Wednesday, December 31, 2008

On Language Learning

Here a couple of extracts from chapter 4 of my new book 'Embracing the Wide Sky':

"A recent finding by researchers at the University College London Centre for Human Communication demonstrates that, given the right stimulus, the adult brain can indeed be retrained to accurately acquire the sounds of a second language...In one study Japanese subjects were retrained to hear the difference between r’s and l’s (something that Japanese students of English find especially difficult)...By the end of the 10-week training period the subjects had improved their recognition of the two sounds by an average of 18%."

(From a later section of the chapter:)

"Examples like these suggest to many linguists that certain words are a more natural ‘fit’ than others for the things they describe. A number of experiments over several decades have supported this idea...the German psycholinguist Heinz Wissemann asked a group of subjects to invent words for various sounds. He found that the subjects tended to create words beginning with ‘p’ ‘t’ or ‘k’ for abrupt sounds, and words beginning with ‘s’ or ‘z’ for flowing sounds. In a more recent experiment involving natural language, the linguist Brent Berlin provided English speakers with fish and bird names from the Huambisa language (spoken in Peru). He found that they were able to distinguish the words for fish from those for birds significantly more often than chance, even though Huambisa bears no resemblance to English."

Sunday, December 14, 2008

On Memory

Here are a couple of short extracts from chapter 3 (on memory) of my upcoming book 'Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind':

"Remembering something from our past is not at all like pulling facts from our brains, but rather a reconstruction aided by our level of interest, knowledge, and emotion at the time of the event and the subsequent point of recollection. The neurologist Antonio Damasio contends that we remember in this way because there is no single area or location in the brain that contains the memory of a past experience. Rather, different aspects of an experience activate different parts of the brain so that remembering involves a process of pulling these distributed pieces back together. "

(From a later section in the chapter:)

"Elaborative encoding is how experienced actors are able to memorise lengthy scripts with very high levels of accuracy. Rather than attempting to learn their lines by rote, the actors analyse scripts, questioning the underlying meaning of the material in order to better understand the motivations and goals of their characters. Studies confirm that when students are asked to use “all physical, mental, and emotional channels to communicate the meaning of material to another person, either actually present or imagined” their line retention improved significantly, compared to those who read the script for comprehension alone."

For more information about the book, and/or to pre-order, visit

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Book Video for 'Embracing the Wide Sky'

Here is a 5 minute video of me discussing some of the key themes of my new book 'Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind' - hope you enjoy!

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Intelligence and IQ

Here are a couple of extracts from chapter 2 of my new book 'Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind'. This chapter deals with the topic of intelligence/iq and the nature of talent/genius.

"If intelligence is, as I contend, a concept too subtle and nebulous to ‘prove’ in any scientific way, what are we then to make of the phenomenon of IQ testing? To help me answer this question, I decided to undergo the process myself – the first time I have ever had my ‘IQ score’ assessed. The test was supervised by a qualified educational psychologist, using a series of one-on-one tasks taken from the most commonly used evaluation of adult intelligence – the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS)..."

(From a later section in the chapter:)

"Controversies over the nature of intelligence also extend to its origins: Are examples of remarkable talent or giftedness the result of nature or nurture (or both)? The debate has raged for decades, polarising public and scientific opinion in good part because the stakes are so high, with the different views leading to starkly different social and political implications. If, for example, a person’s talents are determined by his genes then there is little we can do to improve on the minds we are born with. On the other hand, if environmental factors are what count, then education, encouragement, and access to opportunity are more important than who an individual’s parents or grandparents are."

Visit for more information about the book, to read reviews, or to buy online.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Embracing the Wide Sky Chapter 1 Extracts

I'm going to be posting short extracts here from each of the 10 chapters of my upcoming book 'Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind'. New extracts will appear every other day or so up till New Year.

Chapter 1 is all about the brain and how much more adaptable it is than scientists and the public ever previously imagined:

"The realization that our brains can rewire themselves based on our experiences raises an interesting question: is it possible to tap the power of our brains’ plasticity to enhance our senses and even create new ones? Yes, says the Osnabrück cognitive scientist Peter König, inventor of the ‘feelSpace’ belt. Wide and lined with thirteen vibrating pads, the belt detects the earth’s magnetic field using an electronic compass. With each step of the user, the vibrator that points nearest to magnetic north starts to buzz. In time, the wearer is able to orient himself with ease. One subject who tried the belt out for six weeks described developing an intuitive map of his city inside his head."

(From a later section in the chapter:)

"Evidence that savant talents are rooted in natural (if unusual and extraordinary) brain processing comes from research carried out by the Australian scientist Professor Allan Snyder, director of the Centre for the Mind in Sydney. Autistic thought is not incompatible with ordinary thought, Snyder argues, but a variation on it – a more extreme example. To test his theory, Snyder and his colleagues used a technique called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), which involves sending a series of electromagnetic pulses via electrodes into the subject’s frontal lobes – the idea being to shut down temporarily the left hemisphere of the brain in order to boost the right side (the side most implicated in savant skills). They noted improved artistic and proofreading abilities in several of the subjects following the application of TMS. The improvements disappeared within an hour of the stimulation being stopped."

To find out more about the book, and/or pre-order a copy, visit

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

My Open Letter to Barack Obama in the Advocate

The December edition of the US 'Advocate' magazine has just appeared, with an open letter I wrote to President-elect Barack Obama. You can read it online here:

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Website Update and New Book

Previous visitors to this site will have noticed that we've updated it to coincide with the upcoming release of my second book: 'Embracing the Wide Sky - A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind'. You can read the synopsis and Publishers Weekly's starred review for the book here:

I'll be posting regular chapter extracts here over the coming weeks on several of the main ideas/topics discussed in the book. A short promotional video is also in production and will appear here at the start of December.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

America is Changing

Congratulations to President-elect Barack Obama! The Democrats have transformed the US's electoral landscape, winning in states such as Indiana and Virginia that have not voted blue in decades.

Impressive too is the list of states where the Democrats came remarkably close: Missouri (less than 6,000 votes separating the two candidates with 2.9 million ballots cast); Montana (50% McCain - 47% Obama); and Georgia (52% McCain - 47% Obama).

Elsewhere too, Obama's Democrats made impressive challenges on their opponents' home turf, such as in North and South Dakota (winning 45% in both - by way of contrast, Clinton won no more than 40% in ND back in 1996); Texas (44%); South Carolina (45%) and Arizona (45%). Several of these may well become swing states in four years time.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Problem With Polls (and How to Read Them)

The British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli is famously reputed to have said that statistics were worse than 'lies' or even 'damned lies'. That said, most modern politicians and journalists know that opinion polls can prove remarkably accurate indicators of how an election will play out.

The problem with polls is how they can often be misrepresented. Take the example of a journalist who writes that the White House race is 'tightening' because Obama's lead over McCain is (say) 50-44, when last week it was (say) 52-44. In fact, such numbers are often what pollsters dub 'statistical noise' - normal variation in how well a sample will represent the population it is taken from.

Most polls have a 'sampling error' of around 3 points (plus or minus). This means that if a poll shows Obama on 50 percent and McCain on 44 percent, the Democrat likely has the support of between 47-53 percent of voters, and the Republican the support of around 41-47 percent.

An eager McCain supporter might point out then that, according to these figures, his candidate might have as much as 47% and Obama as little as 47% - making the race a virtual tie. Yes, but the 47-47 split is only one possible outcome, according to the above figures, among many others:

Obama 47 - McCain 47
Obama 47 - McCain 46
Obama 47 - McCain 45
Obama 47 - McCain 44
Obama 47 - McCain 43
Obama 47 - McCain 42
Obama 47 - McCain 41

We could reproduce the same table above with Obama on 48, compared to McCain's 47, 46, 45, 44, 43, 42, or 41 percent share. And again with Obama on 49, or 50, or 51, or 52 or 53 percent. Taken all together, of the 49 possible combinations McCain ties Obama in just 1 and is behind in the other 48. Worse for the McCain supporter, 21 of the 49 possible combinations have McCain's deficit at even greater than 6 percentage points. In 39 of the 49 combinations, Obama still leads by at least 4 points.

McCain really might be neck-and-neck with Obama (47%-47%), but he could also really be as much as twelve points behind (53%-41%). The fact that the real figure is probably somewhere between these two extremes is not going to be any comfort for Republicans.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Photos from Stockholm

Just returned from a flying visit to Sweden to help promote the Swedish edition of 'Born On A Blue Day' (Född en blå dag). Above is a photo from my interview for the morning programme 'Efter Tio Med Malou' (After Ten With Malou), which was a lot of fun. The other guest was from France, so we chatted afterwards in French.

The weather in Stockholm was predictably cold, so I had to wrap up warm for the photographers needing outside shots like the one above:

The city's library was wonderful to visit. Built in 1928 and constructed with round, red walls it looks rather like a lighthouse! If you look hard enough in the photo above, you'll see me walking among its shelves.
For any Swedes reading this: Du kan finna mer information om boken och köpa den på:

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Probability of an Obama Victory

An excellent statistical guide to the election's ongoing state-of-play is the website '' - According to its latest calculation, the probability of an Obama victory is 94.7%, compared to just 5.3% for McCain.

There's an important qualification to make here, though: the percentages above are equivalent to predicting what would happen were there 1,000 elections held simultaneously on Election Day - Obama would win around 947 of them, and McCain just 53. But here's the thing: there aren't going to be a thousand elections on November 4th, just one. McCain's hope will be that one of those 53 possible combinations comes up for him on the day.

For Obama supporters then, the key will be voter turnout - ensuring that the swing states that are leaning his way at present go for him on election day, when the polls really count.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Is John McCain Too Old To Be President?

Like many people outside the United States, I've been following this year's presidential race with considerable interest. The 2008 election is shaping up to be one of the most fascinating and important in history. I'll be sharing my perspective of some of the contest's key issues from a mathematical point of view in a series of pieces here up to Election Day on November 4th. Feel free to leave your own thoughts and comments!

One of the biggest points of debate so far in this election has been the issue of age - the Republican candidate John McCain is 72 years old; a victory in November would make him the oldest man ever elected to the office of President of the United States.

Some commentators argue that McCain is too old to be running for President. They point to actuarial tables which suggest that a 72-year American male has a 1 in 3 chance of dying in the next 8 years (the period that McCain would serve as President were he to be re-elected). The same tables suggest he has a 1 in 7 chance of dying before finishing a single term in office.

But the argument doesn't quite add up. For one thing, actuarial tables are used to estimate the average lifetime of large groups of people, but are lousy at foretelling how long any one person in particular might live.

For another, McCain is hardly an average 72 year old - after all, most septuagenarians don't have full-time, top-level political careers.

In fact, McCain's longevity prospects look pretty good. His mother, Roberta, is still active at 96, as is his aunt of the same age (Roberta's twin sister). His maternal grandfather, Archibald Wright, also lived well into his nineties.

A final note: Modern presidential candidates (from the 1930s on) appear on the whole to have above-average lifespans. Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan both lived to 93, while Herbert Hoover also reached his 90th birthday and Harry Truman lived to 88. Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush are both still active at 84.

Presidential runners-up fare well too: the 1972 Democrat nominee George McGovern is 86, while the party's 1984 nominee Walter Mondale celebrated his 80th birthday this year. The 1996 Republican nominee Bob Dole is now 85, while the Republicans' 1964 candidate Barry Goldwater lived to 89. The longevity prize, however, goes to the Republican's 1936 candidate, Alf Landon, who died a month after his 100th birthday in 1987.

In conclusion: There may be all kinds of reasons to oppose a McCain victory in November, but age isn't one of them.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Pi Postcards Now Available!

We are now offering sets of 10 postcards (100x150mm) showing my Pi landscape painting - a great way to send a 'slice of Pi' to friends and family everywhere!

Limited edition (50 worldwide) A3 prints of the painting are also available.

Both can be purchased via this site (link below) and we deliver worldwide.

Friday, April 11, 2008

MSA Charity Appeal

My editor at Hodder, Helen Coyle, will be running a 10 kilometre race on June 7th to raise money for the only UK charity supporting people with MSA and their carers - the Sarah Matheson Trust.

MSA (Multiple System Atrophy) is a rare degenerative neurological disorder, caused by the degeneration in nerve cells in different regions of the brain. You can find out more about the condition at the charity's website:

The trust receives no funding other than donations from the public so every donation, whatever its size, really does make a difference. You can donate online at and give your support to this very worthwhile cause.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Experiment Results

For the Number Beauty experiment: 60% of respondents said number 39 was more beautiful than 51.

For the Number Shape experiment: 75% of respondents said that 51 was pointed and 39 was round.

Thanks to everyone who took part.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Film Recommendation: Snow Cake

I've been watching lots of films recently, including the 2006 independent drama 'Snow Cake' starring Signourney Weaver and British actor Alan Rickman. Filmed in Wawa, Ontario in Canada the story centres around Weaver's character Linda, a high-functioning autistic woman. I found Weaver's performance excellent and the film's story profoundly moving. I heartily recommend it.

The film's official homepage can be found at: