My psychic abilities predicted this

Professor Christopher French, co-ordinator of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmith University, designed a simple experiment where he asked two professional mediums to write something about five individuals who were concealed behind a screen.


Professor Christopher French

The five volunteers were then asked to identify themselves from these psychic readings. The success rate was one in five, which is consistent with picking at random.

The defense

“Psychic energy” was not likely to work in the setting created for the experiment.

Patricia Putt, one of the mediums tested

How do you argue against people like that?

Well, the point is that people should not believe anything without some kind of evidence. This does not include anecdotal evidence and certainly one cannot believe claims that are just consistent with chance.

In science one requires any experiment to be repeatable. That is if I run my experiment more than once, I should get results that are consistent. This does not mean necessarily identical results, as we have systematic errors and sometime randomness to take into account. However, everything should be “telling me the same thing”.

Even more important is the independent verification of results. Experimental claims are usually reexamined by other groups to check everything is okay. Even better than this are completely different experiments that point to the same result.

So, as these mediums could not “perform on the day” and no other irrefutable experiment evidence has suggested psychic abilities really do exist, we have every right to remain skeptical.


Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit

BBC News report

The late Daniel Quillen

Notices of the AMS (November) contains a 15 page obituary to Daniel Quillen (1940-2011), written by some rather large names in mathematics, including the late Loday.


Quillen is most famous for his contributions to algebraic K-theory, for which he was awarded the Cole Prize in 1975 and the Fields Medal in 1978.


My first exposure to the ideas of Quillen was via his superconnection [1]. The notion of a superconnection can be thought of a a generalisation of a vector bundle connection in which we replace the connection one-form with an arbitrary, but Grassman odd (pesudo)differential form. (I’ll be slack on details, but you can read more here and here). Superconnections in many respects seems the more natural thing to consider in the context of supermanifolds than the classical vector bundle connections.

The original algebraic formulation of superconnections as differential operators on the algebra of differential forms with values in endomorphisms of a \(Z_{2}\)-graded vector bundle is due to Quillen. He introduced the notion as a way to encode the difference of the chern characters of two vector bundles, largely motivated by topological K-theory.

The geometric understanding came much later in the work of Florin Dumitrescu [2]. The relation between parallel transport along superpaths and superconnections on a vector bundle over a manifold are made explicit in that work.


AMS Notices (opens PDF)


[1] Daniel Quillen, Superconnections and the Chern character, Topology, 24(1):89–95, 1985

[2] Florin Dumitrescu, Superconnections and Parallel Transport, arXiv:0711.2766v2 [math.DG], 2007.

Isaac Newton and his Apple (Dead Famous)


We have all heard of Sir Issac Newton, that is right the guy who got hit on the head by a falling apple, well as the story goes…

In Isaac Newton and his Apple, Kjartan Poskitt describes in an entertaining and graphic way (illustrations by Phillip Reeve) the life and times of Newton.

The book, aimed children 9 and above, described Newton’s troubled life, his not very pleasant demeanor, his feud with Hooke and arguments with Leibniz. The book is scattered with other historical facts that help set the scene of Newton’s life.

And of course, it describes his mathematical genius and his catchy titled book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. Interestingly, Isaac Newton and his Apple does contain a little proper mathematics. The ideas of Newton’s laws and even the dreaded calculus are presented with some mathematics. This should not scare anyone, you can, without spoiling the story too much, skip the mathematics.

Paperback: 192 pages

Publisher: Hippo; 1 edition (15 Oct 1999)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0590114069

ISBN-13: 978-0590114066

Italian earthquake scientists found guilty

Six Italian scientists and an ex-government official have been sentenced to six years in prison over the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, about 100 km north-east of Rome.

The 6.3 magnitude quake, that struck on 6 April 2009, heavily damaged the city of L’Aquila and killed 309 people.

The prosecution argued that the scientists gave false reassurances before the earthquake. The defense argued that earthquake prediction is difficult and that it is impossible to make an accurate prediction of major quakes.

The convicted

  • Franco Barberi, head of Serious Risks Commission
  • Enzo Boschi, former president of the National Institute of Geophysics
  • Giulio Selvaggi, director of National Earthquake Centre
  • Gian Michele Calvi, director of European Centre for Earthquake Engineering
  • Claudio Eva, physicist
  • Mauro Dolce, director of the the Civil Protection Agency’s earthquake risk office
  • Bernardo De Bernardinis, former vice-president of Civil Protection Agency’s technical department

All seven have been sentenced to six years in prison for issuing false reassurances.

Before the convictions, more than 5,000 scientists, organised by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, signed an open letter to the Italian President Napolitano in support of the accused. The letter can be found here (pdf).

The aftermath

The worry is that science itself has been put on trial. Scientists should not have to make statements or not, in worry of being subject to lawsuits. This could discourage scientists becoming involved in public engagement.


IOP News

Lack of investment in nuclear physics, says IOP

Current funding of nuclear physics research is insufficient for the UK to take advantage of developing technologies needed in such areas as healthcare, the nuclear industry and defense, according to an international panel of nuclear physicists.

IOP website

A new report by the Institute of Physics, A Review of UK Nuclear Physics Research, has been published to help produce a strategy to help guide nuclear physics in the UK for the next decade [1].


[1] A Review of UK Nuclear Physics Research (PDF, 10 MB)


Nuclear physics ‘compromised by lack of investment’, IOP News

Cauliflower and fractals

Researchers have published a mathematical formula to describe the processes that dictate how cauliflower-like fractals form [1].


The team grew thin films using a technique known as chemical vapour deposition (CVD). They adapted the CVD process so that the film would grow into shapes similar to those seen on a cauliflower. These structures were on the submicron scale.

From this work the team were able to derive the formula which describes how the cauliflower-like patterns develop over time.

Theory verses Experiment

Below are some graphics comparing the theory with experimental observations. The close agreement is clear.


Taken from the paper [1], courtesy of IOP publishing


[1] Mario Castro et al (2012) Universality of cauliflower-like fronts: from nanoscale thin films to macroscopic plants New J. Phys. 14 103039 (online here)


IOP News

One step closer to a Star Trek tractor beam

Professor David Grier and David Ruffner (graduate student), working at the Department of Physics and Centre for Soft Matter Research have published a paper announcing that they have experimentally demonstrated a class of tractor beams[1]. They were able to move microscopic spheres of silica suspended in water over distances of about 30 micrometres.


David G. Grier

The definition of a tractor beam (quoted from the paper) is: A tractor beam is a traveling wave that can transport illuminated material along its length back to its source.

By this definition things like optical tweezers or optical conveyor belts are not technically tractor beams.

The problem

If you think about it, in order for a particle to be pulled by a beam of light, rather than pushed, it has to redirect the momentum of enough photons to overcome the force due to the radiation pressure of the beam.

This can happen if the intensity of light beam changes sufficiently along the axis of the beam. For example, one can use a beam with tightly focused areas.

The method

The tractor beam demonstrated by Ruffner and Grier uses a special kind of laser beam called a Bessel beam laser– the amplitude is given by a Bessel function of the first kind. A perfect Bessel beam would not diffract and spread out as it propagates. (For those that are interested, there is a lot of classical mathematical physics behind Bessel functions)

The team produced two Bessel beams side by side using a lens to angle them so they overlapped. Then by varying the relative phase of the two beams, the particle becomes trapped in an “optical conveyor” which allows the particle to be transported in three dimensions.


Cross-section of the Bessel beam and graph of intensity


No-one is about to start pulling space craft about using this technique. However, it may find applications in biology rather quickly.


[1] Optical conveyors: A class of active tractor beams, D. B. Ruffner and D. G. Grier, Physical Review Letters, in press (2012) (download)


David Grier’s Home Page

UK postgraduate education failing

A report by The Higher Education Commission states that the UK postgraduate system is failing to generate a skilled workforce that industry needs and is geared towards attracting overseas students. Remember, overseas students pay larger fees and are a large source of income for a university.

The overseas postgraduate students has increased in recent years, up 200% since 1999. There has been a rise of 18% for UK postgraduate students.

In short the UK economy needs more “home-grown talent” rather than continually looking abroad.


The report will be launched on Monday 29 October in the Palace of Westminster. Speakers will include

  • Dr Graham Spittle, Inquiry Chair (Vice President of IBM and former Chair of the Technology Strategy Board)
  • Rt Hon David Willetts MP, Minister of State for Universities and Science (invited)
  • Shabana Mahmood MP, Shadow Minister for Higher Education



Postgraduate Education: An Independent Inquiry by the Higher Education Commission (opens PDF)

Mathematics at the workplace

The National Numeracy Challenge, organised by charity National Numeracy, plan to reach one million adults over a five-year period, starting with those at work, but with plans to expand in order to reach those not in employment or education.

Poor numeracy is a blight on individuals’ life chances and we believe that employees will be as keen as their employers to improve their skills. With 17 million people in need of help, this is just the beginning. Our initial targets are actually quite modest, but we are in this for the long term.

Chris Humphries, National Numeracy chair

UK government figures state:

  1. 17 million people of working age in England had at best the numeracy skills expected of children at primary school.
  2. over 8 million of these adults had the skills expected of 7-9 year-olds or younger.

The equivalent figures for literacy are 5 million and 2 million respectively.


The Challange

Employers will be asked to making a commitment to raise the skills of all their employees to at least Level 1: about the standards expected of 14-year-olds. In some sectors, employers may feel that Level 2 is a more appropriate target: equivalent to GCSE A*-C.

My personal opinion

As a mathematician I see a lot of interesting problems and rich structures within mathematics. However, this is not what the Challenge is talking about. Basic mathematics and as part of that numeracy, should be seen as a fundamental skill.

I am not talking about advanced calculus or noncommutative algebras, but the basic skills needed in everyday life. This includes simple things like making sure you can budget your money, read bus timetables, follow recipes in in cookbooks, understanding bills and so on.

I welcome any scheme that aids with the populous’ numeracy skills.


The National Numeracy Challenge

Secret Universe: The Hidden Life of a Cell

Narrated by David Tennant, this BBC 2 program (Sun 21 Oct 2012 20:00) describes the battle between your cells and the virus army they face every day.

The graphics employed are stunning and open a view on this rather alien, yet fundamentally human world. This world is populated with micro-machines and could easily be part of a sci-fi blockbuster.


Courtesy of the BBC

The one hour program has contributions from Professor Bonnie L Bassler of Princeton University, Dr Nick Lane and Professor Steve Jones of University College London and Cambridge University’s Susanna Bidgood.

For UK residents, Secret Universe: The Hidden Life of a Cell is available to watch for 7 more days on BBC iplayer.


Secret Universe: The Hidden Life of a Cell