Archive for the ‘Mathematics’ Category

Just Imagine…Imaginary Numbers in the Real World


'Just Imagine' fridge magnet

The ‘Just Imagine…’ fridge magnet, complete with sinusoid, key constants, and a very confused looking sheep. The connections were revealed in the course of the day’s workshop. © University of Chester, 2016

Back in the depths of last winter, I started investigating ways that I might bring together some of my colleagues in Performing Arts – the department where I did my Ph.D. – and the Faculty of Science and Engineering, where I teach.  It took a while, but the idea is now starting to bear fruit.  We began with a workshop for A-level maths and science students on Imaginary Numbers, which took place at Thornton Science Park a couple of weeks ago.

We welcomed about 20 students and their teachers from local schools for a full day of varied activities on the theme of Imaginary Numbers.  This included the sort of thing you might expect at Thornton Science Park , including a session in the Electrical and Electronic Engineering lab looking at the relationship between sinusoidal waves, complex numbers, and sound.  (The TWSU DIY Synth proved to be particularly popular there!)  The thing which really made the day different, and I believe also really helped to make it both enjoyable and engaging, was the contribution in the morning from Ed Morris and Phil Goss, two University of Chester graduates who now run a theatre company called 2Engage.  They do a lot of educational theatre work, and I believed they could help us to present the challenging topic of complex numbers in a less threatening way, and also give students a perspective they might not get elsewhere.

I think it’s fair to say the plan worked.  Between us we designed a couple of comic sketches, with associated activities, designed to put complex numbers into historical perspective, and also give a background to the two common notations for complex numbers (i.e., polar and cartesian).  Students found themselves wearing sheep masks for the former, and directing one another around masking-tape grids on the floor for the latter.  They also laughed quite a lot – fortunately in more or less the places where we’d hoped they would – and took home a custom-made fridge magnet each, to remind them of both the day and the principles we’d worked on understanding together.  Feedback for the day was excellent from all concerned, and I’m really looking forward to doing more sessions along similar lines in the future.  In the meantime, I heartily recommend 2Engage to anyone out there looking for educational theatre, and certainly not just on scientific topics.  They did an excellent job.

Freeze, Fight, Flight, or Thought: Why Zombies Make Great Maths Teachers

The Zombie plague is spreading – and it’s a good thing

This morning’s visit to the departmental post boxes was unusually rewarding, as mine had a zombie in it.  Well, to be accurate, it had a zombie in it again.  It’s only a couple of weeks since I picked up my copy of Mathematical Modelling of Zombies (which is excellent, by the way).  I was expecting that, as I’d ordered it, but this morning’s zombie delivery was a pleasant surprise, and it came printed on the front cover of May’s edition of the Institute of Physics monthly magazine, Physics World.  The brain-munching monster in question was evidently trying to claw its way in (or possibly out) through some sort of frosted glass panel, while simultaneously advertising an article on ‘Zombie physics – When statistical analysis meets the undead’.


An image from ‘Zombie-town USA’ by Alex Alemi & Matt Bierbaum.  The interactive version is at . Alemi & Bierbaum’s paper on the model is available at

All the usual suspects are there, including the Patient Zero of mathematical and academic zombie infection, Robert Smith?.  This story focused on the work of Alex Alemi and Matt Bierbaum, a couple of Cornell University graduate students who decided to apply some specialised techniques of statistical modelling from (among other places) condensed matter physics to the spread of a zombie contagion.  Obviously I was happy to see my favourite pop culture ghouls in the hallowed pages of Physics World, in addition to all the other odd places they popped up recently (‘Theories of International Politics and Zombies‘ and ‘Braaaiiinnnsss!: From Academics to Zombies‘ being a couple of my recent favourites).  But it set me wondering – again – what it is about zombies that makes them simultaneously unlikely and perfect as topics of academic discussion, and in so many different fields?

Meeting the audience where they are

I think this might be a clue:-

“Zombies, despite their insatiable thirst for brains, have an undeniable appeal to a wide audience …  They’ve also become a great way to showcase the statistical and mathematical tools of epidemiology. … They lure in the curious … [&] are an accessible way to talk mathematically about the spread of infectious disease.”

Ornes, Stephen. (2016). Zombie physics. Physics World, May 2016

As Smith? himself says, adding zombies to the mix helps to engage audiences who wouldn’t usually take an interest in anything that smacked too much of mathematics: “Now we’ve got people reading math papers with equations in them – people who would never normally read such a thing. … You add zombies, and suddenly it’s interesting.”

So it’s partly a matter of familiarity.  The popularity of stories such World War Z and The Walking Dead means that the first impression given by an article with a title like “Zombie Physics” is likely to be something along the lines of “Zombies?  I like zombies!  So have these physicists made a real zombie then?  Must find out…”  A title like “Statistical mechanics applied to infectious disease transmission” on the other hand, has more of a niche appeal, mainly to those who already know what statistical mechanics is, why it might have applications to disease, and (perhaps most importantly) feel confident that they’ll be able to wade through an article with ‘statistics’ in the title without developing acute anxiety, hives, and three or four extra limbs in the process.

It’s all about the brains

This is where the real brains enter the story.  A lot of people get a bit twitchy about maths and science, to say the least.  The subject names themselves can induce fear.  This is bad in at least two ways; no sensible animal – humans included – keeps returning to places or things which have caused it pain or fear.  Evolutionary responses to threats with millions of years of development behind them kick in, and bad experiences with maths and science can put people off of having anything to do those subjects in future; the ‘flight’ part of the ‘fight or flight’ reaction.  But if flight isn’t possible, and the scary topic proves unavoidable, a different threat response might take over, such as staying very still and hoping it all just goes away.  I did my share of rabbit-in-the-headlights impersonations while staring fixedly at physics problem sheets in the mid-1980s, so I know the feeling very well.  But whether the threat response is avoidance, shutdown or anger, it’s bad news for anyone who actually needs to learn stuff involving logic, because the part of the brain that deals with physical threats tends to take control at the expense of the part of the brain that does cool rational thought.

This is where zombies come in really, really useful.  Zombies are familiar.  Zombies are predictable.  Everyone can understand how zombies work: human gets bitten – human dies – human is reanimated as a zombie – new zombie shambles off in search of other humans to bite – and so it goes on.  Nothing difficult about that.  Some zombies are even funny.  You can talk about zombies with your mates, and be reasonably certain that they know what you’re talking about, and that they’re laughing with you, rather than at you.  All of these factors help to keep the freeze, fight or flight response at bay.  OK, so there’s a equation on the page, and equations are bit scary, but this one is surrounded by the shuffling, groaning, flesh-eating undead, so it must be OK, right?

That’s my theory, anyhow.

Hold on a moment….  I just need to find out what that funny scratching noise is on the window.. …. ….. …………..


Posted May 6, 2016 by HVS in Mathematics, Memes, Physics, STEM & STEAM, Zombies

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“How many zombies do you know?” – Columbia University Investigates

It’s good to see that modern zombie researchers* take Health and Safety seriously.  You can never be too careful with hordes of the ravenous undead around.

Extract of zombie paper

Elf & Safety, & Zombies

The full paper is available here.

*As the author of the paper makes clear, that’s people who research about zombies, not zombies who do research.  It’s an important distinction.

Posted May 18, 2015 by HVS in Mathematics, Memes, Zombies

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Of Science, Love, and the Boring Bits

Just gonna leave this here..

Tweeted by Jon Tennant (@Protohedgehog) May 14, 2014

Original cartoon at

Posted May 15, 2014 by HVS in Mathematics, Physics

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Mathematicians Save the World (and Spread the Zombie Meme Still Further)   1 comment

Welcome to my office...........As anyone who’s ever visited my office will tell you (possibly with a slight shudder) I’m quite keen on zombies – or at least their cuddlier pop culture representatives, like the ones who tend to come off worse in Plants vs. Zombies.  One of the things which fascinates me about zombies is the way they pop up in some fairly unexpected places – like Pride and Prejudice, for instance.  But as a lapsed physicist who probably read a bit too much Douglas Adams at a formative age, I think this chapter from the snappily-titled ‘Infectious Disease Modelling Research Progress’ is my favourite zombie sighting of all.  It has just the right combination of heavy maths, carefully researched B-movies, and a hint of something more ‘important’ not being done instead…  But really, what could possibly be more important than saving civilisation as we know it from a plague of the ravenous undead?   This is what I call useful maths!  (You can download the full text here.)

When Zombies Attack...

Posted June 23, 2012 by HVS in Mathematics, Memes, Zombies

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