A weekend in winter (1)

31 years ago I gained a BSc in mathematics.

31 years ago the M500 Society ran its first Winter Weekend.

10 years ago I began studying mathematics with the Open University.

5 years ago, I went to my first Winter Weekend.

0.01 years ago I returned from this year’s Winter Weekend.

These weekends provide the opportunity to do some recreational maths with a friendly group of like-minded people. In a few short years they have become a firm fixture in my Open University calendar, and I speak as one who is not usually that interested in puzzles and games. The feel is welcoming and inclusive, with plenty of organised activities packed into the 2 days.

We start, in the bar, on Friday evening. There’s a nice mix of those who go back to M500’s very beginnings, and newcomers taking their first plunge. Initial conversations will include a review of courses just finished, how Christmas went, cats and dogs, exam results, weekend content and logistics, possible team names for the evening quiz, and the trials and tribulations of the journey to Nottingham, whether by public or private transport.

In the introductory session, based on Egyptian measurement, we find who has the largest and smallest cubit (elbow to fingertip), and use this, along with a biblical reference or two, to estimate the volume of the ark. When necessary to apply a factor involving the number of cubic inches in a cubic foot, I find – to my astonishment – that I remember it correctly as 1,728.

As a rare pub-quiz-goer I don’t have many comparators, but Rob’s quizzes – which feature twice in the M500 year – are clever and delivered with supreme confidence. The mathematical content is very low, although a little number theory does sometimes creep in (square roots of 3, mod 11, anyone ?). I was able to identify Jon Pertwee as the third Doctor Who, and ‘Let me put my arms around your head’ as the opening line to David Bowie’s Drive-in Saturday. In the (mathematical) picture round I was able to spot that   GÖDE   was missing a final L, and so represented Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem.

A great way of prompting a table discussion was to get us to think about eponymous mathematicians who had given their name to a result, theorem, hypothesis, conjecture, or method. We weren’t restricted to theory and the final list included a sieve (Sieve of Eratosthenes), a bottle (Klein bottle), and a strip (Möbius strip). It turned out that 2 of the group had never come across a Möbius strip before, so they were duly invited to apply a pair of scissors and cut the strip lengthways, producing a result that proves as surprising to adults as to 11-year-olds !

The weather was good enough for an outdoor treasure hunt which took us around the nicely-landscaped campus, bringing back memories of summer schools from 5-6 years ago.

More to follow…


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