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How would I re-write tobacco warning messages

The sole purpose of texts and warnings on cigarette packages is to reduce the number people who buy cigarettes, or in other words the number of smokers. We all know these warnings: “Smoking kills”, “smoking causes cancer”, “smoking can damage your fetus” and I recently even saw “smoking increases the risk of becoming blind”. What is wrong with all these warnings? I am surprised if they work at all! Have people ever lit up a cigarette and thought “I believe this will make Read more

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Needy Researchers Put Academy on a Pedestal

Here is what male seduction masters teach their students: don’t be needy and don’t put the woman on a pedestal. And yes, I am comparing researcher applying for grants to men hitting on women.

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What stops you from applying for research grants?

Bats and Seahorses is a project dedicated to art and science and success in such creative disciplines. As artists and scientists, understanding the world around us, describing it and sharing ideas about it is the top priority, but who is going to pay for that? Young artists are often discouraged from pursuing their passion, because it is not seen as a secure and profitable career choice. Same problems persist in science. What is the solution to this dilemma? One way to get out of it is to find out how your craft or skills can be useful. Would companies need consultancy on their marketing design? Would they need help with a mathematical analysis of their data? An artist or a scientist can exploit these needs to get reasonable income on the side. Another way which is built-in our society are research grants offered by governments and foundations. There are more grants available for all sorts of different things than is possible to handle by a single researcher – or is there?

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From Mathematics to Art: an interview with Tuomas Tuomiranta

Mathematicians know that mathematics is beautiful, but they have hard time explaining to others why is it so. In fact, most of the time they give up on this task. My friend Tuomas Tuomiranta hasn’t. I met Tuomas at the University of Helsinki when we both studied mathematics around 10 years ago. Several years later it came to me as a surprise to find out that he became a visual artist! In 2010 Tuomas had created simulations of liquid dynamics based on the Navier-Stoke’s and turned them into artistic animations. Another one was based on the theory of conformal mappings in the complex plane – a common topic at the University of Helsinki. Some links:

Tuomas Tuomiranta was Read more

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The Power of Isolation

Last week I was sick. I had stomach pain so that I couldn’t eat or move much, but I was not prevented from thinking or writing. This meant that I isolated myself for several days from my day-to-day work: seminars, lectures and research-related meetings and was able to concentrate on a handful of thought-requiring projects. I believe this is how Stephen Hawking feels at the best of his times. What happened is that one of the projects that I have long considered to be one of my main ones progressed more than for a long time. It is paradoxical, because I have engaged in the project once in a while, even engaging other people with it. But it required a thorough thinking session on my side in order to get momentum. That’s not surprising given that I am a mathematician and this project is partly a mathematical one (partly cognitive science), but I believe that most big projects require a period of isolation. When you isolate yourself in order to work on a particular project, you go deep into the state of mind in which you think only about it. You get into a state of flow which is ‘flowing’ within the context of that project. If you do it once, say for a week, then it will be easier later to get back to the same state whenever you want and you will be able to focus even for short periods of time on the same thing.  In the modern world, taking such breaks is a dozen times more important, because we live in the state of an informational overflow. Another benefit is that you are not allowed to do anything else. Professor Wolf Singer told me, that he has Read more

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The Kick-ass Value of Expert Advice

New: Don’t have time to read? Scroll down to watch a 1-minute summarising video instead.

Last Tuesday I was, as regularly, practising acrobatics in Sirkus Huima’s free exercise shift. Osmo Tammisalo who is, among other things, an expert acrobat happened to be there and he came to watch my back flip. He started giving me some advice and in the first ten minutes my back flip improved more than in the previous two months. After these ten minutes he said “perhaps it will help if you learn flic-flac first”. I was horrified. Flic-flac? I always thought it was extremely difficult, and considered it much more difficult and scarier than the back flip. But he insisted that I try to jump backwards… even if landing on my head (don’t worry, into a sea of pillows). And so I did. After 15 minutes of practice under his supervision, this was the result (video):

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Algebra Lectures and Motivation

This semester I am lecturing an introductory course to abstract algebra at the University of Helsinki where I work. For me this is an exercise in mathematics education and public speaking. This is the biggest audience I have ever had in a course: a little short of 200 students. In order to give an exciting first impression of the lectures and maximise future attendance I decided to give a somewhat flashy first lecture. I dressed up in a white suit a hat and a bright red scarf. I dedicated the first lecture to “intuition pumps” which were:

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Working in solitude, guiding students to find themselves, and thoughts on the modern academic world

Wolf Singer and I

Wolf Singer (right) and I


In Vienna I had the opportunity to quickly interview Professor Wolf Singer. He is a Senior Fellow at the Ernst Strüngmann Institute for Neuroscience in Frankfurt, Germany, that he has founded in cooperation with the Max Planck Society a couple of years ago. One of the most fascinating ideas around which the modern work of Wolf Singer and his colleagues focuses is that brain performs a form of liquid computing. Imagine a pool of water. If you drop a small stone in it, waves will propagate in every direction. All the particles of the water body start moving – but in a predictable way. Suppose you drop two stones at different points simultaneously. The wave pattern will become more complicated. Some waves will cancel each other out, some will amplify each other. These waves can be thought of performing some sort of coding of the “inputs” (the stones) that the system has received. We know from EEG data that the brain is constantly performing rapid wave-like fluctuations. The idea behind liquid computing in the brain is that these waves measured in EEG are akin to waves in a liquid container. The brain’s activity is fluctuating and the complex fluctuations are thought to represent the superposition of the priors, i.e. the a priory knowledge, needed for the interpretation of sensory signals. Once sensory data are received, some waves get amplified, others diminished and this corresponds to a kind of a collapse of the matching priors to the actual perception. Wolf Singer acknowledged that there is a certain similarity to quantum mechanics. He even said that nature, by evolving the cerebral cortex, perhaps figured out the closest possible way of imitating principles of quantum computing within a classical system.

Between his lectures in Vienna I had a quick opportunity to interview Wolf Singer about his working patterns and habits.

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