Monthly Archives: April 2008

Free Access to


Would you like to have full, free access to the online version of the Encyclopedia Britannica?  If you are a "Web Publisher", you are invited to sign up for a free account.  Why free?  In their own words,

“It’s good business for us and a benefit to people who publish on the Net,” said Britannica president Jorge Cauz. “The level of professionalism among Web publishers has really improved, and we want to recognize that by giving access to the people who are shaping the conversations about the issues of the day. Britannica belongs in the middle of those conversations.”

I just received notice today that my account has been approved. If you are a blogger, webmaster, online journalist and anyone else who publishes regularly on the Internet then you can now get a free subscription to Britannica Online.

Visit to get more of the details.  I requested my access a couple of weeks ago and did not hear anything.  So a couple of days ago, I re-requested and received confirmation today.  They sent me a coupon code and I signed up as any other subscriber but by entering the code, I receive one free year of access. Very cool!

First random factI learned as a Britannica subscriber: The United Arab Emirates ranks number one in the world in percent of population male at 67.63%, while Latvia ranks first in percent of population female at 53.97%.

Extraterrestrial Life Unlikely

image Professor Andrew Watson of the University of East Anglia has recently published a paper in the February issue of Astrobiology entitled Implications of an anthropic model of evolution for emergence of complex life and intelligence. In this article he argues that a number of limitations must be overcome in order for evolution to progress to the point to leading to intelligent live.

Watson postulates that for intelligent observers to evolve, a small number (n) of very difficult evolutionary steps must be passed. Once passed, evolution occurs quickly until the next stage is reached. Complex and intelligent life evolved quite late on Earth and Watson suggests that this may be because of the difficulty in passing these stages. He suggests that n is less than 10 and most likely equal to 4. These stages include the emergence of single-celled bacteria, bacteria with complex cells, cells allowing complex life forms, and intelligent life.

Professor Watson uses the Earth’s fossil records to establish upper bounds on the probability for each state.

The work supports the Rare Earth hypothesis which postulates that the emergence of complex multicellular life (metazoa) on Earth required an improbable combination of astrophysical and geological events and circumstances.

Read more about his paper at Plus Magazine.  At the time I am writing this entry, the article is freely available at the Astrobiology Journal site.

Mathematical Modeling – eBourbaki


I have the most excellent privilege of teaching a course at Wayland in Mathematical Modeling.  The course is designed as a projects course where the majority of the semester is spent working on modeling projects.  The typical problem will take groups of 3 – 4 students anywhere from 2 to 4 weeks to solve.  They often need to develop and learn new mathematical skills but mostly they will rely upon the mathematics courses they’ve covered up to this point.  This gives them the opportunity to see their mathematics in action; they get to see what an applied mathematician actually does. 

I’m always looking around for additional websites that provide real-world problems and not just problems designed for a particular application in a particular course.  The problem with many problems that are included with typical textbooks is that they have been shaped and manipulated so that the techniques being covered in the course fit neatly within the problem.  In practice, that rarely happens.  The problem, not the technique, comes first and a mathematician must develop a reasonable model based on the desired outcome.  Then appropriate techniques are used, learned or developed as the case demands.

This post marks the first of many I hope to follow which indexes a number of interesting sites that aid in promoting mathematical modeling and problem solving in the true spirit of serendipitous, constructive learning.


eBourbaki (

eBourbaki is a mathematical problem-solving company whose mission is to solve the world’s mathematical problems using contests to inspire innovation and creativity.

eBourbaki’s mission is to solve the world’s mathematical problems. Our primary role is to host prize competitions focused around pertinent problems on behalf of sponsor organizations. The competition is global and open to everyone through the internet. The only pre-requisite for winning is providing the most innovative practicable solution. Our ultimate and unique agenda is to improve mathematical engagement, education and innovation worldwide.

The site is slick.  I like the idea of competing to develop the best solution and I have seen a few different competitions along this line. The first contest was held in 2007.  The ultimate goal was to develop a plan to shade downtown Phoenix, AZ during the summer.  Below is part of the statement of the problem:

Your task is to devise the most cost-efficient way to distribute trees and structures throughout the downtown area so that the sidewalks and public spaces are shaded for the duration of the working day (8-5).

This year’s contest runs from May 5 – 12 and the winning team will receive a cash prize.  Here’s the teaser (they won’t give the full statement of the problem until the contest begins):

London faces serious transportation challenges today. With congestion charges on the rise and increased awareness of the environmental impact of many forms of commuting, cities are turning to bicycle stations to ease traffic, reduce pollution, improve parking, and enhance a green-friendly image. Last summer, Paris joined the ranks, instituting a city-wide network of high-tech low-cost rental bicycle stations.

We ask the question: if London were to embrace this concept, how would it best go about doing so? Where should the bike stations go? How many bikes at each station?

I’m setting a goal of participating in some sort of contest along these lines with a group of our students next year.