of his own private world, Nathan struggles to connect with people, often pushing away those who want to be closest to him, including his mother, Julie. Without the ability to understand love or affection, Nathan finds the comfort and security he needs in numbers and mathematics.

Even though there are similarities between this film and the documentary, the main story line is totally fictitious. Near the beginning, Nathan, who has Asperger’s syndrome, is involved in a car crash which kills his father to whom he was very close. He is then mentored by his maths teacher Martin Humphreys, who when young had taken part in the Mathematics Olympiad. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis but also has other problems to do with self worth and soft drugs and ended up being a secondary school teacher.

Humphreys recognizes Nathan’s abilities and persuades him to enter for the Olympiad. He goes to the preliminaries in Taipei.

One of the scenes where there is actual maths is when Nathan is brought to the board to explain how to solve a problem. This involves playing cards which can be face up or face down.

Nathan’s solution is to model this with binary arithmetic involving 0s and 1s and he then turns the problem into an arithmetic one which is easy to solve.

In Taipei he meets Zhang Mei, a girl on the Chinese team. The film concentrates on two relationships. One between Nathan and Zhang Mei and the other between Martin Humphreys and Julie.

The scene moves from Taipei to Cambridge where the Maths Olympiad takes place.

There is real pathos in the final scenes. One where Nathan finally opens himself up to his Mother, and another when Nathan and Zhang Mei while travelling back from Cambridge by train see a rainbow and the viewer feels that their relationship will last. At last, Nathan feels and understands love and affection. Some critics have thought that this ending is too soapy, but if you see the documentary on which this film is based, the rainbow really was there!

One should also mention the excellent cast. Nathan was played by Asa Butterfield, Martin by Ralf Spall, Julie by Sally Hawkins and Zang Mei by Jo Yang. A lovely film where mathematics plays a central role.

Geoff Smith on X + Y

Reposted from the UKMT’s Newsletter:

In March 2015, the film  X + Y  will appear in cinemas all over the UK. This is a romantic drama, and explores a collection of intense personal relationships. One of the main characters is a teenaged boy (played by Asa Butterfield) who competes enthusiastically in UKMT competitions, and who dreams of going to the International Mathematical Olympiad. Several leading actors decorate the cast (Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Rafe Spall, Jo Yang). The film was made with the co-operation of UKMT and the IMO, and logos and flags appear accordingly. The film has secured international distribution contracts, and will be seen in many countries, and on airlines.

This film grew out of the BBC2 documentary “Beautiful Young Minds”, and the common director is Morgan Matthews. If UKMT were to make such a film (an exceptionally bad suggestion), the emphasis would be much more on the mathematics and less on the relationships. Morgan Matthews has become very interested in the way people on the autistic spectrum can prosper in mathematics. There has been a natural concern in the maths community that portraying some mathematicians as being less than socially fluent is dangerous, because it could lead to the misapprehension that mathematicians are all strange.

My personal view is that the prefix “mis” in the previous sentence can be deleted. All mathematicians are strange because they place such an exceptional value on thought, ideas and understanding. I think that the maths community should be proud of the way it embraces people on the basis of their enthusiasm for and interest in mathematics. University maths departments are happy places, where the socially adroit rub along in harmony with people who live in more private spaces. The trick is mutual respect and affection. This is equally true of UKMT maths camps. Most students are relaxed and outgoing, with the full set of skills that allow them to prosper in the teenage social maelstrom. Some others are not, but everyone gets along almost all of the time, united by a passion for ideas and ingenuity. We all know maths people who sometimes appear confused and nervous, but who have beautiful mathematical insights.

Things would be even better if women and all racial groups were richly represented in the maths community, and UKMT has done excellent work on the gender issue by founding the European Girls’ Mathematical Olympiad and running the annual talent search examination, the UK Maths Olympiad for Girls. The mentoring schemes make an excellent education in mathematical problem solving available to all social groups. However, while social inclusion is very much “work in progress”, the incorporation of people on the autistic spectrum into the wider maths community seems to be a great success, and in my view, a cause for celebration.

Geoff Smith, Chair of the BMO and the IMO, University of Bath.

Disclaimer: Geoff was involved in assisting to make X + Y, so his views are not impartial.

Steven Strogatz: Whi Pi Matters

Our American colleagues celebrate today Pi Day, although, technically speaking, it is American Pi Day: for the rest of the world, today is 14/03/14. A brilliant article by Steven Strogartz in The New Yorker, a brief quote:

What distinguishes pi from all other numbers is its connection to cycles. For those of us interested in the applications of mathematics to the real world, this makes pi indispensable. Whenever we think about rhythms—processes that repeat periodically, with a fixed tempo, like a pulsing heart or a planet orbiting the sun—we inevitably encounter pi. There it is in the formula for a Fourier series: […]

Read the whole article.

Cameron’s £15,000 for maths and science teachers

From BBC:

David Cameron is to announce a £15,000 university bursary for teenagers with good A-level maths and science grades, if they commit to enter teaching.

This “golden hello” for teenagers is an attempt to recruit more maths and physics teachers for England’s schools. […]

These will begin with pilot projects, with a so far unspecified number of places, which will see incentives for young people to sign up for teaching before going to university.

The £15,000 over three years for potential teachers would help with living costs and would be repayable if students did not go on to teach for three years after graduating

Read full article.

David Mumford on Grothendieck and magazine “Nature”

Can one explain schemes to biologists

December 14, 2014

John Tate and I were asked by Nature magazine to write an obituary for Alexander Grothendieck. Now he is a hero of mine, the person that I met most deserving of the adjective “genius”. I got to know him when he visited Harvard and John, Shurik (as he was known) and I ran a seminar on “Existence theorems”. His devotion to math, his disdain for formality and convention, his openness and what John and others call his naiveté struck a chord with me.

So John and I agreed and wrote the obituary below. Since the readership of Nature were more or less entirely made up of non-mathematicians, it seemed as though our challenge was to try to make some key parts of Grothendieck’s work accessible to such an audience. Obviously the very definition of a scheme is central to nearly all his work, and we also wanted to say something genuine about categories and cohomology. Here’s what we came up with:

Continue reading

Andreas Schleicher: Seven big myths about top-performing school systems

A paper by Andreas Schleicher, , at the BBC website. The list of “seven big myths”:

  1. Disadvantaged pupils are doomed to do badly in school
  2. Immigrants lower results
  3. It’s all about money
  4. Smaller class sizes raise standards
  5. Comprehensive systems for fairness, academic selection for higher results
  6. The digital world needs new subjects and a wider curriculum
  7. Success is about being born talented

In my [AB] humble opinion,  this appears to be the case when the negations of myths are myths, too (with a possible exception of no. 7). School systems cannot, and should not, be compared without first having a close look at socio-economic, cultural, and political environments of their home countries.

Unconscious biases

From  The New York Times: Is the Professor Bossy or Brilliant? Much Depends on Gender. By Claire Cain Miller, February 6, 2015

Male professors are brilliant, awesome and knowledgeable. Women are bossy and annoying, and beautiful or ugly.

These are a few of the results from a new interactive chart that was gaining notice on social media Friday. Benjamin Schmidt, a Northeastern University history professor, says he built the chart using data from 14 million student reviews on the Rate My Professors site. It allows you to search for any word to see how often it appeared in reviews and how it broke down by gender and department.

The chart makes vivid unconscious biases. The implications go well beyond professors and college students, to anyone who gives or receives feedback or performance reviews.

It suggests that people tend to think more highly of men than women in professional settings, praise men for the same things they criticize women for, and are more likely to focus on a woman’s appearance or personality and on a man’s skills and intelligence. […]

Studies have also shown that students can be biased against female professors. In one, teachers graded and returned papers to students at the exact same time, but when asked to rate their promptness, students gave female professors lower scores than men. Biases cut both ways — teachers have also been found to believe girls are not as good in math and science, even when they perform similarly to boys.

Ivor Grattan-Guinness obituary

From The Guardian, by Tony Crilly

Energetic historian of mathematics and logic

When Ivor Grattan-Guinness, who has died aged 73 of heart failure, became interested in the history of mathematics in the 1960s, it was an area of study widely considered to be irrelevant to mathematics proper, or something that older mathematicians did on retirement. As an undergraduate at Oxford, he found that mathematics was presented drily, with no inkling of the original motivations behind its development. So Ivor set himself the task of asking “What happened in the past?” – as opposed, he said, to taking the heritage viewpoint of asking “How did we get here?”

Read in full.

Ivor Owen Grattan-Guinness, historian of mathematics and logic, born 23 June 1941; died 12 December 2014

MBE to a maths clubs volunteer

From BBC:

A man who runs free maths classes for primary age children has been recognised in the New Year Honours list with an MBE.

Gbolahan Bright has been running the Bright Academy maths clubs for primary age children in London and Essex for the past 20 years.

“I have gained a lot from this society. I have been blessed and it would have been ungrateful of me if I did not give back,” he said.

Of the 500 or so children who have taken the classes, about 50 gained their GCSE while still at primary school.

Read more.

Film and discussion: “Colours of Math”

18 November 2014, , at Pushkin House.  From an advertisement:

The independent documentary “Colours of Math” (2012) by Ekaterina Eremenko – a German-based, American-trained, Russian-born documentary producer and mathematician – has been an unlikely runaway success.  It has been translated into 12 languages, and screened around the world.

With six mathematicians from different countries and six senses that lead them in their journey of discovery, the movie gives an insight into the mystery of abstract mathematical ideas and creative thinking.

The screening (60 min) is followed by a round table discussion. What is happening in contemporary mathematics? Are there particular national schools of thought and traditions of education? Prominent mathematicians will share their views on these questions.

Speakers:

Professor Sergey Foss, Heriot Watt University

Professor Leonid Parnovski, University College London

Professor Eugene Shargorodsky, Kings College London

Dr June Barrow-Green, Open University