Monday, 7 September 2015

Ada Lovelace Symposium - celebrating the 200th birthday of a computer visionary

When you think about the founders of computing you may think Alan Turing, you may even think Charles Babbage. But you should definitely think about Ada Lovelace. Ada is not only the link between Babbage and Turing, but a woman of fierce originality and intellectual interests whose ideas went beyond Babbage’s ideas of computers as manipulating numbers, and focused on their creative possibilities and their limits, the very issues with which we are wrestling today.

In 2015 the University of Oxford will celebrate the 200th anniversary of Ada’s birth.  The centrepiece of the celebrations will be a display at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library (13 October – 18 December 2015) and a Symposium (9 and 10 December 2015), presenting Lovelace’s life and work, and contemporary thinking on computing and artificial intelligence.

Ada, Countess of Lovelace (1815–1852), is best known for her remarkable article about Charles Babbage’s unbuilt computer, the Analytical Engine. The article presented the first documented computer program, to calculate the Bernoulli numbers, and explained the ideas underlying Babbage’s  machine – and every one of the billions of computers and computer programs in use today. Her contribution was highlighted in one of Alan Turing’s most famous papers ‘Can a machine think?’ Lovelace had wide scientific and intellectual interests and studied with scientist Mary Somerville, and with Augustus De Morgan, a leading mathematician and pioneer in logic and algebra.

The display, in the Bodleian’s new Weston Library, will offer a chance to see Lovelace’s correspondence with Babbage and De Morgan, and her childhood exercises and mathematical notes.   It features a remarkable new discovery in the archives -  Lovelace and Babbage working together on magic squares and network algorithms – the dawn of “computational thinking.”

The Symposium, on 9th and 10th December 2015, is aimed at a broad audience interested in the history and culture of mathematics and computer science, presenting current scholarship on Lovelace’s life and work, and linking her ideas to contemporary thinking about computing and artificial intelligence. It is a truly interdisciplinary event, and confirmed speakers so far include Lovelace’s direct descendant the Earl of Lytton, Lovelace biographer Betty Toole, computer historian Doron Swade, historian Richard Holmes, computer scientist Moshe Vardi and graphic novelist Sydney Padua. Oxford researchers Christopher Hollings and Ursula Martin will present their new research on Lovelace’s mathematics.

Oxford has a remarkable history of programming research, with two winners of the ACM A M Turing Award, the Nobel Prize for Computer Science, and the unique breadth and depth of Oxford’s expertise brings a variety of perspectives to understanding Lovelace and the remarkable intellectual community around her, visionaries whose ideas underpin modern computing.

For more details about the celebrations:

Twitter: #lovelaceoxford

Image reproduced by permission of Pollinger Limited ( on behalf of the estate of Ada Lovelace.

You may also be interested in a BBC4 film about the life of Ada Lovelace, to be broadcast at 9pm on 17 September and Radio 4 will feature readings from Lovelace’s letters at 11 am on 14 and 21 September.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Scientists, Medics and Mathematicians get to work on the mysteries of the Human Brain

Collaboration may have a claim to being the most overused word in academia (and one or two other places as well), but as the world accumulates more and more data and is able to study mechanisms and organisms at an ever smaller scale, then it is inevitable that more than one expertise is needed to describe the full story.

The International Brain Mechanics and Trauma Lab, based in Oxford, encapsulates that joining together of minds, recognising the absolute need for world-class institutions to collaborate on complex issues.

26 Academics from across Engineering, Mathematics and the Physical and Medical Sciences in Oxford and beyond are combining their experience and skills to understand the human brain, how it operates at the tiniest level and how that action affects its response to trauma and injury. This film demonstrates the ambition and potential of the collaboration in addressing the complexity inherent in studying brain trauma and disease, perhaps one of the greatest challenges of our century.


Monday, 20 July 2015

How do networks shape the spread of disease and gossip?

A new approach to exploring the spread of contagious diseases or the latest celebrity gossip has been tested using London’s street and underground networks. Results from the new approach could help to predict when a contagion will spread through space as a simple wave (as in the Black Death) and when long-range connections, such as air travel, enable it to seemingly jump over long distances and emerge in locations far from an initial outbreak.

A team of Oxford Mathematicians together with colleagues from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Rutgers University used a set of mathematical rules to encode how a contagion spreads, and they used diverse mathematical and computational tools to study outcomes of these rules.

The researchers explored how disease or gossip might spread through London's transit network. Specifically, they illustrated how the street network overlaid with the London Underground network enables contagions to hop to a distant location. To analyse the behaviour of a contagion, the researchers drew on ideas from ‘topology’, a branch of mathematics used to characterise the structure of complex shapes. By studying the ‘shape’ of the data that results from a contagion, it is possible to distinguish between contagions that take long-distance hops across a network and those that exhibit a local (and slower) wave-like spreading pattern.

This ‘computational topology’ technique has the potential to overcome many of the barriers to extracting useful information from big, ‘noisy’ data sets, such as those gathered during a disease epidemic or from gossip spreading over social media. Computational topology could, for example, yield insights into how fast a new contagion might spread or where it might emerge next.

A report of the research is published in the journal Nature Communications.

"Underlying spatial networks have a big influence over how diseases or information spread, but in our ever-more-connected world, there are numerous ‘shortcuts’ that these can take that makes their spreading patterns difficult to predict," said Professor Mason Porter (an author of the report) of the University of Oxford’s Mathematical Institute. "Our work shows a way to reconcile a wave-like model of spreading, which might approximate what happens at a local level, with behaviour that includes shortcuts to distant locations."

To investigate how networks influence spreading processes, the team ran hundreds of scenarios. They considered various subtly different network structures, which encapsulate which ‘nodes’ (representing, for example, people or locations) are directly reachable from each other through a single short-range or long-range connection.

In some scenarios, nodes can be ‘stubborn’ and resist a new infection or idea; but in others, they are not stubborn at all and quickly succumb to a contagion. The team found that the shape of how a contagion spreads is very sensitive to how inclined nodes are to adopt the contagion. Dr Heather Harrington, another author from the Mathematical Institute in Oxford, said “If nodes are very stubborn, a contagion doesn’t spread much at all; whereas if they are compliant, the contagion quickly crops up all over the network. When the nodes are moderately stubborn—a so called ‘sweet spot’—a contagion tends to spread gradually as a wave."

Professor Porter said: "In other situations, when different nodes have different levels of stubbornness, and if we otherwise make the model more complicated, we still observe both wave-like and shortcut ‘hopping’ behaviour, although naturally the results are messier."

By varying the location of the initial outbreak on a given network and tracking exactly who gets infected at what time (and stacking these layers of information on top of one another), the researchers constructed a mathematical object that they call a ‘contagion map’.

Using methods from computational topology to examine the shape of the data encompassed by the contagion map, the researchers looked for ‘holes’ in the data. "You can think of it like looking for the hole in a doughnut shape that enables us to distinguish it from a sphere," said Professor Porter. In simple scenarios, the approach can distinguish between a ‘real’ hole – which could represent where infections tend not to spread over shortcuts between distant locales – and a ‘false’ hole that arises from noise in the data (such that long-range spread could still be common). As the deluge of data gets ever deeper, developing tools that can distinguish genuine features from noise in large, intricate data sets is becoming increasingly important.

Professor Porter said: "Our work illustrates that these topological methods could be useful in a range of different scenarios. It’s a good example of how pure mathematics and applied mathematics are increasingly working together."

In addition to Porter and Harrington, the research team included postgraduate student Florian Klimm from Oxford’s Mathematical Institute, Dr Dane Taylor and Prof. Peter Mucha from University of North Carolina at Chapell Hill, and Dr Miroslav Kramár and Prof. Konstantin Mischaikow from Rutgers University. Taylor and Klimm are joint lead authors of the study.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015
Tuesday, 14 July 2015

National Portrait Gallery unveils portrait of Andrew Wiles

A newly commissioned portrait of Sir Andrew Wiles, the Oxford Mathematician, has been unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery. The four-by-three foot portrait is by London artist Rupert Alexander, who has painted the Queen and members of the Royal Family.   

Artist Rupert Alexander says: ‘I wanted to convey the cerebral world Sir Andrew inhabits, but rather than doing so by furnishing the composition with books or the obligatory blackboard of equations, I tried to imply it simply through the light and atmosphere. Mathematics appears to me an austere discipline, so casting him in a cool, blue light seemed apt.’

Sir Andrew Wiles by Rupert Alexander is on display in Room 38 at the National Portrait Gallery from Tuesday 14 July, Admission free.


Sunday, 12 July 2015

Marcus du Sautoy made Doctor of Science of the University of South Wales

Oxford Mathematician and Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, Marcus du Sautoy, has received the award of Doctor of Science of the University of South Wales for his outstanding research record in mathematics and his exceptional contribution to the promotion of the public understanding of mathematics and science. He will receive the award on 13th July 2015.

Sunday, 5 July 2015
Sunday, 5 July 2015

Six Oxford Mathematicians win LMS prizes

Six Oxford Mathematicians are among the 2015 London Mathematical Society prizewinners. 

A Polya Prize was awarded to Professor Boris Zilber for his visionary contributions to model theory and its applications.

A Naylor Prize and Lectureship in Applied Mathematics was awarded to Professor Jon Chapman (pictured) for his outstanding contributions to modelling and methods development in applied mathematics.

Whitehead Prizes were awarded to the following:

Professor Peter Keevash for his work in combinatorics, in particular his stunning proof of the existence of combinatorial designs for all parameters satisfying the obvious necessary conditions, 

James Maynard for his spectacular results on gaps between prime numbers. He simplified and extended the work of Zhang on bounded gaps between primes, then made the most substantial advance on how large the gap between consecutive primes can be for 75 years, in particular answering a 10,000 dollar conjecture of Erdos.

Professor Mason Porter in recognition of his outstanding interdisciplinary contributions and in particular to the emerging field of network science, where he has combined unique analysis of biological, social and political data sets with novel methods for community detection and other forms of coarse graining.

Professor Dominic Vella for his spectacular contributions to the modelling of instability and interfacial phenomena in fluids and solids.

In addition an Anne Bennett Prize was awarded to Oxford Mathematics Visiting Fellow Apala Majumdar (University of Bath) in recognition of her outstanding contributions to the mathematics of liquid crystals and to the liquid crystal community.

Monday, 29 June 2015

John Wallis - the latest in our series of Oxford Mathematicians

“In the year 1649 I removed to Oxford, being then Publick Professor of Geometry, of the Foundation of Sr. Henry Savile. And Mathematicks which had before been a pleasing diversion, was now to be my serious Study.”
Our latest Oxford Mathematician is John Wallis, Savilian Professor of Geometry from 1649 to 1703, and the most influential English mathematician before the rise of Isaac Newton. His most important works were his Arithmetic of Infinitesimals and his treatise on Conic Sections, both published in the 1650s. These were full of fresh discoveries and insights and appeared at a critical time in the development of mathematics. It was through studying the former that Newton came to discover his version of the binomial theorem. Wallis’s last great mathematical work, A Treatise of Algebra, was published in his seventieth year. 
See also the first in the series on G H Hardy
Friday, 26 June 2015

Iain Smears wins Leslie Fox Prize

The 17th IMA Leslie Fox Prize in Numerical Analysis has been won by Oxford Mathematician Iain Smears, together with Alex Townsend from MIT. 

Iain has recently completed his DPhil under the supervision of Prof. Endre Süli in the Numerical Analysis Group in Oxford. His research is on computational algorithms for solving a class of highly nonlinear partial differential equations called Hamilton–Jacobi–Bellman equations. These equations arise in models of stochastic control that originate in a wide range of application areas, including engineering, finance and energy. He developed highly accurate and flexible methods for a broad class of these equations, thereby leading to significant gains in terms of computational efficiency over existing approaches. The results of his work are set out in two publications in SIAM Journal on Numerical Analysis, and one publication in Numerische Mathematik.
The prize is named in honour of Leslie Fox (1918-1992), Director of the Oxford University Computer Laboratory (1957-1983) and Professor of Numerical Analysis at Oxford University.
Alex Townsend is a former student of Nick Trefethen, Oxford Professor of Numerical Analysis. Second prizes were awarded to Patrick Farrell, who is currently at Oxford, and John W. Pearson, a former student of Andy Wathen in the Numerical Analysis Group at Oxford.