Modern physics investigates phenomena so removed from everyday experience that even building a simplified, intuitive picture of what is happening is extremely challenging. But can one try and build analogies with common experience that help us grasp the underlying structure of an exotic phenomenon? Isn’t physics, after all, supposed to search for universal principles, applicable to the microscopic and macroscopic world alike?

This is just one of the questions that scientists, developers, designers and enthusiasts have tackled at the Science Hack Day Berlin last month. The answer? Popcorn Decay, a website and an app designed to record and quantify random processes (like radioactive decay, or corn popping).

Popcorn Decay will help you understand, visually, the physics of random processes. A random (or *stochastic*) process is any system whose behavior is unpredictable, due to inherent randomness or, more frequently, our ignorance of what causes the process to result in different outcomes (for instance, what makes a single corn kernel pop or not at any given point in time). Whilst the behaviour of a system like this is impossible to predict, that of a large *collection *of such identical systems is extremely easy to quantify. Where is the trick? Try it out and see if you can figure that out…

For centuries, mathematicians have maintained that studying mathematics makes you better at a whole range of other logical and problem-solving tasks, so that studying mathematics should be encouraged in all people, not just those who want to become mathematicians. Educational psychologists, however, have traditionally struggled to find evidence of these claims in actual studies: it seemed as if studying mathematics only made people better at mathematics, and little else.

So who’s right? In order to find out, Inglis and his colleague Nina Attridge decided to run a new set of experiments based on conditional inference (that is, the process used to answer questions like “if A is true, is B also true?”). They selected two groups of British 16-year-olds, and followed them through their second-to-last year of pre-university education. For one group, mathematics was a substantial part of the curriculum; the other didn’t study any mathematics at all, but received advanced education in other areas such as English literature.

The first interesting result was that the two groups were essentially indistinguishable at the start. This dispels one of the most frequent stereotypes: that smarter people all study mathematics, and that only students who can’t “handle” it choose other studies.

During the one-year experiment, however, the situation changed. Not surprisingly, the performance of the non-mathematicians on mathematical tasks didn’t significantly improve. That of mathematicians, also not surprisingly, did change, but in a less intuitive way: two years of mathematics made better at scooping flawed arguments, but didn’t significantly improve their judgement of correct arguments, making them overall more skeptical and harder to convince, whether of a right or a wrong argument.

It is interesting to reflect on the implications, and how to reconcile them with the statement supported by so many math professionals, that their studies have dramatically changed the way they think. The way mathematics affects thinking is seemingly by making students more skeptical, more wary of a problem’s complexity. The mathematics students in the experiment were somehow more reluctant to agree with an argument, even when that argument was in fact correct, arguably fearing that there could be more than met the eye.

Socrates is believed to have said that those aware of their own ignorance are wiser than those who aren’t, as they at least know that they do not know. Is this the sense in which mathematics improves the thinking processes of those who study it? Has math just made them more alert to what may be beyond their horizon?

]]>Gender differences continue to afflict technical workplaces, and universities are not an exception. On Wednesday, April 23rd, a discussion panel met at Betahaus to report on their experiences on this topic and try to identify possible causes and solutions.

The panel was organised by the Pop Science Cafe and moderated by Sarah Hermanutz; it included Anja Matkovic (Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine Berlin), Annie Raymond (Zuse-Institute Berlin), Krithika Hariharan (Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin), Stefanie Lenk (freelancer), Arndt Pechstein (Biomimicry Germany), and Eloisa Bentivegna (Wissenswerkstatt Berlin). The discussion tried to address several questions.

**Are women really underrepresented in academic science departments?**

This is fairly straightforward to answer: yes. The subtler question is whether women in managerial positions are significantly more underrepresented in academic research than in other professions, and the answer seemed to be in the negative: the tendency to hire male leaders is shared across the spectrum, irrespective from the work field.

**Are they excluded, or do they simply opt out?**

There appears to be a combination of both. Contributions from the different speakers indicated a mix of factors: women can feel they do not share values with the science community, have a harder time bonding with their (mostly male) colleagues, and in some cases be the object of blatant discrimination.

**Is this a problem?**

This question is perhaps the core issue. It is often interpreted (and addressed) as one of political correctness: universities are publicly funded, and thus need to be diverse and inclusive workplaces. This is certainly a valid statement, but resonates with the uneasy feeling that appointing more women is some sort of charitable action (and that we are going to sacrifice some productivity in the name of gender balance). Someone wonders (more or less overtly) whether we can really afford these measures at the expense of the many excellent (male) candidates already available. But is this really the case? A famous study from 2012 has proven the existence of quantifiable psychological biases during the evaluation of academic CVs, implying that the way scientists are evaluated and selected for jobs may be inherently flawed. How can we then trust that current practices do select the best overall candidate? Measures to remove these discriminations from the workplace are not just ethical, they are the road to ensure that less capable job applicants (of any gender) are given priority due to a stale evaluation system. Removing all forms of discrimination from the workplace does not conflict with the pursuit of excellence and the advancement of science.

The debate took place in front of an attentive audience, who didn’t hesitate to contribute to the discussion as soon as the Q&A section started. Interestingly enough, as the discussion proceeded, the focus started to include other controversial areas of the academic work life, such as publishing and career progression, indicating how all these issues may be interrelated and symptomatic of the same causes.

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This year, Wissenswerkstatt Berlin was a proud co-sponsor of the Tag der Mathematik. If you visited this event on Saturday at the Berlin Technische Universität, you might have come across our booth. Were you among those who came by and tried out our activities? Then we hope you had as much fun as we did!

The flexagon challenge, in particular, received a lot of attention. Hearty congratulations to all those who managed to solve the puzzles and took home one of our prizes. Curious about how to make these objects at home? Check out the templates for trihexaflexagons and hexahexaflexagons to get started.

The demo “Have you seen your voice?” also attracted some interest, judging by all the creative visitors stopping by to visualise all sorts of sound waves.

If you are hungry for more discovery, don’t forget to take a look at our calendar and come visit us. The fun to discover and create never ends…

]]>The answers are multiple: in fact, they fall on the entire spectrum that ranges from the light-hearted narrative of The Big Bang Theory series up to the dark strokes of the many whistleblowers who point to exploitation, incompetence and fraud, and a fundamentally broken development model as the defining traits of modern scientific research.

So where does the truth lie? Do students choose science to serve society, to acquire marketable skills or simply to satisfy their aesthetic interests? Do their jobs really involve exotic adventures in remote locations, or is the reality more like spending long hours in an underground lab fighting computer bugs? And are they truly only motivated by the mission to advance knowledge, or (not unlike elsewhere) does greed eventually take over?

The Story Collider addresses the issue of motivation by asking the scientists (and some non-scientists) directly: the result is an incredible carousel of tales, all centered on science’s fantastic power to change lives forever.

Some examples? Learn how colliding with science feels from the words of a fresh college graduate left in charge of a $330-million-dollar toy:

or a minority researcher fighting prejudice (and sheer stupidity):

or a high-schooler with no trace of math skills suddenly becoming Mu Alpha Theta’s president:

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Within the framework of Girls’ Day (Mädchen Zukunftstag), Wissenswerkstatt Berlin hosted last Thursday a dozen curious girls exploring the interface between science, technology, and entrepreneurship. Our guests hauled from a handful of different schools in Berlin and Potsdam, and participated in two one-hour workshops: “What exactly is a supercomputer?” and “The mathematics of paper folding”. This might have been their first exposure to these themes, but they certainly caught on fast! By 11am, they had helped put together a small cluster of Raspberry Pi‘s and proved strong scaling of a simple benchmark. By 1pm, they were folding flexagons like pros.

They also had the chance to ask questions about Wissenswerkstatt Berlin (and Potsdam Transfer, who kindly helped running the event) as well as about the concept of technology transfer.

]]>*Sheldon Cooper, The Big Bang Theory*

That prime numbers are funny objects is no recent discovery. Some of their basic properties, such as the fact that there is an infinite number of primes, could be proven with relative ease by Euclid of Alexandria already around 300 BC.

(How much ease? Check out the proof yourself!)

Other empirical facts had to wait two thousand years before a rigorous proof could be found; others yet have survived till our days only as unproved conjectures. Here’s a small sample:

- Between any number and its double, there is always at least one prime number (
**Bertrand’s conjecture**, proved by Chebishev in 1850); - Every even integer greater than two can be expressed as the sum of two primes (
**Goldbach’s conjecture**, yet unproven); - Prime numbers can occur as twins (i.e., separated by 2, like 3 and 5), cousins (separated by 4), and so on. Whether these subsets are themselves infinite is also still a conjecture;
- The number of prime numbers smaller than a certain number
*n*is approximated by*n*/log(*n*) as*n*grows (**Prime number theorem**, proved by Hadamard and de la Vallée-Poussin in 1896);

A recent breakthrough on the distribution of prime numbers, which may contribute to prove that there are infinite twin primes, has emerged last year. Yitang Zhang, of the University of New Hampshire in Durham, has published a proof in the Annals of Mathematics, showing that there is an infinite number of primes separated by no more than 70 million (which incidentally, in scientific notation, has the nicely symmetric form of 7 ∙ 10^{7}).

Whilst the study of prime numbers and their properties may look like mere recreational numerology, their role as building blocks of other integers turns them into a powerful practical tool for a procedure that most of us undergo on a daily basis. Which one? Juanjo Rué, from the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science of Berlin’s Freie Universität, will answer this and other questions during our Café Scientifique next week: “The building blocks of the numbers”. Come on by and listen to his talk!

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The new year has started and Wissenswerkstatt Berlin is again open for business. The schedule presently includes three courses:

1) The Junior Videogame Workshop for children aged 7 to 10, meeting Tuesdays from 16:00 to 18:00.

2) The Practical Math series, meeting Tuesdays from 19:00 to 21:00.

3) The Introduction to Cosmography, meeting Fridays from 16:00 to 18:00.

All sessions are hosted by Potsdam Transfer, in the Griebnitzsee campus of Potsdam University; as usual, first timers can try out one for free before deciding whether to purchase a subscription. Additional courses will soon be activated, so stay tuned to our feed!

Our Café Scientifique will also kick off soon: on Wednesday, January 29th, we will meet in the usual Brunnenzimmer of Weihenstephaner at 8pm and talk about the Mastermind game, with a practical twist! After the nice feedback from last year’s inaugural event, we look forward to another lively evening of informal discussion.

Finally, do not forget that Berlin’s Pop Science Cafe offers additional opportunities to huddle up with a nice drink and cutting-edge research: check out their calendar and visit their events too!

]]>The award ceremony took place last Friday afternoon in degewo’s headquarters on Potsdamer Straße; the following four winners were announced:

- Thingk Design, for the property in Mitte;
- Kirill Lutkin, for the property in Marzahn;
- Filet Ltd., for the property in Charlottenburg;
- Die Team & Talent Joker, for the special Jury prize;

Congratulations and best wishes to all the winners! Even though Wissenswerkstatt Berlin was not among them, we thoroughly enjoyed making new connections, catching up with old ones, nibbling on the great refreshments, and coming home with a pretty sweet goodie bag (including some Gummi-Häuser!).

The full press release can be read (in German) on degewo.de.

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How to tame our bumpy universe

Luckily our universe is not so uniform and boring as the simplest cosmological models based on Einstein’s theory of gravity would suggest. There is you and me and all this other stuff around that formed during its evolution. In fact, as far as we can see today we find some kind of structure. But how did we learn about that and what does it tell us about the history and the fate of the Universe? These are the questions that I will address in this talk by giving a short insight into the status of observations of our cosmic neighbourhood and by discussing the conclusions that cosmologists have deduced for the whole universe and the mysterious dark content that appears to dominate it.

The event will take place in the vaulted cellar of Weihenstephaner on Hackescher Markt at 8pm, and will kick off our Café Scientifique series. From cafescientifique.org:

“Cafe Scientifiqueis a place where, for the price of a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, anyone can come to explore the latest ideas in science and technology. Meetings take place in cafes, bars, restaurants and even theatres, but always outside a traditional academic context.”

Join us — it’s free! Just make sure to get a reservation.

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