Dr. Hannah Fry: the Hidden Connections

Dr. Hannah Fry knows her numbers. She’s a mathematician at UCL, in the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA). She’s the BBC online’s go-to geek, has done a TED talk, written a book and a research group of physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists, architects and geographers. I’m not alone in my admiration: the Institute of Physics (IOP) have flown her back from America to talk to their branch about stats.

Dr. Fry starts by making it painfully obvious how predictable we all are: she asks the audience for 10 ‘random’ numbers and predicts them all using Benford’s Law. The branch members pick numbers from that day’s newspapers, their twitter followers, their unread e-mails, and she can predict them all. Dr. F and her team model the mathematics of human interactions, from serial killers, to ‘attractiveness’ on dating sites to malaria outbreaks. She introduces us to Mark J’s law, where clicking the first lowercase link on any page of wikipedia will eventually take you to ‘philosophy’. Her favourite example of this is One Direction, who eventually get you to philosophy, but only via e-coli.

She has a brilliant voice that you could listen to for hours, and explains what we all find so brilliant about maths and physics but can’t quite put our fingers on: they give you access to two universes, the real, tangible, ‘we’re in this room’ universe, and the not-so-obvious-but-still-very-there computational network that flows through us all.

Maths doesn’t just let you determine the volume of a sphere or radius of curvature (whatever that actually means) it helps you make better business plans and distribute staff. When a Hungarian workforce suffered a major internal communication problem, they used a social networking company to solve it. The company (Maven 7) asked everyone working in the organisation who their wing-man was: who they get their most crucial information from. It wasn’t the CEO, or the senior management team, or the team leaders, or even the sub-team leaders (it’s getting all a bit Apprentice now, apologies)- it was the safety officers. The safety officers knew everything about everyone and were basically ruling the roost. Maven 7 paid them more, made their lives easier and fed them secrets for the workforce.

Her team at CASA tracked the docking stations of our cycle hire scheme to produce a map detailing the movement of central London inhabitants. Unsure at first because of random spikes in the data, the team considered the Parisian velib system and saw them there too. These strange anomalies pop up whenever there’s a hill or spell of rain- there are teams employed in vans to keep the bikes in circulation.

“You’re not in traffic, you are traffic”. Fry’s team are physicists with a difference, using SUVAT equations to the shockwaves that run through traffic, and solving it with self-driving cars that wouldn’t brake as jerkily as humans. She can recreate starlings in flight using python, following the two (‘obvious’) rules of a murmuration: 1. don’t fly into other birds and 2. every bird follows same speed and direction as the rest. Whilst we’re simulating traffic and bird-flight, Americans are modelling human movement through moshpits.

Still not impressed? Her team of uber-coders tracked the prolific British serial killer Harold Shipman by fitting the distribution of average distance of killer from the location of murder and uses the same techniques to find stagnant water swamps where malaria ridden mosquitos reek their chaos. People at Queen Mary used the same process to locate Banksy.

Fry’s book, the Mathematics of Love, is based on her TED talk on the same topic. She uses a lot of clever equations and diagrams to determine the likelihood of certain couples getting divorced, and finds some pretty weird results… But don’t let me spoil it for you.

Dr. Fry made you never want to leave academia, to ditch physics in favour of maths, to dye your hair red— and learn how to code. Thank you IOP!

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