Alex Bellos

Popular maths author and journalist Alex Bellos took a break from his round of celebrity maths slots on Radio 4 and the like to come and give us his take on some mathematical action.

We learnt how to be the odd one out by not being the odd one out and also the data of people’s favourite number complete with a countdown of the top 10. Apparently 60 – 70% of people have such a thing and it is rarely a round number.

The most popular turns out to be 7. The integers 4 and 5 get a mention because they are 4th and 5th in the rankings respectively, and the least popular turns out to be 110.

In China, 4 is regarded as unlucky as the word for four sounds like death (so counting in Chinese sounds like; one, two, three, death), whereas 8 is lucky because of its rhyme with the word for wealth or fortune.

We looked at Polish-American mathematician Stanislaw Ulam’s spiral which showed a seeming pattern in the (notoriously pattern-free) primes and the sieve of Eratosthenes.

Finally, we had tour through The Game of Life, a cellular automaton devised by British mathematician John Conway (developing an idea of Ulam) and saw how patterns can develop via very simple rules in different ways, meeting some named patterns such as the block, the glider and the traffic lights. Finally, in what looked like a pulsing machine, there was a remarkable automaton that generated prime numbers, which no doubt Eratosthenes would have been proud of.

We were pleased to welcome many Forest parents along with visitors from other schools, many taking advantage of the occasion to acquire signed copies of Alex’s books.