Exploring Maths 2020


  • 09.00 Registration and refreshments
  • 09.45 Welcome from the Senior Vice-Principal, Professor Ken Badcock
  • 09.50 Introduction to the day, Professor Stefanie Gerke
  • 10.15 The mathematics of the Enigma machine,
  • 11.30 Small Group Talks
  • 12.00 Lunch
  • 12.30 Tours of campus from outside the Windsor Building
  • 13.15—13.45 Small Group Talks
  • 14.00—14.30 Small Group Talks 
  • 14.45 Pursuit and Evasion, Professor Imre Leader (Cambridge)
  • 15.45 Close and questionnaires
    • Main Talks

      Guest lecture: The Mathematics of the Enigma Machine: how the British read German secrets in WWII

      The Enigma Machine was widely used by the German military in World War II to encrypt information about their war plans. Weaknesses in the design of Enigma and, more importantly, weaknesses in the way that it was used, allowed the British and their allies to read many of these messages, helping bring about the defeat of the Nazis. This talk will explore the mathematical aspects of some of the weaknesses and reflect on how good information security practices are as important today as they were in the 1940s.


      Professor Imre Leader (University of Cambridge): Pursuit and Evasion

      A scorpion wants to catch a beetle, and the beetle does not want to be caught by the scorpion. What tactics should they adopt, and how do these tactics relate to their top speeds? .

      Professor Imre Leader is a professor for pure mathematics at Cambridge University. His area of expertise is combinatorics. He is an inspirational speaker and a very successful Othello player. He has been involved with the International Mathematical Olympiad as participant, chief trainer and organiser.  

Small Group Sessions

There will be two sessions of short 30 minute talks at 11.3013.15 and 14.00. Each talk will be given three times


  • The mathematics of matches, Professor Simon Blackburn
  • Mathematics and the Laws of Nature: A Variation on the Theme of Wigner, Professor Jens Bolte
  • Pi, Mr Joshua Coyston
  • Mathematics at University, Professor Stefanie Gerke
  • The Birthday Paradox and its applications, Haibat Khan
  • Mock Stock: Computer Trading, Dr Alastair Kay
  • The security of PIN numbers, Professor Keith Mayes
  • The shape of space, Professor Brita Nucinkis
  • Puzzles and Problem solving
  • The MU Puzzle, Professor Rüdiger Schack
  • The Liar Game, Professor Mark Wildon
  • Transition from School to University (teachers only and only one session)

The abstracts (i.e. short summaries of the talks) are below.

The mathematics of matches, Professor Simon Blackburn

Who wins when two good players play a game? What is the winning tactic? There is often some beautiful and surprising mathematics behind these questions. This session explores one particular game (often played with piles of matches) to illustrate some of the mathematics involved.


Mathematics and the Laws of Nature: a Variation on the Theme of Wigner, Professor Jens Bolte

At least since Galileo Galilei, the laws of nature have been formulated in mathematical language. The mathematical physicist E. P. Wigner once gave a talk on this subject, under the title “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences”, in which he elaborates on “why the success of mathematics in its role in physics appears so baffling”. In this talk I shall explain Wigner’s ideas in examples, from the very simple ones to some of the more “baffling” ones. Among the latter is P. A. M. Dirac’s prediction of anti-matter, solely based on the mathematical consistency of the (Dirac-) equation that he developed in 1928.


PI, Mr Joshua Coyston

When one divides the circumference of a circle by its diameter one gets the number 3.141592653589793 . . ., regardless of the size of the circle. Somewhat surprisingly the same number appears when one divides the area of a circle by the square of its radius, as Archimedes showed about 2300 years ago. This “circle number” is called Pi. This number Pi keeps cropping up in mathematics, even if we don’t see any circles. For instance, the infinite alternating sum of the reciprocals of all odd positive integers 1−1/3+1/5−1/7+ 1/9−. . . yields Pi/4; or the infinite sum of the reciprocals of all squares 1+1/4+1/9+1/16+. . . is PI^2/6; the probability that two positive integers are relatively prime is 6/PI^2. We’ll ex- plore a few interesting facts about PI and how little we actually know about one of the most fundamental constants in mathematics.


Mathematics at University, Stefanie Gerke

Are you interested in studying Mathematics at University? This session will deal with the types of course available and the qualifications required, the ways in which university mathematics is different from or similar to mathematics at A-level, and the careers available.


Exploring Mock Stock: Computer Trading, Dr Alastair Kay

We will introduce some simple ideas how to analyse games. Then we will put it into action by playing a game – the (fake) stock market! Can you choose when to buy/sell stock to maximise your profit? Will you beat the other teams?


The Birthday Paradox and its applications, Mr Haibat Khan

How many people do you have to invite to a party so that there is a 80% chance that there are at least 2 that have the same birthday? The number is surprisingly small and this is known and the “birthday paradox”. Today the birthday paradox is used to compromise passwords and we will discuss how these attacks work and how to prevent them.


The Security of PIN numbers, Professor Keith Mayes

How secure is a PIN number you choose? How many PIN numbers are there? Can you do better than just guessing someone else’s PIN number? Does it help you if someone has just used the PIN (for example with greasy hands)? In this talk we discuss these and similar questions.


The shape of space, Professor Brita Nucinkis

How big is the universe? Is it finite or infinite? Does it have a boundary? These and other questions lead us to an area of mathematics called Topology. We will explore these topics, first in dimension 2, and will then see how to extend this to higher dimensions.


Puzzles and Problem Solving

This is a hands-on workshop where students can experience a variety of problems individually or in small groups. There will be the opportunity to demonstrate maths, logic, communication and teamwork skills as different tasks covering a variety of topics are tackled. Some of the problems are from the NRICH roadshow.


The MU Puzzle, Professor Rüdiger Schack

Starting from a given sequence of letters and four simple rules, can one arrive at the word MU? We will show that this simple mathematical puzzle leads to surprising insights into the nature of mathematical proof and the limitations of computers. And, of course, we will also solve the puzzle.


The Liar Game, Dr Mark Wildon

Ask a friend to think of a secret number between 1 and 15. How many questions with yes/no answers do you need to discover your friend’s number? How many questions would you need if your friend is permitted to lie in one answer? We will answer these questions and learn how to play these games optimally, using the mathematics of coding theory to detect lies.


The Transition from School to University 

This session is for teachers only. We will discuss what we do to help the students in their first year or foundation year to ease the transition from school to university and how schools can help prepare their students for mathematics at university.