Another word I didn’t know: floccinaucinihilipilification

‘Floccinaucinihilipilification': apparently it’s the longest word in the OED, though I’d always thought it was ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’.

Goodbye to my favourite word

Goodbye to my favourite word

It seems I was wrong: by my count, the former has 29 letters and the latter 28.

I’m disappointed and frustrated, not just because I was in error, but because I can pronounce the latter, but for the life of me cannot get my tongue around floccinaucinihilipilification (there’s a raunchy quip here that I shall refrain from making). This is important, because I’d rather like to slip it into the conversation at an appropriate juncture. It means ‘the action or habit of estimating as worthless’, so it would be pretty neat, at the pub on a Friday evening, to say “That’s true Nick, but don’t you think you’re dangerously close to degenerating into floccinaucinihilipilification?” when discussing the relative merits of football teams.*

250px-John_H_Conway_2005_(cropped)I came across floccinaucinihilipilification when reading about John Horton Conway, ‘the most charismatic mathematician in the world’. Apparently it’s his favourite word. Yes, I still like to read about mathematics and mathematicians, and Conway is certainly a fascinating character. UK bred and educated (Cambridge, of course), he’s worked at Princeton for many years, maintaining an unquenchable enthusiasm for his craft over the decades.

Within the wold of mathematics he’s known for a number of contributions, the most famous of which bears his name: the Conway Group(s). More widely, he’s the originator of the Game of Life, a cellular automaton that mimics a simplified version of evolution. Though originated before the modern computers we all know and love so well, it has undergone development and a host of spin-offs, some of which you may be familiar with. Google easter eggs is a prominent example, and others include the Poietic Generator. Blue_Trefoil_KnotHe introduced what is now known as Conway notation within the field of knot theory.

Now quite ancient (older than me, anyway), Conway keeps himself sharp by spending time with young mathematicians and by playing games: mentally tough games. His favourite over the years has been his constant quest to hone his ability to calculate the day of the week from a random date in the past or future, his ‘doomsday rule':

Dr John H Conway sits down at his computer and gets ready to log on. But before the computer allows him to begin work, it quickly spews out 10 randomly selected dates from the past and the future, dates like 3/15/2005 or 4/29/1803. Dr Conway has to mentally calculate what day of the week each would be before his computer lets him open a file and get to work. It is a game he has rigged up to play with himself.

He can do it in around 10 seconds! You will thus not be surprised to learn that Conway can recite pi to over 1000 digits.

And for you mathematicians, he has an Erdős number of one. Enough said.


* To learn how to pronounce floccinaucinihilipilification, watch this video on YouTube.

photo credit: Antidisestablishmentarianism via photopin (license)

It’s not so much what was said, but who said it!

… much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness. …

The apparent endemicity of bad research behaviour is alarming. In their quest for telling a compelling story, scientists too often sculpt data to fit their preferred theory of the world. Or they retrofit hypotheses to fit their data. Journal editors deserve their fair share of criticism too. …

Our love of “significance” pollutes the literature with many a statistical fairy-tale. We reject important confirmations. Journals are not the only miscreants. Universities are in a perpetual struggle for money and talent, endpoints that foster reductive metrics, such as high-impact publication. National assessment procedures, such as the Research Excellence Framework, incentivise bad practices. And individual scientists, including their most senior leaders, do little to alter a research culture that occasionally veers close to misconduct.

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Oh no, not another quality document!

It just won’t go away, will it: the relentless focus and the ever-growing ‘industry’ of quality. It’s right across the higher education spectrum, of course, with its tentacles reaching inexorably into the world of open and distance learning. Please don’t think I’m anti-quality – it’s just that it gets tiresome at times, and some of the procedures and policies can detract us from other more directly teaching-focussed activities (a polite way of saying that quality incursions can be irritating and possibly irrelevant). Continue reading

The world’s best mathematics lecturer

etienne ghysNo, this is not my claim, but that of other more informed persons. I found it in Cedric Villani’s wonderful book (p. 16, if you’re interested). To whom was he referring? His colleague at the École Normale Supérieure in Lyons, Étienne Ghys, who counts among his fans the (probably) best mathematician in the world, Terence Tao (he’s up there, with a Fields Medal, and he’s Australian – good enough for me). Continue reading

Teaching with technology: the grim reality

The US has the Ivy League universities (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc.), and in the UK it’s the Russell Group (Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, etc.). In Australia we have the yawningly-titled Group of Eight, deemed as the top research universities.

So it was that the medical faculty of one of these esteemed institutions invited my daughter to give a lecture on aspects of her medical specialty, oncology. Continue reading

Gazing again at the Horizon Report

I don’t mention it every year, but it seems time to remind you of the annual Horizon Report, as the 2015 edition is available. As ever, it provides solid and sensible reading concerning:

… the five-year horizon for the impact of emerging technologies in learning communities across the globe. With more than 13 years of research and publications, it can be regarded as the world’s longest-running exploration of emerging technology trends and uptake in education.

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