Tag Archives: Alex Bellos

Maths gallery at the UK’s Science Museum takes flight

Mathematics: The Winton Gallery at the Science Museum, Zaha Hadid Architects’ only permanent public museum exhibition design. London. Photograph: Nicholas Guttridge/NIck Guttridge

This exhibition looks great in the picture, I wonder what the experience is like. Alex Bellos is certainly enthusiastic in his Dec. 7, 2016 posting on the Guardian’s website,

Mathematics underlies all science, so for a science museum to be worthy of the name, maths needs to included somewhere. Yet maths, which deals mainly in abstract objects, is [a] challenge for museums, which necessarily contain physical ones. The Science Museum’s approach in its new gallery is to tell historical stories about the influence of mathematics in the real world, rather than actually focussing directly on the mathematical ideas involved. The result is a stunning gallery, with fascinating objects beautifully laid out, yet which eschews explaining any maths. (If you want to learn simple mathematical ideas, you can always head to the museum’s new interactive gallery, Wonderlab).

Much of the attention on Mathematics: The Winton Gallery – the main funders are David Harding, founder and CEO of investment firm Winton, and his wife Claudia – has been on Zaha Hadid’s design. The gallery is the first UK project by Zaha Hadid Architects to open since her unexpected death in March [2016], and the only permanent public museum exhibition she designed. Her first degree was in maths, before she turned to architecture.

Hanging from the ceiling is an aeroplane – the Handley Page ‘Gugnunc’, built in 1929 for a competition to build safe aircraft – and surrounding it is a swirly ceiling sculpture that represents the mathematical equations that describe airflow. In fact, the entire gallery follows the contours of the flow, providing the positions of the cabinets below.

The Science Museum’s previous maths gallery, which had not been updated in decades, contained about 600 objects, including cabinets crammed with geometrical objects and many examples of the same thing, such as medieval slide rules or Victorian curve-drawing machines. The new gallery has less than a quarter of that number of objects in the same space.

Every object now is in its own cabinet, and the extra space means you can walk around them from all angles, as well as making the gallery feel more manageable. Rather than being bombarded with stuff, you are given a single object to contemplate that tells part of a wider story.

In a section on “form and beauty”, there is a modern replica of a 1920s chair based on French architect’s Le Corbusier’s Modulor system of proportions, and two J W Turner sketches from his Royal Academy lectures on perspective.

The section “trade and travel” has a 3-metre long replica of the 1973 Globtik Tokyo oil tanker, then the largest ship in the world. In its massive cabinet it looks as terrifying as a Damien Hirst shark. The maths link? Because British mathematician William Froode a century before had worked out that bulbous bows were better than sharp bows at the fronts of boats and ships.

The new maths gallery is a wonderfully attractive space, full of interesting and thought-provoking objects, and a very welcome addition [geddit?] to London’s museums. Go!

A Dec. 8 (?), 2016 [London, UK] Science Museum press release is the first example I’ve seen of the funders being highlighted quite so prominently, i.e., before the press release proper,

Mathematics: The Winton Gallery designed by Zaha Hadid Architects opens at the Science Museum

  • A stunning new permanent gallery that reveals the importance of mathematics in all our lives through remarkable historical artefacts, stories and design
  • Free to visit and open daily from 8 December 2016
  • The only permanent public museum exhibition designed by Zaha Hadid anywhere in the world

Principal Funder: David and Claudia Harding
Principal Sponsor: Samsung
Major Sponsor: MathWorks

On 8 December 2016 the Science Museum will open an inspirational new mathematics gallery, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects.

Mathematics: The Winton Gallery brings together remarkable stories, historical artefacts and design to highlight the central role of mathematical practice in all our lives, and explores how mathematicians, their tools and ideas have helped build the modern world over the past four centuries.

More than 100 treasures from the Science Museum’s world-class science, technology, engineering and mathematics collections have been selected to tell powerful stories about how mathematics has shaped, and been shaped by, some of our most fundamental human concerns – from trade and travel to war, peace, life, death, form and beauty.

Curator Dr David Rooney said, ‘At its heart this gallery reveals a rich cultural story of human endeavour that has helped transform the world over the last four hundred years. Mathematical practice underpins so many aspects of our lives and work, and we hope that bringing together these remarkable stories, people and exhibits will inspire visitors to think about the role of mathematics in a new light.’

Positioned at the centre of the gallery is the Handley Page ‘Gugnunc’ aeroplane, built in 1929 for a competition to construct safe aircraft. Ground-breaking aerodynamic research influenced the wing design of this experimental aeroplane, helping to shift public opinion about the safety of flying and to secure the future of the aviation industry. This aeroplane encapsulates the gallery’s overarching theme, illustrating how mathematical practice has helped solve real-world problems and in this instance paved the way for the safe passenger flights that we rely on today.

Mathematics also defines Zaha Hadid Architects’ enlightening design for the gallery. Inspired by the Handley Page aircraft, the design is driven by equations of airflow used in the aviation industry. The layout and lines of the gallery represent the air that would have flowed around this historic aircraft in flight, from the positioning of the showcases and benches to the three-dimensional curved surfaces of the central pod structure.

Mathematics: The Winton Gallery is the first permanent public museum exhibition designed by Zaha Hadid Architects anywhere in the world. The gallery is also the first of Zaha Hadid Architects’ projects to open in the UK since Dame Zaha Hadid’s sudden death in March 2016. The late Dame Zaha first became interested in geometry while studying mathematics at university. Mathematics and geometry have a strong connection with architecture and she continued to examine these relationships throughout each of her projects; with mathematics always central to her work. As Dame Zaha said, ‘When I was growing up in Iraq, math was an everyday part of life. We would play with math problems just as we would play with pens and paper to draw – math was like sketching.’

Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group, said, ‘We were hugely impressed by the ideas and vision of the late Dame Zaha Hadid and Patrik Schumacher when they first presented their design for the new mathematics gallery over two years ago. It was a terrible shock for us all when Dame Zaha died suddenly in March this year, but I am sure that this gallery will be a lasting tribute to this world-changing architect and provide inspiration for our millions of visitors for many years to come.’

From a beautiful 17th century Islamic astrolabe that uses ancient mathematical techniques to map the night sky, to an early example of the famous Enigma machine, designed to resist even the most advanced mathematical techniques for code breaking during the Second World War, each historic object within the gallery has an important story to tell. Archive photography and film helps to capture these stories, and introduces the wide range of people who made, used or were impacted by each mathematical device or idea.

Some instruments and objects within the gallery clearly reference their mathematical origin. Others may surprise visitors and appear rooted in other disciplines, from classical architecture to furniture design. Visitors will see a box of glass eyes used by Francis Galton in his 1884 Anthropometric Laboratory to help measure the physical characteristics of the British public and develop statistics to support a wider social and political movement he termed ‘eugenics’. On the other side of the gallery is the pioneering Wisard pattern-recognition machine built in 1981 to attempt to re-create the ‘neural networks’ of the brain. This early Artificial Intelligence machine worked, until 1995, on a variety of projects, from banknote recognition to voice analysis, and from foetal growth monitoring in hospitals to covert surveillance for the Home Office.

A richly illustrated book has been published by Scala to accompany the new gallery. Mathematics: How it Shaped Our World, written by David Rooney, expands on the themes and stories that are celebrated in the gallery itself and includes a series of newly commissioned essays written by world-leading experts in the history and modern practice of mathematics.

David Harding, Principal Funder of the gallery and Founder and CEO of Winton said, ‘Mathematics, whilst difficult for many, is incredibly useful. To those with an aptitude for it, it is also beautiful. I’m delighted that this gallery will be both useful and beautiful.’

Mathematics: The Winton Gallery is free to visit and open daily from 8 December 2016. The gallery has been made possible through an unprecedented donation from long-standing supporters of science, David and Claudia Harding. It has also received generous support from Samsung as Principal Sponsor, MathWorks as Major Sponsor, with additional support from Adrian and Jacqui Beecroft, Iain and Jane Bratchie, the Keniston-Cooper Charitable Trust, Dr Martin Schoernig, Steve Mobbs and Pauline Thomas.

After the press release, there is the most extensive list of ‘Abouts’ I’ve seen yet (Note: This includes links to the Science Museum and other agencies),

About the Science Museum
The Science Museum’s world-class collection forms an enduring record of scientific, technological and medical achievements from across the globe. Welcoming over 3 million visitors a year, the Museum aims to make sense of the science that shapes our lives, inspiring visitors with iconic objects, award-winning exhibitions and incredible stories of scientific achievement. More information can be found at sciencemuseum.org.uk

About Curator David Rooney
Mathematics: The Winton Gallery has been curated by Dr David Rooney, who was responsible for the award-winning 2012 Science Museum exhibition Codebreaker: Alan Turing’s Life and Legacy as well as developing galleries on time and navigation at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. David writes and speaks widely on the history of technology and engineering. His critically acclaimed first book, Ruth Belville: The Greenwich Time Lady, was described by Jonathan Meades as ‘an engrossing and eccentric slice of London history’, and by the Daily Telegraph as ‘a gem of a book’. He has recently authored Mathematics: How It Shaped Our World, to accompany the new mathematics gallery, and is currently writing a political history of traffic.

About David and Claudia Harding
David and Claudia Harding are associated with Winton, one of the world’s leading quantitative investment management firms which David founded in 1997. Winton uses mathematical and scientific methods to devise, evaluate and execute investment ideas on behalf of clients all over the world. A British-based company, Winton and David and Claudia Harding have donated to numerous scientific and mathematical causes in the UK and internationally, including Cambridge University, the Crick Institute, the Max Planck Institute, and the Science Museum. The main themes of their philanthropy have been supporting basic scientific research and the communication of scientific ideas. David and Claudia reside in London.

About Samsung’s Citizenship Programmes
Samsung is committed to help close the digital divide and skills gap in the UK. Samsung Digital Classrooms in schools, charities/non-profit organisations and cultural partners provide access to the latest technology. Samsung is also providing the training and maintenance support necessary to help make the transition and integration of the new technology as smooth as possible. Samsung also offers qualifications and training in technology for young people and teachers through its Digital Academies. These initiatives will inspire young people, staff and teachers to learn and teach in new exciting ways and to help encourage young people into careers using technology. Find out more

About MathWorks
MathWorks is the leading developer of mathematical computing software. MATLAB, the language of technical computing, is a programming environment for algorithm development, data analysis, visualisation, and numeric computation. Simulink is a graphical environment for simulation and Model-Based Design for multidomain dynamic and embedded systems. Engineers and scientists worldwide rely on these product families to accelerate the pace of discovery, innovation, and development in automotive, aerospace, electronics, financial services, biotech-pharmaceutical, and other industries. MATLAB and Simulink are also fundamental teaching and research tools in the world’s universities and learning institutions. Founded in 1984, MathWorks employs more than 3000 people in 15 countries, with headquarters in Natick, Massachusetts, USA. For additional information, visit mathworks.com

About Zaha Hadid Architects
Zaha Hadid founded Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) in 1979. Each of ZHA’s projects builds on over thirty years of exploration and research in the interrelated fields of urbanism, architecture and design. Hadid’s pioneering vision redefined architecture for the 21st century and captured imaginations across the globe. Her legacy is embedded within the DNA of the design studio she created as ZHA’s projects combine the unwavering belief in the power of invention with concepts of connectivity and fluidity.

ZHA is currently working on a diversity of projects worldwide including the new Beijing Airport Terminal Building in Daxing, China, the Sleuk Rith Institute in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and 520 West 28th Street in New York City, USA. The practice’s portfolio includes cultural, academic, sporting, residential, and transportation projects across six continents.

About Discover South Kensington
Discover South Kensington brings together the Science Museum and other leading cultural and educational organisations to promote innovation and learning. South Kensington is the home of science, arts and inspiration. Discovery is at the core of what happens here and there is so much to explore every day. discoversouthken.com

About Zaha Hadid: Early Paintings and Drawings at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery
This week an exhibition of paintings and drawings by Zaha Hadid will open at the Serpentine Galleries that will reveal her as an artist with drawing at the very heart of her work. It will include calligraphic drawings and rarely seen private notebooks, showing her complex thoughts about architecture’s forms and relationship to the world we live in. Zaha Hadid: Early Paintings and Drawings at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery is free to visit and runs from 8th December 2016 – 12th February 2017.

I found the mentions of Zaha Hadid fascinating and so I looked her up on Wikipedia, where I found this (Note: Links have been removed),

Dame Zaha Mohammad Hadid, DBE (Arabic: زها حديد‎‎ Zahā Ḥadīd; 31 October 1950 – 31 March 2016) was an Iraqi-born British architect. She was the first woman to receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize, in 2004.[1] She received the UK’s most prestigious architectural award, the Stirling Prize, in 2010 and 2011. In 2012, she was made a Dame by Elizabeth II for services to architecture, and in 2015 she became the first woman to be awarded the Royal Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects.[2]

She was dubbed by The Guardian as the ‘Queen of the curve’.[3] She liberated architectural geometry[4] with the creation of highly expressive, sweeping fluid forms of multiple perspective points and fragmented geometry that evoke the chaos and flux of modern life.[5] A pioneer of parametricism, and an icon of neo-futurism, with a formidable personality, her acclaimed work and ground-breaking forms include the aquatic centre for the London 2012 Olympics, the Broad Art Museum in the US, and the Guangzhou Opera House in China.[6] At the time of her death in 2016, Zaha Hadid Architects in London was the fastest growing British architectural firm.[7] Many of her designs are to be released posthumously, ranging in variation from the 2017 Brit Awards statuette to a 2022 FIFA World Cup stadium.[8][9]

Dubbed ‘Queen of the curve’, Hadid has a reputation as the world’s top female architect,[3][62][63][64][65] although her reputation is not without criticism. She is considered an architect of unconventional thinking, whose buildings are organic, dynamic and sculptural.[66][67] Stanton and others also compliment her on her unique organic designs: “One of the main characteristics of her work is that however clearly recognizable, it can never be pigeonholed into a stylistic signature. Digital knowledge, technology-driven mutations, shapes inspired by the organic and biological world, as well as geometrical interpretation of the landscape are constant elements of her practice. Yet, the multiplicity and variety of the combination among these facets prevent the risk of self-referential solutions and repetitions.”[68] Allison Lee Palmer considers Hadid a leader of Deconstructivism in architecture, writing that, “Almost all of Hadid’s buildings appear to melt, bend, and curve into a new architectural language that defies description. Her completed buildings span the globe and include the Jockey Club Innovation Tower on the north side of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Hong Kong, completed in 2013, that provides Hong Kong an entry into the world stage of cutting-edge architecture by revealing a design that dissolved traditional architecture, the so called modernist “glass box,” into a shattering of windows and melting of walls to form organic structures with halls and stairways that flow through the building, pooling open into rooms and foyers.”[69]

Hadid’s architectural language has been described by some as “famously extravagant” with many of her projects sponsored by “dictator states”. [emphasis mine] [70] Rowan Moore described Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Center as “not so different from the colossal cultural palaces long beloved of Soviet and similar regimes”. Architect Sean Griffiths characterised Hadid’s work as “an empty vessel that sucks in whatever ideology might be in proximity to it”.[71] Art historian Maike Aden criticises in particular the foreclosure of Zaha Hadid’s architecture of the MAXXI in Rome towards the public and the urban life that undermines even the most impressive program to open the museum.[72]

If you think about it, most of the world’s great monuments were built by dictators or omnipotent rulers of one country or another. Getting the money and commitment can present an ethical/moral issue for any artist or architect who has a ‘grand design’.

Mathematics, music, art, architecture, culture: Bridges 2015

Thanks to Alex Bellos and Tash Reith-Banks for their July 30, 2015 posting on the Guardian science blog network for pointing towards the Bridges 2015 conference,

The Bridges Conference is an annual event that explores the connections between art and mathematics. Here is a selection of the work being exhibited this year, from a Pi pie which vibrates the number pi onto your hand to delicate paper structures demonstrating number sequences. This year’s conference runs until Sunday in Baltimore (Maryland, US).

To whet your appetite, here’s the Pi pie (from the Bellos/Reith-Banks posting),

Pi Pie by Evan Daniel Smith Arduino, vibration motors, tinted silicone, pie tin “This pie buzzes the number pi onto your hand. I typed pi from memory into a computer while using a program I wrote to record it and send it to motors in the pie. The placement of the vibrations on the five fingers uses the structure of the Japanese soroban abacus, and bears a resemblance to Asian hand mnemonics.” Photograph: The Bridges Organisation

Pi Pie by Evan Daniel Smith
Arduino, vibration motors, tinted silicone, pie tin
“This pie buzzes the number pi onto your hand. I typed pi from memory into a computer while using a program I wrote to record it and send it to motors in the pie. The placement of the vibrations on the five fingers uses the structure of the Japanese soroban abacus, and bears a resemblance to Asian hand mnemonics.”
Photograph: The Bridges Organisation

You can find our more about Bridges 2015 here and should you be in the vicinity of Baltimore, Maryland, as a member of the public, you are invited to view the artworks on July 31, 2015,

July 29 – August 1, 2015 (Wednesday – Saturday)
Excursion Day: Sunday, August 2
A Collaborative Effort by
The University of Baltimore and Bridges Organization

A Five-Day Conference and Excursion
Wednesday, July 29 – Saturday, August 1
(Excursion Day on Sunday, August 2)

The Bridges Baltimore Family Day on Friday afternoon July 31 will be open to the Public to visit the BB Art Exhibition and participate in a series of events such as BB Movie Festival, and a series of workshops.

I believe the conference is being held at the University of Baltimore. Presumably, that’s where you’ll find the art show, etc.

A ‘Magic Square’ stamp from Macau

Alex Bellos describes a fascinating interplay between culture, mathematics, and stamps in his Nov. 4, 2014 posting on the Guardian-hosted Alex’s Adventures in Numberland,

 Old-age mutant number tortoise: Macau stamp displays the origin myth of the magic square. Illustration: Macau Post  [downloaded from http://www.theguardian.com/science/alexs-adventures-in-numberland/2014/nov/04/macaus-magic-square-stamps-just-made-philately-even-more-nerdy]

Old-age mutant number tortoise: Macau stamp displays the origin myth of the magic square. Illustration: Macau Post [downloaded from http://www.theguardian.com/science/alexs-adventures-in-numberland/2014/nov/04/macaus-magic-square-stamps-just-made-philately-even-more-nerdy]

According to Chinese legend a turtle like the one above crept out of the Yellow River about 4000 years ago. It looks like it is riddled with spots, or bullet holes. But if you look carefully, the dots on its back represent the digits from 1 to 9 arranged in the following way:




If you add the numbers in each row together, they are all equal to 15. For example 4 + 9 + 2 = 15, and so on.

If you add the columns, they sum to 15 also. For example, 4 + 3 + 8 = 15. And yes, you guessed it, the diagonals do too.

A grid containing consecutive numbers starting from 1 such that rows, columns and diagonals all add up to the same number is known as a magic square. The 3×3 square on turtle is known in China as the lo shu.

Magic squares have long fascinated soothsayers, herpetologists, mystics, architects, soldiers, artists, mathematicians…and now, stamp collectors. Macau, the former Portuguese colony now a part of China, has just issued a set of magic square stamps that, it claims, not only promotes Chinese culture but also creates a “unique product in the history of philately.”

I encourage you to read the post in its entirety as Bellos follows the magic square through a number of time periods and cultures.

Happy Pi Day! on March 14, 2014

It;’s no surprise that Canada’s Perimeter Institute (PI) is celebrating Pi Day. Before sharing the institute’s latest public outreach effort and for anyone like me who has a shaky understanding  of what exactly Pi is, there’s this explanation excerpted from the Pi Wikipedia essay (Note: Links have been removed),

The number π is a mathematical constant, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, approximately equal to 3.14159. It has been represented by the Greek letter “π” since the mid-18th century though it is also sometimes spelled out as “pi” (/paɪ/).

Being an irrational number, π cannot be expressed exactly as a common fraction. Consequently its decimal representation never ends and never settles into a permanent repeating pattern. The digits appear to be randomly distributed although no proof of this has yet been discovered. Also, π is a transcendental number – a number that is not the root of any nonzero polynomial having rational coefficients. This transcendence of π implies that it is impossible to solve the ancient challenge of squaring the circle with a compass and straight-edge.

Fractions such as 22/7 and other rational numbers are commonly used to approximate π.

Someone at the Perimeter Institute has prepared a ‘facts you don’t know about Pi‘ flyer to commemorate the day, which includes these facts and more,

In the 1995 OJ Simpson trial, one witness’ credibility was called into doubt when he misstated the
value of pi. [for anyone not familiar with the trial, O. J. Simpson murder case Wikipedia entry)

Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco associates the mysterious pendulum in the novel with the intrigue of pi.

In 2005, Lu Chao of China set a world record by memorizing the first 67,890 digits of pi.

In the year 2015, Pi Day will have special significance on 3/14/15 at 9:26:53.58, with the date and time (including 1/100 seconds) representing the first 12 digits of pi.

Over on the Guardian science blogs (Alex’s Adventures in Nunberland blog), Alex Bellos shares Pi artwork in his March 14, 2014 posting, here’s a sample,

Artist: Cristian Vasile

Artist: Cristian Vasile

In this work, Vasile converted pi into base 16. The sixteen segments around the circle represent the 16 digits of this base. He then traced pi for 3600 digits, going from segment to segment based on the value of the digit. A fuller explanation is here and Vasile’s art can be bought here.

Have a happy Pi Day and a good weekend!

The geometry of baking with Alex Bellos and Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories

Alex Bellos has written some of my* favourite posts at the UK’s Guardian science blogs (for example, my Dec. 18,2012 posting about Bellos’ discussion of the math genius Ramanujan and my Oct. 17, 2012 posting about Bellos’ exploration of mathematics as a spiritual practice in Japan). Earlier this week in a June 26, 2013 posting Bellos wrote about a ‘new craze’, edible mathematics,  in a way that makes me wish I could revisit grade 10 geometry but with a good teacher this time (Note: Links have been removed),

When you slice a cone the surface produced is either a circle, an ellipse, a parabola or a hyperbola.

These curves are known as the conic sections.

And when you slice a scone in the shape of a cone, you get a sconic section – the latest craze in edible mathematics, a vibrant new culinary field.

On their fabulous website, the folk at Evil Mad Scientist provide a step-by-step guide to baking the sconic sections.

Here’s a sconic section image from the June 25, 2013 ‘Sconic sections’ posting by Lenore on the Evil Mad Scientist website,

To highlight the shapes even further, you can color in the cut surfaces with your favorite scone topping. Here, raspberry preserves show off a hyperbolic cut. [downloaded from http://www.evilmadscientist.com/2013/sconic-sections/]

To highlight the shapes even further, you can color in the cut surfaces with your favorite scone topping. Here, raspberry preserves show off a hyperbolic cut. [downloaded from http://www.evilmadscientist.com/2013/sconic-sections/]

Bellos highlights other edible mathematics projects including Maths on Toast and Dashing Bean but since I’ve always loved Escher I’m going to feature one of the other projects Bellos mentions, George Hart and his Möbius bagel,

After being cut, the two halves can be moved but are still linked together, each passing through the hole of the other.   (So when you buy your bagels, pick ones with the biggest holes.) [downloaded from http://georgehart.com/bagel/bagel.html]

After being cut, the two halves can be moved but are still linked together, each passing through
the hole of the other. (So when you buy your bagels, pick ones with the biggest holes.) [downloaded from http://georgehart.com/bagel/bagel.html]

Hart is serious about his Möbius bagel, from the bagel posting (Note: A link has been removed),

It is much more fun to put cream cheese on these bagels than on an ordinary bagel. In additional to
the intellectual stimulation, you get more cream cheese, because there is slightly more surface area.

Topology problem: Modify the cut so the cutting surface is a one-twist Mobius strip.
(You can still get cream cheese into the cut, but it doesn’t separate into two parts.)

Calculus problem: What is the ratio of the surface area of this linked cut
to the surface area of the usual planar bagel slice?

Note: I have had my students do this activity in my Computers and Sculpture class.  It is very successful if the students work in pairs, with two bagels per team.  For the first bagel, I have them draw the indicated lines with a “sharpie”.  Then they can do the second bagel without the lines. (We omit the schmear of cream cheese.) After doing this, one can better appreciate the stone carving of Keizo Ushio, who makes analogous cuts in granite to produce monumental sculpture.

Hope you enjoyed this mathematical ‘amuse-bouche’. If you want more, Bellos has included a few ‘how to’ videos, as well as, other images and links to websites in his posting.

* ‘my’ added to sentence on Aug. 12, 2015.

Mathematical theorems as spiritual practice

Alex Bellos in an Oct. 16, 2012 article for the UK’s Guardian newspaper discusses a unique practice combining spirituality and mathematics (Note: I have removed a link),

… one of the most intriguing practices in the history of mathematics.

Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, the Japanese used to hang up pictures of maths theorems at their shrines.

Called “sangaku”, the pictures were both religious offerings and public announcements of the latest discoveries.

It’s a little like as if Isaac Newton had decided to hang up his monographs at the local church instead of publishing them in books.

More than 700 sangaku are known to have survived, and the above shape is a detail from the oldest one that exists in its complete form.

Here’s a picture of a sangaku that Bellos took while in Japan to make a documentary on numeracy for BBC Radio 4,

Picture: Alex Bellos

The purpose of a sangaku was threefold: to show off mathematical accomplishment, to thank Buddha and to pray for more mathematical knowledge.

There are more images and details in Bellos article about this intriguing practice. I look forward to hearing more about Bellos’ documentary, Land of the Rising Sums, due to be broadcast Monday, Oct. 29, 2012 on BBC Radio 4 from 11 – 11:30 am GMT.

Women writing popular science books

It seems to be a week for asking: Why aren’t there more women …

  • on the Royal Society’s Winton Prize for Science Books shortlist?
  • entrepreneurs?
  • leaving comments on VC (venture capital) blogs?

The first question was asked by Jo Marchant in her Oct. 4, 2011 posting on the Guardian Science Blogs. From the posting,

I couldn’t help being a bit disappointed by the shortlist, announced last week, for the 2011 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books. From Alex Bellos’s mathematical adventures to Sam Kean’s poetic tour of the chemical elements, this is an inspiring collection of well-deserving books. But, yet again, all the authors are men.

This made me wonder how many women have been shortlisted for this prestigious prize since it was established in 1988. A quick glance at the society’s website reveals that of 144 shortlisted books – six each year over 24 years – just nine were by women, with two others that had a woman as second author, including a husband-wife team. Out of these female authors, only one has won (the husband-wife team).

Much comes down to the individual tastes of the judges each year. But surely the overall statistics – only around 5% of shortlisted books are by female authors, with just one shortlisted woman in the last five years (me, since you ask) – show that there is a problem to be addressed here.

Marchant suggests that at least part of the problem lies in the fact that most science books are authored by men and so the lists reflect that reality. She does suggest that perhaps the judges could seek out books by women and by various ethnic minorities, which are also under-represented, instead of passively choosing from the male-dominated lists presented to them.

Mark Suster writing for Fast Company asked the question about women entrepreneurs in his Oct. 4, 2011 posting,

I’m often asked the question about why there aren’t more women who are entrepreneurs. On my blog I’ve been hesitant to take the topic head on. Somehow it seems kind of strange for a man to answer this question that obviously comes from a man’s point of view.

The truth is I have been thinking a lot about the topic, I just haven’t been writing about it. And when asked about the topic, I definitely don’t shy away from the topic as you can see in this 8-minute YouTube interview that Pemo Theodore asked me to do on the subject of Women in Entrepreneurship.

My inspiration to become an entrepreneur came from my mom, not my dad. She was the dominant figure in my family and was both an entrepreneur and a community leader. She opened a bakery and a restaurant. She was president of the UJA (United Jewish Appeal). She bought our first computer – an IBM XT with a 10MB hard drive – in order to do her books electronically. It’s how I learned to build spreadsheets. She encouraged me to get a job when I was 14. She encouraged me to take acting classes as a child, which gave me confidence as a public speaker.

I love my dad equally, of course. But he was a doctor and a long-distance runner and cared little about business.

So the role is [sic] a strong woman leader has always been a comfortable idea for me.

Even more interesting is that at GRP Partners (the VC firm where I’m a partner) our two most successful returns from our previous fund [which is ranked as the top performing fund in the country for its 2000 vintage according to Prequin] were both run by women!

But then the truth sets in. My guess is that probably only 2-3 out of every hundred pitches I receive are from women. This certainly isn’t anything conscious on my side. It’s just the facts.

I’m a little confused by Suster’s comment about receiving “only 2-3 out of every hundred pitches” followed by the conclusion that consciousness on his side is required but he has an interesting perspective although he does not venture any answers.

Suster also comments on a recent posting by Tara Tiger Brown where she asked the question about women and venture capital blogs. From her Sept. 22, 2011 posting on her Tara the Tiger blog,

For a long time we’ve all been hearing women in tech complain about being left out of the conversation, yet blog posts are the easiest way to participate. Anybody can comment on a blog post. We know there are women in tech and we know there are women entrepreneurs, so, why aren’t more women commenting on these VC’s posts?

The comments section of any blog post is just as valuable, if not more so, than the actual post. That’s where the real conversation is, and any decent blogger will contribute to that conversation well past the point of hitting publish. These VCs are the guys that give out the money to startups, so people listen to them. The question is, why are mostly men replying back to them?

I did a little Googling and came across the post “The Top 20 VC Power Bloggers of 2010” and decided to put my math skills to the test. I picked out the top VCs from their list that allow for comments (all men, BTW), and their most recent 5 posts (I didn’t include guest posters) and the number of comments by women divided by the number of total comments. If someone was anonymous, I didn’t count them as a woman (would be interesting to know if they are though).

Not surprisingly, hardly any of the comments were by women. It was easily observable that out of all the VC’s blog posts, more women comment on Fred Wilson’s blog but usually the same 3 or 4 women.

She goes on to list some open questions and at this point has gotten over a dozen comments from women about why they do and don’t comment on VC blogs.

I don’t have a definitive answer for women why do or don’t do things so I was never able to answer a boss at a technical company that I worked for who used to ask why women didn’t like his and his partners’ company? Personally, I always thought he was asking the wrong question. I would have rephrased it this way, why doesn’t our company like women? In short, were there systemic and personal issues and or barriers within the company that discouraged women?

As you can see from this posting, women are still under-represented in many situations and I think it’s going to take a variety of strategies, much discussion, and a willingness to keep asking the questions before more progress is achieved.

BTW, I read Sam Kean’s book (mentioned in Marchant’s posting as one of this year’s shortlisted books) about the periodic table of elements and was quite charmed until about 2/3 through the book when he seemed to lose focus. I’m surprised it made the shortlist.