Fun with Mathematics, in Britain

Although not strictly neuroscience related, the following exchanges are suitably entertaining to warrant spreading. In one corner, we have a Mr. Tom Brooks whose research is reported in British news (Metro and Daily Mail). Mr. Brooks has analysed 1,500 prehistoric monuments, finding that they lie on a grid of isosceles triangles, with the tip of one pointing to the next, and so on. Mr. Brooks research therefore clearly shows (according to Mr. Brooks) that prehistoric residents of Britain 1) had advanced understanding of geometry 1,000 years before it was invented by the Greeks  and 2) used that knowledge to construct monuments allowing them to travel between settlements easily. Says Mr. Brooks:

"Such patterns could only have been the work of intelligent surveyors and planners, which throws into question all previous claims as to the origin of mathematics."

However, Mr. Brooks points out that the work involved was most likely far outside the abilities of the members of the primitive culture that have been previously associated with the monuments in question. He suggests that this discrepancy points to "a culture existing in these islands in the past quite outside our expectation and experience today".  According to Ben Goldacre, writing for his blog Bad Science, Mr. Brooks does not rule out extraterrestrial aid.

Perhaps the monuments are in fact landing pads for alien spaceships, left over from when aliens enslaved the human race, posing as gods, before vanishing into the universe, to plot and scheme amongst themselves, until their empires were intruded upon by a small band of humans who traveling through a device known as a Stargate...

Anyway, many people have pointed out that given a sufficiently large data set (and 1,500 monuments is satisfyingly large), many kinds of patterns can be "discovered".

To prove this point with style, grace, and snark, is Matt Parker. Mr. Parker, who hails from the School of Mathematical Sciences at Queen Mark University of London, applies the same techniques used by Mr. Brooks to study another ancient and mysterious structure: Woolworth grocery stores. The pure genius of Mr. Parker should not be distilled, and his whole essay can be read online on Ben Goldacres other blog.

But as a spoiler, here is Mr. Parker's introduction to his research, and his conclusion:

“We know so little about the ancient Woolworth stores, but we do still know their locations” explains Matt Parker, “so I thought that if we analysed the sites we could learn more about what life was like in 2008 and how these people went about buying cheap kitchen accessories and discount CDs.”

“These incredibly precise geometric patterns mean that the people who founded the Woolworths Empire must have used these store locations as a form of ‘landmark satnav’ to help hunters find their nearest source of cheap sweets that can be purchased in whatever mix they chose to pick. Well, that or the fact that in any sufficiently large set of random data it is possible to find meaningless patterns of any required accuracy.”

Thank you, Mr. Parker, for fighting the good fight.


Astra Bryant

Astra Bryant is a graduate of the Stanford Neuroscience PhD program in the labs of Drs. Eric Knudsen and John Huguenard. She used in vitro slice electrophysiology to study the cellular and synaptic mechanisms linking cholinergic signaling and gamma oscillations – two processes critical for the control of gaze and attention, which are disrupted in many psychiatric disorders. She is a senior editor and the webmaster of the NeuWrite West Neuroblog