Monthly Archives: March 2011

Beautiful mathematics

I am a well-known hater of mathematics, largely because of my (perceived) lack of ability. So it came as some surprise to me that I am very much enjoying Book 3: Energy and Light of S104: Exploring Science.

Algebra is the topic in hand, and we’ve gone right back to basics.

I would quite like this t-shirt.

I remember, as a small child, that in junior school I and several other bright (read geeky) kids were part of an algebra group. The headmaster had a little maths geek set going on, and I was IN. It wasn’t the best school in the world, and the town was… well… provincial. An ex-mining town, very working class, with fewer aspirations flying around than I or my parents would like.

However, I believe that this school (Stockingford Middle School) and this teacher (sadly I cannot remember his name) did me a great service: they stoked my interest in science, and planted in me a very deeply buried love of maths. Or at least, the beauty of maths.

I wasn’t to know, yet, that algebra could enable you to produce very cool images, such as the one on the right…

Groovy.

It stayed buried for a long, long time. Throughout senior school, I loathed maths – partly, I suspect, due to an uninspiring teacher who was convinced I’d fail my GCSE (I got a B) – and partly because I just convinced myself it was too difficult, and I couldn’t do it.

Enter the Open University, S104, Book 3. They really do start at the basics, and I remember more than I thought, so I’m powering through the work; spinning through the vast, echoing spaces in my mind with equations creating beautiful symmetry all around.

Or something similar…

In the beginning...

There is something very calming and aesthetically pleasing about rearranging equations. I like balance, and order, and that is what an equation is. Balance. Yes, it’s simple; but I’m enjoying it. And what’s more, I’m looking forward to the more complex stuff…

Maths is everywhere. Nature, science, art, beauty… Poetry, according to Betrand Russell, who said this:

“Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty – a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show. The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than Man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as poetry.”

He’s right, too. I’m just beginning to understand why maths is so important, how it is a part of everything in the Universe, and appreciate its purity and its sublime beauty.

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The Nature of the Universe

I was going to take a quick look at this video; but a quick look turned into total absorption. Lawrence Krauss is engaging, funny, and explains what he means really well.

I’ll forgive him the few cheap jibes at religion. I dislike that as much as I dislike the nonsense spouted by the excessively religious. I know what he means, and agree with him, but his lecture could have spoken for itself without being cheapened that way. Some of the jokes made me chuckle though!

And, I have to disagree with his final statement: I think the Universe and everything in it is incredibly special! Whether it’s totally random or not: the very fact of it, and the wonders it contains, are staggering.

Trust

I was talking to a teacher friend the other day. He teaches primary school children, and for the most part, he loves his job. However, he was telling me that if a child falls and hurts itself, or is upset for any reason, he can’t put his arms around that child and comfort it. Another child has to be found to give the hurt one a cuddle.

This is a horrible situation. Not just for the child – when children are hurt, or ill, or upset, they automatically reach for the nearest adult for comfort. When that adult is not available, the child becomes more upset, and it sends a terrible message that nobody cares.

And it’s painful for the adult too: it’s only natural to want to comfort a child in pain. I’m no child expert or psychologist, but I do remember my own childhood, and I have nieces and nephews. Plus, I’m a human being – I don’t think you need to be an expert to know such things.

But more worryingly, and more insidious, is the way this ridiculous policy erodes trust between children and adults. And plays right into the hands of those the rule-makers are trying to protect children from.

Almost all abuse to children happens within the home, and is perpetrated by family members or close family friends. By pandering to the type of people who will set fire to a paediatrician’s house, society is perpetuating a dangerous myth: children should be afraid of and mistrustful of adults.

This erosion of trust is becoming evident all around us: would most people now go to the aid of a lone child who fell over in a public place? Perhaps some would, but always in the back of your mind would be: what are they thinking? Do they suspect me of wishing harm to the child?

The culture of Criminal Record Bureau checks for absolutely everyone having anything at all to do with children is one of the most damaging things to have happened to British society in recent years. On a purely practical level it is a massive waste of time and money; and it doesn’t do what it was implemented to do. The Soham murders would not have been prevented if the system had been in place at the time.

What it does do, though, is discourage adults who want to give their time and energy to get involved with children’s activities. Guilty until proven innocent is the order of the day – is it any surprise volunteer levels are plummeting? Which has the knock-on effect that activities cease – which leaves many children with nothing to do.

Boredom is a terrible thing for kids – it leads them to get involved with activities they shouldn’t, take too many risks, and get into trouble. Life is worse for them, and everyone around them – particularly when anti-social behaviour becomes a way of life.

Communities are being eroded bit by bit, partly because they are naturally evolving, partly because people seem to have less time for each other. The type of policy that makes adults into monsters unless proven otherwise and teaches children that authority figures are to be feared, avoided and defied, is the nail in the coffin. I don’t think Britain is broken, but I think some people are having a bloody good go at breaking it.

Dumbing down?

Last night, the second episode of Professor Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe was shown on BBC2. I am loving this series so far; and I really enjoyed its predecessor, Wonders of the Solar System.

Last night’s episode tied in perfectly with what I’m studying at the moment as part of S104 – Exploring Science. I’m looking at the composition of stars, how they work, how they are born, live and die. The show did a great job of illustrating and supplementing what I’ve been learning.

Supernova (thanks to Wired)

I am the type of person who finds it very difficult to grasp difficult ideas quickly. I can’t just read about a concept and understand it; I’m quite envious of those who can do that. So I look for all sorts of different ways to learn about a topic – and if there are pictures, diagrams and analogies, so much the better.

This series is not aimed at those who already know all there is to know about the universe; it’s aimed at people who don’t know much at all, or at those of us who devour everything they can about the subject, whether it’s simple or not.

There is plenty of other information out there on science, but much of it is not easily accessible to the masses – and some of it is a bit dated. Science is constantly evolving. We are always learning new things, constantly revising what we know and what we think we know.

Some people will say Wonders of the Universe is science-lite; dumbing down for the masses. I disagree. Simplified doesn’t necessarily mean wrong, and it certainly isn’t a bad thing. My OU course simplifies things all the time. So do scientists. I think Prof Cox is very good indeed at taking a really complicated idea and presenting it in such a way that those who have never studied science or astronomy can grasp it. His enthusiasm is a joy to see.

I can quite understand how some people would find him irritating; he’s a bit of an acquired taste, and he can be a little odd. But I like him, and I like the way he presents his subject with simplicity and enthusiasm – although, as a friend has pointed out, the series is a little like the great Michael Palin’s travel diaries in places… But who wouldn’t take that job if it were offered to them?

Accusations of being terribly trendy have been levelled at him and his fans – but is that such a bad thing? If jumping on a bandwagon gets people interested in science, surely that can only be a good thing. It’s a sad fact that many people are more interested in celebrity nonsense than in things that actually matter – so if Prof Cox is using his popularity and “trendiness” to get people to watch and learn: good for him!

Most people will get no further than this TV series – but a few will fall in love with science and knowledge because of it, and will go further, read more, perhaps even take up some science study. That’s priceless.

Going Underground

The London Underground is absolutely bloody brilliant. It’s a stupendous, fantastic feat of engineering (and other superlatives) – it’s been around since the late Victorian era, and it still works. It’s the oldest underground system in the world: the first section opened in 1863, on what is now the Circle, Hammersmith and City, and Metropolitan lines.

It’s actually 55 per cent overground, not entirely underground.

And it’s magical.

I love everything about it. There are around 250 miles of 11 lines, serving 270 stations (260 of which are owned by the Tube), and it sees about 3.5million journeys made every day. Think of it – three and a half million journeys a day!

When you look at how much use it gets, its success rate is phenomenal.

Plus, it’s so cheap to use (at least for visitors like me). I always get a little excited knot in my stomach buying my tickets. Then comes the studying of the Tube Map – I’m at Euston, but I need to get to Greenwich. Which route is best? So I follow the lines around, and sometimes choose my route based upon the station names. That’s true value for money – a complete experience, not just a means of getting from A to B.

The Tube Map itself is a thing of beauty; and there are animals on the underground, hidden in the map. Have you seen the elephant? That was the Tube’s first creature. Or the turtle? Or even the whale?

Yes, it’s crowded and hot; but it’s like another world. The tiled tunnels, with warm air rushing past telling you a train is arriving on a nearby platform; music drifting along the tunnels from the buskers; the station names evoking past lives, that will never be seen again.

And it’s so British. Beautifully, quintessentially, English.

Such a huge variety of people – of all colours, shapes and sizes, from all around the world. And you can’t make eye contact – oh no! You’re either labelled as the nutter, or you attract the nutter. Sometimes people ask you to hold their dog, and you wonder if you now have a dog of your own…

If you concentrate, in a quiet moment, you can hear the Tube as it was in the early days. See the patrons in their bowler hats and long dress coats, rushing around. Not so different from today, really.

And the deserted stations, the ones that are closed and quiet; what of those places? Windows to the past, mostly; populated by rats, ghosts and the things that live in the gaps. I’m planning an expedition to London Below (thanks Neil Gaiman) and wondering what on Earth I’ll find there.

Success!

I always stress about test results; not so much before the test, but while I’m waiting to find out how I did. You’re alerted by the OU Student site when results are in.

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I’ve worn the letters off my F5 key.

Anyway – results are in. For TMA01, the assessment for Book 1 – Global Warming, I achieved…

*drum roll*

96 per cent!

*thud*

That was the sound of my jaw dropping. I’m absolutely delighted, to be honest. I know it’s a relatively simple one, and they ease you in to these things gently, but being the perfectionist that I am, it’s great to almost achieve that perfection in my first assignment.

My tutor’s comments included: “A first class start Vicki” (I’ll forgive him the misspelling of my name) and, “You achieved all of the Learning Outcomes with a ‘Very Well Demonstrated’ judgement apart from three instances where you dropped to ‘Well Demonstrated’ primarily because there was some missing detail.

“It is work of a high standard, very well presented and easy to mark.  I hope you are finding the course interesting and remember it does get more challenging.

“Well done indeed.”

*proud*

The feedback was pretty good – I know where I dropped marks, and that’s fair enough. Part of it is learning how the OU wants you to explain and present ideas – the level of detail they’re looking for, that kind of thing. I will learn from it, and move on.

I’m well into chapter 6 of Book 2 now, but I’ve stalled. My crappy laptop won’t run any DVDs, so I’ve to wait for Joe to return with his laptop, so I can get on with a couple of activities.

In the meantime, I’ve started the next iCMA (interactive computer-marked assignment) and have had a crack at the beginning of TMA02.

Now, if only I could zap this tiredness…