Year 12 Maths Inspiration Event

A typical Thursday morning scene as teachers in high vis, shepherd students across town on a school trip. Except that these students are 16-17 year old maths students on their way to the Maths Inspiration talk at the Hexagon, Reading. On Thursday 21st March they were entertained for 3.5 hours by some great mathematical figures, talking (and inspiring) on a range of topics from computing to crowd control.

The show was hosted by Matt Parker, star of YouTube channel Numberphile, who kicked things off by creating, with the help of Shannan from Kendrick, a magic square. The whole audience was very impressed with this expression of mathematical greatness, but there is a quick method you can learn to perform this party trick yourself. Look on the Numberphile YouTube channel to find out more.

The first of the speakers was Rob Eastaway. He is an author of a number of Maths books: “Why do buses come in threes?”, “How many socks make a pair?” and “How long is a piece of string?”, to name a few. Through the use of a few seemingly simple problems, Mr Eastaway challenged the concept of mathematical intuition. The most mind-blowing example of this was when he asked the audience what the percentage of odd numbers in a Pascal’s Triangle with 1 million rows is. The options ranged from 30% to 100%. ‘Surely it can’t be 100%’, you might think.

You thought wrong! This surprising solution is a result of a unique concept called Sierpinski’s Gasket. It is a fractal shape formed from the repeated removal of a proportion of a triangle’s area resulting in an increase in the shape’s perimeter. Repeat this an infinite amount and you are left with a shape with an infinite perimeter and zero area. This pattern appears in Pascal’s Triangle as well with the area being the even numbers and the perimeter being the odd numbers (starting from the 1s down the 2 sides of the triangle), hence 100% odd numbers.

The next speaker was called Aoife Hunt. She works as a consultant who creates mathematical models of crowds for some of the largest sporting and musical venues in the country. Dr Hunt asked members of the audience, including Kyra from Kendrick, to take part in a short experiment. They investigated the relationship between walking speed and crowd density. It was really interesting to see the link between real world experimentation and mathematical world modelling. The data they produced formed patterns such as quadratic and reciprocal curves, proving once again that, in the end, human behaviour is just an algorithm.

The final speaker was James Grime. He took the audience on a roller coaster ride through the history of codes and codebreaking, starting with simple Caesar shifts to modern day data encryption. History has seen the breaking of many ‘unbreakable’ codes. Dr Grime demonstrated this in probably the most awesome way possible when he showcased an original World War II Enigma machine. This legendary machine was the means of communication for German soldiers and uses the systematic shifting of 3 rotors and a plugboard to produce a code with no repeating patterns. There are 15 billion billion different combinations of the enigma settings that changed every 24 hours. Unbelievably by mid 1940 the British had broken the code and were reading the German messages. A working original is very rare and to see it in action was incredibly exciting.

There was a lot to learn from this event, but perhaps the most powerful was the encompassing nature of Maths. The speakers all had the common factor of a great enthusiasm for their subject and how far and wide it has brought them. Through their words they showed that with Mathematics, you could reach the forefront of any field. Inspiring to say the least.

Serena Y12