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The Art Of Mental Arithmetic

A.C. Aitken was the most gifted “mental calculator” of the 20C. In this talk he demonstrates and explains his gift: “At the end when all is done, the numbers come into focus. But mostly it is as if they were hidden under some medium, though being moved about with decisive exactness in regard to order and ranging. It is neither seeing nor hearing; it is a compound faculty of which I have nowhere seen an adequate description” (8,100 words)

The Pursuit Of Beauty

Yitang Zhang kept the accounts for a Subway franchise in Kentucky, taught calculus in New Hampshire — and then, at the age of 55, solved a fundamental problem in prime-number theory which had been troubling mathematicians since Euclid. Euclid proved that the sequence of prime numbers was infinite; Zhang showed that there were rules governing the distribution of them. Now he has “some other visions” (6,070 words)

Press Freedom In Egypt

Idealistic Egyptian journalists set up a new online newspaper, Mada Masr. Three days later, the army overthrows President Morsi. Cairo is in turmoil and the future of the country is at stake. It is the best of times and the worst of times to be in the news business: “I ask people to evacuate when there’s live ammunition”. Against the odds, Mada survives. Its writers learn to push back against the new régime, but not too much (6,330 words)

The 30,000 Futures Of The Brain

“If you would like see things straight out of a science fiction movie, visit a neuroscience laboratory. Technology has advanced so quickly that I am not sure the public understands how advanced we are. Creating new transgenic animals — where you slip new genetic material into an organism — starts at ‘pathetically easy’. There were days I would create the DNA for five or ten new transgenics in one go” (2,700 words)

Out Of Steppe: Ulan Bator

Welcome to Mongolia’s nightmare. Half the country’s 2.6m people live in the capital city, Ulan Bator; 60% of Ulan Bator consists of slums without power, sewers or garbage collection; 62% of slum residents are unemployed; winter temperatures fall to -40. The government has a $28bn plan to modernise Ulan Bator, but this is some kind of joke, apparently, because the government doesn’t have an actual $28bn (1,900 words)

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