Oct 28th 2014 by JamesGrime • 27 Questions • 806 Points
Due to my involvement with the Enigma project at the University of Cambridge and my love for codebreaking, cryptography and mathematics, I am looking forward to the new film “The Imitation Game”.
The film stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing and Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke, both working to break the infamous Enigma Code which many thought to be unbreakable.
Alan Turing was a mathematician, father of computer science, and World War II code breaker. I travel the world giving talks about Turing, and even if people have heard of him they often don't know exactly what he did. So let's talk Turing. (Among other things I'm sure).
For more information on Turing and the upcoming film, visit the official subreddit at /r/TheImitationGame.
UPDATE: Looks like things are slowing down for tonight. Thank you all for your questions. I'll pop back tomorrow and maybe answer a few more. But apart from that, thanks again and see you later, calculator.
Thanks for doing this AMA, James! I'm a pretty big fan of yours :)
Keeping things loosely based on Turing, what first got you interested in cryptography (apart from the coolness of it, of course)?
I know for me personally, it was an Enigma Project workshop five or six years ago that had me fascinated with it all. ;)
Also, how many things can you juggle at once?
One of my workshops?! How fantastic!
I think we all love codes as kids. Spy, secrets, secret messages! I know I played around with it a little as a kid. But I didn't study these things properly until I was much older.
It's such a cool, interesting and exotic use of real maths. And still a touch abstract, and as a pure mathematician that makes me happy.
How did you get involved with the Numberphile videos, and do you enjoy making them as much as it appears?
I started making YouTube videos on my own channel (singingbanana) seven years ago (or something). This was just a way for me to practice speaking in public and force me to learn new things.
I interacted with Brady a of couple times as a fan, and said "if you ever do a maths channel let me know if I can help". Eventually he did.
It's been an amazing and surprising experience. We did not know how many subscribers we would get for a maths channel. But loads of people turned out!
I get asked this one a lot, and I will give you the real answer - I do not have a favourite number. (shock!)
To me they are tools, and I have not anthropomorphised the numbers. Mathematicians do get asked this a lot and I think it's like asking an author "what's your favourite letter".
However, if you really want to put me on the spot, I'll say.... 1? Where would we be without the 1. In a semigroup, that's where.
Turing studied a lot of things as a mathematician. Do you have a particular favorite from his research?
I hoped someone would ask me this. Yes, he did a lot. And I know most about his Enigma code breaking, but the thing I am most impressed with is his original paper where he defined the "computing machine". Not only is this the birth if computing but it solved one of most important problems in mathematics at the time, called the decision problem. It's very esoteric, and that's how I roll.
But I am equally impressed with all his work, stats, mathematical biology, artificial intelligence. If I get more Turing questions I'll explore a little of all of it!
In the sense of a Quantum Computer, what would be the Global impact of a such device because of all the calculations it could preform?
The canonical example is the effect on internet encryption. Algorithms that can be performed on a quantum computer (Shor's algorithm) will perform integer factorisation in short (polynomial time), destroying current internet security that rely on the fact that this is a hard thing to do. Fortunately we do have other ideas for the future of cryptography!
Which video, Numberphile and otherwise, has been your favourite one to film so far?
I think the Rubik cube ones were underappreciated. I thought, yeah, this will go viral, people like rubik cubes. It didn't. Not as popular as I wanted it to be!
I was very pleased with the one I did about Sudoku. Nice maths, fun application.
On my own channel I was very pleased with the one I made recently about the "wikipedia sized proof" (Edos discrepancy problem). It was a news story, and all I saw were terrible explanations. I thought, there must be an accessible way to do this. I think that one worked brilliantly.
I also crave novelty, so anything out of the ordinary makes me happy. (Explains a lot). I did a video for the Royal Institution about Greek mathematics which was an animation, and I did the voiceover bit. That made a change. Or filming a video recently about the Lorenz cipher machine at Bletchley Park.
What advice would you give to a 16 year old who wishes to study mathematics in the future?
First of all, there is no need to rush. Take an interest in things outside of the school curriculum is good. Like numberphile type things. You don't have to understand it all, but to know this stuff exists is good. This is the inspirational stuff.
Apart from that, pay attention and listen in lessons. In theory, if you understand things in class you can do the homework. If you can do the homework you can do the exams. But outside of exams, jsut generally be interested in stuff.
Some things really are quite difficult, but I still enjoy them. I get annoyed by analysis, to fiddly, too many epsilons and deltas.
I don't know, how many roads must a man walk down?
I am an aspiring mathematician in my 3rd year of a 4 year Undergrad Masters in Maths and Physics. I've really enjoyed watching you on Numberphile. I've wanted to be an academic for years and always dreamt of grappling with serious mathematical problems. (I wanted to be the first woman to win the Fields Medal but I've been beaten to that, haha :)) But now employment in a 'normal' job is looking more and more enticing than a PhD and years of research.
What would be your advice to someone unsure whether they want to become an academic mathematician?
I can't give you advice. (What if you acted on it and it was a disaster). But I would say, trust your own instincts. You know yourself best. And anyway, if you really wanted to do it you will, despite what I say!