Revealing mathematical my5teries with Marcus du Sautoy

This post first appeared as a postcard in my role as beach writer at PurpleBeach.com

Maths is a ‘Marmite’ subject, you either love it or hate it, says Marcus du Sautoy who is the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, as well as being a Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University and an author.

Marcus began with some questions to the audience: What is Maths? Is it a language? An art form? A secret code? And what does a mathematician do, other than (as many people think) long division sums to lots of decimal places? According to Marcus, mathematicians search for patterns to help predict the future. For example, can you predict the next number in this sequence: 1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55…. This is the famous Fibonacci sequence, and did you know that the number of petals on a flower Is always a number on this sequence?

Marcus also introduced us to the mysteries of triangular numbers, circle division numbers, even lottery numbers. But his favourite of all are prime numbers, because they are the atoms of arithmetic, used to build all other numbers.

Prime numbers appear in nature, for example the life cycle of the Magicicada septendecin, a very noisy North American insect that hides underground for 17 years, emerges for a six week party, lays its eggs then goes quiet again for another 17 years. Why does it do that? Did prime numbers help these cicadas outfox a predator?

Marcus ended by talking about chaos theory and how in some systems there are thresholds where patterns go from predictable to chaotic. Weather forecasting is a good example of this. With their incredibly complex mathematical models, meteorologists can’t reliably predict more than 5 days in advance. Yet there is no doubt that simply knowing whether you are in a predictable or unpredictable region of your business is very powerful to help you understand the future.

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Are you a psychopath? asks Kevin Dutton

This post first appeared as a postcard in my role as beach writer at PurpleBeach.com

Psychopaths get a bad rap in the popular media, but really, they’re not all bad, says Kevin Dutton, research psychologist at Oxford University and author of “The wisdom of psychopaths – Lessons in Life from Saints, Spies and Serial killers.”

While pure psychopaths with an uncontrolled violent streak are invariably ‘toxic’, for others who are somewhere on the psychopathic spectrum, it’s about achieving control by tuning the dials on the mixing desk to the right level to be successful. In other words, it’s OK to display some psychopathic characteristics in the right context.

You may or may not be surprised to learn that CEOs often score highly for psychopathic traits, such as charm, persuasiveness, confidence, fearlessness, ruthlessness. Similarly, micro-surgeons need the ability to ‘switch off’ their empathy, so they are not thinking about the patient on the operating table as someone’s spouse or child, to help them make cold, clinical decisions. In general, people who score highly on the psychopathic index are often better able to make rational decisions when faced with moral dilemmas; too much empathy can result in procrastination.

Kevin described how an insight from research into 1970s serial killer, Ted Bundy, led psychologists to discover that people who scored highly on the psychopathic index were sometimes better at analysing people’s behaviour, for example detecting people who were smuggling goods through airport security. Kevin says this is due to the psychopath’s skill as a ‘social predator’ in studying people’s body language to see whether they are having an effect. They are matched only by Buddhist monks who can achieve similar ability through years of meditation and self awareness.

Having psychopathic traits can also help people become more creative, through being more comfortable with rule breaking. One way of looking at cheats is that they are also natural creatives!

To find out how you score on the psychopathic index, you can take the test at www.kevindutton.co.uk

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