Friday, 12 May 2017

Sandy Patel wins Best Support Staff award

Mathematicians, young and old, win awards, lots of them and Oxford mathematicians have their fair share. However, any university department is of course also home to a range of support staff whose job it is, on a good day, to enable academics to make the best use of their time.

To recognise this role the Oxford University Students Union (OUSU) has its own awards for best support staff, and this year we are delighted to announce that Oxford Mathematics's own Sandy Patel scooped a prize. Sandy is Graduate Studies Administrator and her role is to ensure that our over 200 Graduate Students have the best possible experience during their time in Oxford and together with their Faculty supervisors are able to produce the best research in the subject. Graduate Students are the critical component of any research university and giving them the best support is vital. 

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Some advice for gamblers from Oxford Mathematics

We all know there is no guaranteed way of beating the bank in a casino or predicting the tossing of a coin. Well maybe. Perhaps a little more thought and a large dose of mathematics could help optimise our strategies.

Oxford Mathematicians Jan Obloj and colleagues looked at the optimal strategy of a gambler with cumulative prospect theory (CPT) preferences. CPT preferences capture, in particular, the empirically observed human tendency for being risk averse while winning but being risk seeking when losing. Their research showed that the performance, even of complex betting strategies, can be strictly improved by looking at past betting patterns and by tossing an independent coin. This improvement results from the lack of quasi-convexity of CPT preferences: given two choices we may prefer a mixture of them to either of them individually.

Even better news for gamblers is that if they go through a series of hypothetical choices to determine their particular risk appetites (and hence a numerical CPT representation of their preferences), Jan and colleagues can provide an algorithmic way to compute the bias of the coins which ought to be tossed by the gambler to optimally decide when to stop playing in the casino.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Philip Maini elected to the Academy of Medical Sciences

Oxford Mathematician Philip Maini has been elected to the Academy of Medical Sciences for 2017. The Academy's mission is to advance biomedical and health research and its translation into benefits for society and this year's elected Fellows, 46 in total, have expertise that spans women’s health, immunology, public health and infectious disease among many other fields.

Philip Maini FRS, who is Professor of Mathematical Biology and Director of the Wolfson Centre for Mathematical Biology here in Oxford, is a leading figure in the field of mathematical biology with research interests spanning the modelling of avascular and vascular tumours, normal and abnormal wound healing, applications of mathematical modelling in pattern formation in early development, as well as the theoretical analysis of the mathematical models that arise in all these applications.


Monday, 8 May 2017

Ulrike Tillmann elected member of the German National Academy of Sciences

Oxford Mathematics's Ulrike Tillmann has been elected a member of the German National Academy of Sciences. The Academy, Leopoldina, brings together the expertise of some 1,500 distinguished scientists to bear on questions of social and political relevance, publishing unbiased and timely scientific opinions. The Leopoldina represents the German scientific community in international committees and pursues the advancement of science for the benefit of humankind and for a better future.

Historically it was known under the German name Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina until 2007, when it was declared a national academy of Germany. The Leopoldina is located in Halle. Founded in 1652, the Leopoldina claims to be the oldest continuously existing learned society in the world.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Mathematical Institute receives Athena Swan Silver Award

The Athena SWAN charter was establised in 2005 to encourage and recognise commitment to advancing the careers of women in science. In 2013 the Mathematical Institute here in Oxford was awarded a bronze medal and now, four years later, we are pleased to announce that we have been upgraded to silver.

Martin Bridson, Head of Department, said of the award: "Our Athena SWAN work supports the Department’s overarching aim of creating a working environment in which students and staff alike can achieve their full potential. This is a constant feature of all that we do, of course, but the process of self-reflection required in preparing our submission for this award provided a focus and stimulus to action that will benefit us all.

It is vital that the country’s leading departments be seen as beacons of commitment to supporting the work/life balance of their members and to redressing the under-representation of women in mathematics. This high-profile award does much to further our efforts in this direction."

Our application can be viewed here.

Thursday, 27 April 2017
Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Live Podcasts of Oxford Mathematics Public Lectures in May

Our successful Public Lectures are now podcasted live. For details of the two lectures in May please follow the links.

Tim Palmer - The Butterfly Effect - what does it really signify' 5pm, 9 May

Marcus du Sautoy - The Sound of Symmetry and the Symmetry of Sound 5pm, 11 May

More information about our Public Lectures past and present and posters for all of them can be found here.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

In Praise of Plato - Willow Winston's Sculptures in the Andrew Wiles Building

The Andrew Wiles Building, our home here in Oxford, is very much a public space with its large exhibition and conference facilities and public cafe. We have hosted theatrical productions, most recently Creation Theatre's stark production of Orwell's '1984' and in particular we have provided an outlet for artists and photographers to display their work.

Yet we are of course primarily a mathematics building - mathematics and mathematicians are evident everywhere you go from Roger Penrose's tiling at the entrance to the mathematical-shaped crystals at the heart of the building. 

Our latest exhibition, Sculptor Willow Winston's 'In Praise of Plato' represents all those elements. An artistic exploration of symmetry, it is a marriage of mathematics and art in a public setting. In Willow's own words "experimenting with geometrical form fabricated in metals, much based on work I have done with Plato's Perfect Solids, I use reflective materials allowing a union between real and virtual worlds, enhancing our ability to climb into the imagination. "

The exhibition, in the Mezzanine space of the Andrew Wiles Building, is open from 8am-6pm Monday to Friday and runs until 21 May. 

Friday, 21 April 2017

The mathematics of why our grandmothers love us

Michael Bonsall, Professor of Mathematical Biology at Oxford University's Department of Zoology, discusses his research in population biology, what it tells us about species evolution and, in particular, why grandmothering is important to humans. His research was done in conjunction with Oxford Mathematician Jared Field.

"What is mathematical biology?

It is easy to get lost in the details and idiosyncrasies of biology. Understanding molecular structures and how systems work on a cellular level is important, but this alone will not tell us the whole science story. To achieve this we have to develop our insight and understanding more broadly, and use this to make predictions. Mathematics allows us to do this.

Just as we would develop an experiment to test a specific idea, we can use mathematical equations and models to help us delve into biological complexity. Mathematics has the unique power to give us insight in to the highly complex world of biology.  By using mathematical formulas to ask questions, we can test our assumptions. The language and techniques of mathematics allow us to determine if any predictions will stand up to rigorous experimental or observational challenge. If they do not, then our prediction has not accurately captured the biology. Even in this instance there is still something to be learned. When an assumption is proven wrong it still improves our understanding, because we can rule that particular view out, and move on to testing another.

What science does this specialism enable – any studies that stand out, or that you are particularly proud of?

Developing a numerate approach to biology allows us to explore what, at face value, might be very different biologies. For instance, the dynamics of cells, the dynamics of diseases or the behaviour of animals. The specialism allows us to use a common framework to seek understanding. The studies that stand out in my mind are those where we can develop a mathematical approach to a problem, and then challenge it with rigorous, quality experiments and/or observation. This doesn’t have to happen in the same piece of work, but working to achieve a greater understanding is critical to moving the science forward.

You recently published a paper: ‘Evolutionary stability and the rarity of grandmothering.’ What was the reasoning behind it?

Grandmothering as a familial structure is very rare among animals. Whales, elephants and some primates are the few species, besides humans, to actually adopt it. In this particular study we took some very simple mathematical ideas and asked why this is the case.

Evolution predicts that for individuals to serve their purpose they should maximise their reproductive output, and have lots of offspring. For them to have a post-reproductive period, and to stop having babies, so that they can care for grandchildren for instance, there has to be a clearly identified benefit.

We developed a formula that asked why grandmothering is so rare in animals, testing its evolutionary benefits and disadvantages, compared to other familial systems like parental care and co-operative breeding for instance (when adults in a group team up to care for offspring). We compared the benefit of each strategy and assessed which gives the better outcomes.

What did the findings reveal about the rarity of grandmothering and why so few species live in this way?

Our maths revealed that a very narrow and specific range of conditions are needed to allow a grandmothering strategy to persist and be useful to animals. The evolutionary benefits of grandmothering depend on two things: the number of grandchildren that must be cared for, and the length of the post-reproductive period. If the post-reproductive period is less than the weaning period (the time it takes to rear infants) then grandmothers would die before infants are reared to independence.

We made the mathematical prediction that for grandmothering to be evolutionary feasible, with very short post-reproductive periods, it is necessary to rear lots of grandchildren. But if this post-reproductive period is short, not many (or any) would survive. Species with shorter life spans, like fish, insects and meerkats for instance, simply don’t have the time to do it and focus on parental-care. Evolution has not given them the capability to grandparent, and their time is better spent breeding and having as many offspring as they can. By contrast long-lived animals like whales and elephants have the time to breed their own offspring, grandparent that offspring and even to great-grandparent the next generation.

How do you plan to build on this work?

Although grandparenting isn’t a familial strategy that many species are able to adopt, it is in fact the strongest. Compared to parental-care and co-operative breeding, grandparenting has a stronger evolutionary benefit – as it ensures future reproductive success of offspring and grand-offspring – giving a stronger generational gene pool.

Moving forward we would like to test mathematical theories to work out if it is possible for species to evolve from one familial strategy to another and reap the benefits. Currently for the majority of species rearing grandchildren instead of having their own offspring is not a worthwhile trade-off.

What are the biggest challenges?

Ensuring that the mathematical sciences has relevance to biology. Biology is often thought to lack quantitative rigour. This would be wrong. The challenge is to show how the mathematical sciences can be relevant to, and help us to answer critical questions in biology. This will continue to be a challenge but will yield unique insights along the way in unravelling biology.
What do you like most about your field?

So many things. Firstly, the people. I work with a lot of very smart people, who I look forward to seeing each day. I also get to think about biology and look at it through a mathematical lens. Finally I think the specialism allows us to do fantastic science that has the potential to improve the world.

Is there any single mathematical biology problem that you would like to solve?

Developing a robust method to combine with biological processes that operate on different time scales - as this would have so many valuable, and to use one of my favourite words, neat, applications to our work.

Why did you decide to specialise in this area?

Because of the perspective that we can gain from it and because I love biology and maths. Unpicking the complexities of the natural world with maths and then challenging this maths with observations and experiments is super neat. And I can do (some of this) while eating ice-cream!

‘Evolutionary stability and the rarity of grandmothering’ by Jared M.Field and Michael B.Bonsall is available to download from the science journal Ecology and Evolution.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Mathematical physicist James Sparks talks about his research into exact results in the AdS/CFT correspondence

As part of our series of research articles focusing on the rigour and intricacies of mathematics and its problems, Oxford Mathematician James Sparks discusses his latest work.

"Two great successes of 20th century theoretical physics are Quantum Field Theory and General Relativity. 

Quantum Field Theory (QFT) is a framework for applying the principles of quantum mechanics to the classical theory of fields (such as the electromagnetic field). In QFT elementary particles, such as electrons, quarks, and photons, are quantum excitations of fields. Particle accelerators, such as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, have tested the theoretical predictions of QFT to extraordinary precision.

General Relativity (GR) is Einstein's theory of gravity. In GR gravity is described by the bending/curving of space and time, and this geometry of spacetime is dynamical. Again, the predictions of GR have been tested in detail by many experiments, most recently in 2016 with the direct observation of gravitational waves (predicted by Einstein almost exactly a century earlier).

Despite these successes, our understanding of both theories is incomplete.

QFT is best understood in perturbation theory. Here one assumes there is a small parameter, called the coupling constant g. For g=0 the particles/fields do not interact at all. The results of particle interactions, such as collisions in a particle accelerator, may then be computed to any desired order of accuracy as a series expansion in g. However, what about phenomena in which there is no small parameter g in which to make such an expansion? In general there is very little theoretical understanding of QFT at so-called strong coupling: there are both conceptual and technical problems.

On the other hand, applying quantum mechanics to gravity has proved very difficult. Such a quantum theory of gravity is expected to be relevant for understanding black holes and the Big Bang singularity.

20 years ago Maldacena proposed a remarkable relation between these two problems. It goes under the general name of the AdS/CFT correspondence, or gauge/gravity duality. This is a conjecture asserting that certain QFTs have a completely equivalent description as a quantum theory of gravity! In particular, AdS/CFT typically relates strongly coupled QFTs (in the limit that some g tends to infinity) to classical GR. Even more bizarre is that the theories live in different numbers of dimensions: for a QFT in 4 spacetime dimensions (3 space and 1 time), the dual theory of gravity lives in 5 spacetime dimensions. In fact, in a precise sense, the QFT may be regarded as living on the boundary of the region in which gravity propagates.

After 20 years of intensive research we still don't understand AdS/CFT very well. However, what is clear from all this research is that it must be true!

As a mathematical physicist my work on this topic is at the more formal mathematical end. A key additional ingredient is supersymmetry. Whether this is actually a symmetry of Nature (above some energy scale) or not is somewhat irrelevant for my purposes: it is there to provide additional analytic control on the problem. Over the last few years new techniques have been developed in supersymmetric QFTs, that allow certain observables of the theory to be computed exactly i.e. exactly as a function of g, rather than in a series expansion. These go under the general name of localization techniques.

Broadly speaking my recent research on this has focused on two problems, which are related to each other by AdS/CFT.

The first problem involves studying supersymmetric QFT on certain curved spacetime backgrounds. Although the spacetime is curved, gravity is not dynamical in these models. Localization techniques allow for exact computations of QFT observables in many cases. Typically the infinite-dimensional path integral that defines the QFT observable reduces exactly to a finite-dimensional integral. The latter is often quite complicated e.g. involving an integral over the space of solutions to certain differential equations. Simple observables of interest are the partition function and certain supersymmetric Wilson loops. I have particularly focused on strong coupling limits of these computations, which are expected to be dual to semi-classical gravity via the AdS/CFT correspondence.

The second problem concerns the dual description of the first problem. Here one wishes to study certain classes of solutions to GR (or rather its supersymmetric cousins, called supergravity theories). Mathematically this is a filling problem, where one solves equations with fixed boundary data. My recent work on this has included the construction of new classes of solutions to supergravity, relevant for describing strongly coupled QFT observables. I am particularly interested in deriving general results. For example, provided the filling satisfies certain topological assumptions, one can often show that supersymmetric observables of interest may be computed without knowing the supergravity solution in detail. This has led to a number of general "exact results" in AdS/CFT, in which both sides of the correspondence can be computed independently, in a broad setting, and shown to always agree."

For more on James's research into the field see below.