Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

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Memories of undergraduate mathematics

By Lara Alcock
Two contrasting experiences stick in mind from my first year at university. First, I spent a lot of time in lectures that I did not understand. I don’t mean lectures in which I got the general gist but didn’t quite follow the technical details. I mean lectures in which I understood not one thing from the beginning to the end. I still went to all the lectures and wrote everything down – I was a dutiful sort of student – but this was hardly the ideal learning experience…

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The map she carried

By Marjorie Senechal
In the heyday of the British Empire, Britain’s second most-widely-read book, after the Bible, was: (a) Richard III (b) Robinson Crusoe (c) The Elements (d) Beowulf ? Why do I ask? “Since late medieval or early modern time,” Michael Walzer writes in Exodus and Revolution, “there has existed in the West a characteristic way of thinking about political change, a pattern that we commonly impose upon events, a story that we repeat to one another.”

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Teaching algorithmic problem-solving with puzzles and games

By Anany Levitin
In the last few years algorithmic thinking has become somewhat of a buzz word among computer science educators, and with some justice: ubiquity of computers in today’s world does make algorithmic thinking a very important skill for almost any student. There are few colleges and universities that require non-computer science majors to take a course exposing them to important issues and methods of algorithmic problem solving.

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What do mathematicians do?

By Jason Rosenhouse
Writing in 1866, the British mathematician John Venn wrote, in reference to the branch of mathematics known as probability theory, “To many persons the mention of Probability suggests little else than the notion of a set of rules, very ingenious and profound rules no doubt, with which mathematicians amuse themselves by setting and solving puzzles.” I suspect many of my students would extend Venn’s quip to the entirety of mathematics.

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Celebrating Newton, 325 years after Principia

By Robyn Arianrhod
This year, 2012, marks the 325th anniversary of the first publication of the legendary Principia (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), the 500-page book in which Sir Isaac Newton presented the world with his theory of gravity. It was the first comprehensive scientific theory in history, and it’s withstood the test of time over the past three centuries.

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What sort of science do we want?

By Robyn Arianrhod
29 November 2012 is the 140th anniversary of the death of mathematician Mary Somerville, the nineteenth century’s “Queen of Science”. Several years after her death, Oxford University’s Somerville College was named in her honor — a poignant tribute because Mary Somerville had been completely self-taught. In 1868, when she was 87, she had signed J. S. Mill’s (unsuccessful) petition for female suffrage, but I think she’d be astonished that we’re still debating “the woman question” in science.

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Summing up Alan Turing

Three words to sum up Alan Turing? Humour. He had an impish, irreverent and infectious sense of humour. Courage. Isolation. He loved to work alone. Reading his scientific papers, it is almost as though the rest of the world — the busy community of human minds working away on the same or related problems — simply did not exist.

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Is Almanac Day in your calendar?

By Benjamin Wardhaugh
As well as Halloween, Guy Fawkes, and All Saints’s day, this time of the year used to see another day of fun and frenzy. ‘Almanack Day’, towards the end of November, saw the next year’s almanacs go on sale. It generally came round on or about 22 November: St Cecilia’s Day. In London, Stationers’ Hall would be crammed to the rafters…

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The mathematics of democracy: Who should vote?

By Joseph C. McMurray
An interesting, if somewhat uncommon, lens through which to view politics is that of mathematics. One of the strongest arguments ever made in favor of democracy, for example, was in 1785 by the political philosopher-mathematician, Nicolas de Condorcet.

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The Joy of Sets

By Jason Rosenhouse
In more than a decade of socializing with creationists and other religious fundamentalists, I frequently encountered blinkered arguments about mathematics. This attack on set theory, however, was new to me. I cannot even imagine why anyone would think set theory is relevant to discussions of whether it is man or God who creates math. Perhaps the problem is that set theorists often speak a bit casually about infinity, which some people think is tantamount to discussing God. Alas, this line of criticism is too blinkered to take seriously.

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Maths, magic, and the electric guitar

By David Acheson
I’ve just had a great time at the 2012 Edinburgh International Book Festival, even though it was a rather strange experience for a mathematician. In the Author’s Yurt (sic), for example, I was surrounded by fiction writers, with lots of pointy beards and wild hair. As it happens, I used to write detective stories when I was a young boy, so once had vague dreams of becoming a fiction writer myself.

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Computers as authors and the Turing Test

By Kees van Deemter
Alan Turing’s work was so important and wide-ranging that it is difficult to think of a more broadly influential scientist in the last century. Our understanding of the power and limitations of computing, for example, owes a tremendous amount to his work on the mathematical concept of a Turing Machine. His practical achievements are no less impressive. Some historians believe that the Second World War would have ended differently without his contributions to code-breaking. Yet another part of his work is the Turing test.

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Turing’s Grand Unification

By Cristopher Moore and Stephan Mertens
Many of the central moments in science have been unifications: realizations that seemingly disparate phenomena are all aspects of one underlying structure. Newton showed that the same laws of motion and gravity govern apples and planets, creating the first explanatory framework that joins the terrestrial to the celestial. Maxwell showed that a single field can explain electricity, magnetism, and light. Darwin realized that natural selection shapes all forms of life. And Einstein demonstrated that space and time are shadows of a single, four-dimensional spacetime.

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Turing : the irruption of Materialism into thought

By Paul Cockshott
This year is being widely celebrated as the Turing centenary. He is being hailed as the inventor of the computer, which perhaps overstates things, and as the founder of computing science, which is more to the point. It can be argued that his role in the actual production of the first generation computers, whilst real, was not vital. In 1946 he designed the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE), a very advanced design of computer for its day, but because of its challenging scale, initially only a cut down version (the Pilot ACE) was built (and can now be seen in the Science Museum).

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Sudoku and the Pace of Mathematics

Among mathematicians, it is always a happy moment when a long-standing problem is suddenly solved. The year 2012 started with such a moment, when an Irish mathematician named Gary McGuire announced a solution to the minimal-clue problem for Sudoku puzzles.

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Mitchell discovers a comet

This Day in World History – Each evening that weather permitted, Maria (pronounced Mah-RYE-uh) Mitchell mounted the stairs to the roof of her family’s Nantucket home to sweep the sky with a telescope looking for a comet. Mitchell—who had been taught mathematics and astronomy by her father—began the practice in 1836. Eleven years later, on October 1, 1847, her long labors finally paid off. When she saw the comet, she quickly summoned her father, who agreed with her conclusion.

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