Tales of Ants, Bricks, Bugles, Barrels and Infinity Review – Sophie O’Mahony

If I’m completely honest, I was slightly perturbed at the thought of attending the Edinburgh Mathematical Society’s popular lecture ‘Tales of Ants, Bricks, Bugles, Barrels and Infinity’, having not given much thought to Algebraic equations, fractions etc. since the age of sixteen. However, from the outset of the lecture Dr David Bedford, a visiting maths lecturer from Keele University, grasped the attention of the entire audience – a varied mix of people of all ages, including members of the public and pupils from Edinburgh’s schools as well as University students. Mathematically-challenged I might very well be, but David was successful in presenting the paradoxical concept of Infinity as an extremely interesting and intellectually stimulating subject. Moreover, he was a humorous lecturer, interjecting quips into his seminar that got the audience laughing. “We don’t use Excel to prove things,” he said, whilst demonstrating a proof on the Microsoft spreadsheet. And then the proof went wrong. “Excel is very angry at this point; if I carry on it’ll never speak to me again.” Next thing we know, he is pretending to be an ant in order to demonstrate a point further – sound effects are included. “Beware of arguments that work!” he declares, turning GCSE maths on its head and revealing the dynamic world of arithmetic that my Year 9 teacher barely gestured at.

The highlight of the lecture was David’s demonstration of the ‘Overhanging Bricks’, a physical display of the harmonic theory whereby bricks are stacked on top of each other, each one moved slightly away from the edge of the brick beneath it. “These are really heavy, and I’ve had to carry them nearly 200 miles,” David informed us, “so no one’s going anywhere until I’m done with them.” We sat with bated breath as he stacked the bricks, waiting for them to come crashing down. As he arranged them, he told us about how he went to a supermarket to buy the bricks. The cashier asked David why he was buying seven bricks. “I wasn’t sure if six would be enough,” David smoothly replied.

The fruitful Q&A session after the lecture reflected the extent to which audience members had been interested in and roused by what David had to say, and I was pleased to find myself as attentive as everyone else. I left the room happy to have been reintroduced to the realm of mathematics, leaving behind me a still-standing tower of ‘Overhanging Bricks’. 

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