Period table Scrabble

Just how many words can you make using the element symbols. And what if you aren’t allowed to use the symbols more than once? An obvious job for a computer, especially if you have a text file of English words hanging around. So this morning I hunted for a decent list of chemical elements and symbols, and found 38163 valid words: 15% of a large English vocabulary… Continue reading

Common ancestors

I’m quite pleased that the last “More or Less” question that’s been selected for me happens to be one of my pet topics (I’ve also written a cut-down reply for the magazine section of the BBC news website). The original email was rather long (as is, inevitably, this post), but essentially, the question is this

A listener, Jonathan Trigell has been looking at the Bible. In particular he’s interested in Jesus’ lineage. The Bible says Jesus was in the line of King David – which is important because the Messiah was expected to be of royal descent.

But it also has this to say about David’s son, Solomon

King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh’s daughter—Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. They were from nations about which the Lord had told the Israelites, “You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.” Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love. He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray.

Jonathan’s question is this: if Solomon had about a thousand wives and mistresses, assuming he fathered children with many of them, wouldn’t it be the case that by the time of Jesus – many generations later – pretty much everyone in Israel could claim to be a descendant of King David?

It might sound like a question for a pub quiz, rather than a science journal. But the fundamental mathematics behind family trees forms the basis of evolution and genetics, and so cuts to the heart of modern biology.

Continue reading

Identifying music

Music. Hmm. When I was learning to play an instrument, I found all the rules and jargon extremely confusing. Surely something like music, based on rather simple mathematics, should have an elegant and logical structure to it. Yet music theory seemed like a labyrinth of rules of thumb and historical accident. It was all rather unsatisfying, and I gave up after 6 or 7 years. Nowadays the world wide web has some good information which helps put it in perspective, and I hope I’ve come up with a reasonably jargon-free answer to the following question for my little “More or Less” slot:Longplayer bowl

I am always amazed by the number of songs one can recognise on hearing the first second or two of music. Since music has a limited number of building blocks and there are mathematical rules for how these can be combined to sound musical, is it possible to calculate the total number of potential opening bars? Surely it must be finite?

To take a stab at this, we’ve first got to establish some ground rules. Continue reading

Analyse/classify my music collection

I reckon I don’t listen to music as much as most people: I don’t have a personal music player, and all 4 radios in our house are tuned to BBC Radio 4. But I’ve just been trying to answer a question about music for the Radio 4 programme “More or Less” (I’ll blog about that later in the week). Now I’m intrigued by an area that I know very little about, and want to do a bit of analysis, but I’m not quite sure how to do it. Continue reading

Sharks versus bees

A few weeks ago I recorded a slot fot the Radio 4 programme “More or Less“, volunteering to answer any question. A day before the broadcast, they sent me this, from a listener:

 I’m terrified of sharks. People tell me that I’m more likely to be killed by bees, than I am to be eaten by a shark. I’m not convinced. My thinking is that considerably more people come into contact with bees, than they do with sharks. Of these, the bee encounter must be less likely to end in death. Please help…I haven’t entered the sea for about 5 years.

So here’s what I managed to dig up.  Continue reading