A-level mathematics is not equipping students with the right skills

Science Community Representing Education (SCORE), which is a collaboration between several science organisations, published a report on the 27th April which analysed the type, extent and difficulty of mathematics within the 2010 A-level examination papers. The focus was on preparation for undergraduate degrees in the three sciences – biology, chemistry and physics.

Our findings are worrying. A significant proportion of the mathematical requirements – put in place by the examinations regulator, Ofqual, for each of the sciences – were simply not assessed and, if they were, it was often in a very limited way and at a lower level of difficulty than students will need to progress to degree level or into relevant employment.

Professor Graham Hutchings, Chair of SCORE


The report can be found here (pdf)

IOP News

LMS News

Dr Who's sonic screwdriver created in Scotland!

When the scriptwriters for Doctor Who imagined a futuristic device, they came up with the Sonic Screwdriver. Now a team of physicists at the University of Dundee have taken equipment designed for MRI-guided focused ultrasound surgery and demonstrated a real Sonic Screwdriver – lifting and spinning a free-floating 10 cm diameter rubber disk with an ultrasound beam.

Universtity of Dundee



University of Dundee Press Release

GCHQ release Turing papers

In order to mark the centenary of Alan Turing’s birth, two of his mathematical research papers, believed to have been written whilst he was at Bletchley Park during World War II, have been released by GCHQ to The National Archives.

Due to the sensative nature of the work done at GCHQ, the papers were not released earlier.

We are delighted to release these papers showing more of Alan Turing’s pioneering research during his time at Bletchley Park. It was this type of research that helped turn the tide of war and it is particularly pleasing that we are able to share these papers during this centenary year.

GCHQ spokesperson

The two papers are called “Paper on Statistics of Repetitions’ and ‘The Applications of Probability to Crypt’.

Paper on Statistics of Repetitions

In this paper Turing writes an informal report in which he works out the best statistical method of testing whether two cipher messages use the same key in parts of the message.

The Applications of Probability to Crypt

In this second paper, Turing applies rigorous probability analysis to coding problems of the day. One highlight is where Turing uses life expectancy to examine conditional probability. The associated example, “Hitler is now age 52”, adds piquancy and suggests that the paper was written between April 1941 and April 1942.


GCHQ Press Release

Frontiers Lectuer: Alain Connes

Last night (18th April) I attended a talk given by Prof. Alain Connes as part of the The Learned Society of Wales Frontiers lectrures. The talk was entitled “The spectral point of view on geometry and physics”.


The talk was very interesting and not too technical. Prof. Connes outlined his philosophy that the physical word should be described by spectral data. This idea really leads to the notion of noncommutative geometry, something Prof. Connes is well-know for.

Connes philosophy comes from many facts of physics. For example, our knowledge of the shape of the Universe comes from spectra data, the red shift and the CMBR. The meter is defined in a natural way in terms of the wavelength of the krypton-86 emission.

The key idea

The question that Connes really tackled was can we understand geometry spectrally? Connes was motivated by the Atiyah-Singer index theorem, which gives topological data about a space from analytical data about operators on that space.

The fundamental idea is that one can restate Riemannian geometry in terms of the spectra of the Dirac operator on that geometry. The topological (smooth) structure of the manifold is recovered from the algebra of (smooth) functions and the metric structure from the spectra of the Dirac operator.

One can then understand a smooth manifold with a Riemannian metric in terms of an algebra of functions and an operator acting on them.

Note that we do not need the notion of points in this spectal description. In fact, this reformulation of Rienamnnian geometry allows one to define metrics on non-commutative spaces, which are really just algebras.


One of the main hopes of Connes reformulation of Riemannian geometry is that, via non-commutative geometry, one can classically unite the standard model of particle physics with general relativity in a geometric way. In doing so, it may be possible to construct a unified theory, but Connes is not at that stage.

As it stands, Connes theory does not quite match the standard model and there is also the problem of Lorentzian signature metrics. Not having positve definite metrics almost always makes details of the mathematics tricky.

This should not distract from the fact that Connes is a pioneer of non-commutative geometry and mathematically his work is very important.

The talk itself

Connes is a good and entertaining speaker. If you get chance to listen to him, you should take it.

Do medical students need physics?

Well, Professor Sir Peter Knight, President of the Institute of Physics say they do…

Physics has transformed medicine and, as this transformation is surely set to continue and accelerate, medical schools should consider restoring the requirement for applicants to hold A level or equivalent qualifications in physics

Professor Sir Peter Knight

As I see it there are at least two areas that knowing a little physics can go a long way

  • Medical devices
  • Biomechanics

Not that we need all medical doctors to be experts in the above, but having some grasp of the physics behind the tools they use and the basic phsyics of the body would, in my opinion, be a good thing.

Slightly wider than just medical students, I am often suprised by just how little mathematics and physics typical biology students known.

On the 18th April five articles were publiched in the Lancet that discuss the historical links between physics and medicine. This I think is a shame. That said, I have no great knowledge of biology!

This reminds me of the idea of evidence based medicine. Which is basically using the ethos of the scientific method to make informed evidenced based treatments. My experience of medicine is a mix of dogma, experience and informed guesses. Anyway, I think a post on evidence based medicine is outside of my remit at the moment.


IOP News

UK university drop-out rates

UK University drop-out rates 2009-2010

  • Scotland: 9.4% – up from 9.3% in 2008-09
  • Wales: 9% – up from 7.4%
  • England: 8.4% – up from 7.8%
  • Northern Ireland: 8.3% – down from 9%
  • UK: 8.6% – up from 7.9%

Higher Education Statistics Agency

Overall the trend is a rise in the number of students that drop-out. The economy and tuition fee are most likely not helping.

A lot of students struggle financially and if their parents are in financial difficulties it can lead to them dropping out.

Drop-outs are always at the top of our agenda and something everyone looks at with a great deal of concern.

Prof John Hughes, Higher Education Wales chair and Bangor University vice-chancellor


BBC News Wales

I like my whisky straight up, but this is going too far!

Bill LumsdenBill Lumsden

Scientists from the Edinburgh International Science Centre have unveiled a two year experiment running on the ineternational space centre to find out what effects microgravity has on the production of whiskey.

NanoRacks LLC is the US company funding the research. They hope to understand the role of gravity in industrial processes, the maturation process of whisky being one of them.

We are all tremendously excited by this experiment – who knows where it will lead?

Bill Lumsden, Ardbeg Distillery

Drunken astronauts maybe?


BBC Scotland News

Young Researchers in Mathematics 2012 Part 3

Royal Fort House, University of BristolRoyal Fort House, University of Bristol. Picture courtesy of the YRM 2012 committee.

The Young Researchers in Mathematics Conference is an annual event that aims to involve post-graduate and post-doctoral students at every level. It is a chance to meet and discuss research and ideas with other students from across the country.

I gave a talk at the YRM 2012 on Monday 2nd April based on
my preprint here.

I think the talk was well recieved and I had a couple of interesting questions. In all I think it was a sucsessful event.