Math, medicine, and research: It’s the news from Britain–and elsewhere

Martin Hairer won the $3 million 2021 Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics for explaining the math involved in stirring a cup of tea, which is also the math involved in several other things that don’t sound as silly. It’s complicated stuff–180 pages worth of complicated, involving regularity structures. 

Never heard of them? Neither has anyone else. That’s what’s so impressive. They tame the randomness that throws disorder into equations involving the way forest fires grow, the way a drop of water spreads on a tissue, or the way that cup of tea you’re stirring–

Would you stop that stirring? You’re upsetting an otherwise ordered univer–

Damn. Now see what you’ve done.

Regularity structures may be the genuinely impressive element of his work, but if you want an impressive phrase to use when you’re pretending to explain this to someone who’ll understand it even less than you do and isn’t listening anyway, the phrase you want is stochastic analysis. Or better yet, stochastic partial differential equations. From those words on, everything you say will be nothing but a background hum to whatever’s going on inside your alleged listener’s own head.

If you want complicated math, though, you could try explaining why a bunch of mathematicians are giving out a 2021 prize in 2020.


Irrelevant photo: Wind-carved rocks at the top of Rough Tor, which is pronounced Ruff Tor. No, don’t ask me.

If you’re British inflected instead of American inflected (yes, there’s an L in there: infLected), that’ll be maths, not math. I can only assume that the British are better with numbers than the Americans, since they wrestle with them in the plural  and we only have one to fight with. 


The Breakthrough Prize is also awarded in the sciences, and Catherine Dulac won one for showing that the neural circuits that govern the behaviors involved in both male-specific and female-specific parenting are present in both sexes. I have no idea what the implications of that will turn out to be, but they should upset a few apple carts. I look forward to hearing more.


As long as we’re on the subject of medicine and male/female differences, Rebecca Shanksy, a neurologist from Boston University (no, it’s not in Britain, but never mind) is calling for stricter requirements for medical research to include both female and male animals. 

For decades, researchers have used both male animals and male human subjects on the grounds that the fluctuations of female hormones would–forgive me if I use complicated scientific language here–fuck up their results. 

They did that even when they were studying conditions that mostly affected women. Because you know what women are like. Hormonal. Unstable. Unpredictable. Lots of un- words. 

It turns out, according to Shanksy, that male rodents–the go-to subject of many experiments–are less stable in terms of both hormones and behavior than females.

Shanksy is, by way of full disclosure, a female and therefore likely to be biased and unstable. Unlike males researchers, who are entirely objective and don’t have hormones.

The result of the male bias in research subjects is that drugs are likely not to work as well on women as on men. Ambien, which did its trials using both male mice and male humans, turned out to be metabolized  more slowly by women, and therefore (don’t ask me) more powerful in them. 

Women tend to experience more side effects and overdoses for all drugs. 

The U.S. and Canada now require female test subjects to be included (Britain doesn’t yet), but experiments are often done first on male subjects, with female subjects used later, treating the female subject as a deviation from the male standard. The article I read didn’t go into whether or how that biases the results, but I can see that if the first set of tests establish a standard, you could easily close off avenues that might be open if you worked differently.


Were we talking about sexism? The Musee d’Orsay in Paris–a museum with walls full of nudes–wouldn’t let a woman in because an official decided her dress was cut too low. 

And if that wasn’t bad enough, they followed up their decision by telling her, “Calm down, madam.” 

So she did what any good citizen of the twenty-first century would do: She went online and called them out on their double standards and sexism. The museum has apologized, both by tweet and by telephone, but it’s not the first time the museum’s had a problem with women’s real-life flesh as opposed to the artistic depiction of it. It called the cops on a performance artist who posed nude next to a nude painting. She was in jail for two days before a judge threw out a charge of public indecency.


An eighty-year-old hiker who’d been missing for three nights turned up not at his own funeral but at a press conference, held in a pub, where his family was about to appeal for help finding him.

Harry Harvey got separated from an organized walking group during a heavy hailstorm and spent three nights wild camping. He had camping gear with him but ran short on food. He described the area where he lost the group as desolate.. 

He eventually spotted a wildlife photographer, who called a rescue team and they brought him to the pub just in time for a dramatic reunion. 

The quotes from his family make them sound a bit on the crabby side about it all. 


A research trial that put robots into care homes has been defended on the grounds that the robots aren’t intended to replace humans, only to help fill times when, because the care system’s overstretched, staff don’t have time to spend with residents.

Which is commonly known as replacing humans with robots, only the humans were taken out before the robots were put in and no one had any intention of filling the gap they left–not even with robots.

The robots have wheels and a name, which they all share–Pepper. Also arms and hands. With a bit of programming, they could hold basic conversations with the residents, learn what they’re interested in, play them music, teach them languages, and remind them to take their medicine. 

This could go wrong in so many ways. In Japan and Singapore robots are more widely accepted and have been hacked to intercept phone calls or let the hacker use the robot’s camera and microphone. I don’t find any mention of medication reminders going wrong, but I doubt many of us suffer from the delusion that technology is flawless. 

The two-week trial found that residents’ loneliness levels decreased–not hugely, but a bit. 


Britain’s home secretary, Priti Patel, called Extinction Rebellion “criminals who disrupt our free society and must be stopped.” Other cogs in the government chaos have talked about classifying it as an organized crime group, which takes a bit of mental mechanics, since XR is decentralized and I suspect you’d be hard put to find an overall organization. 

The police, interestingly enough, see XR as nonviolent and committed to civil disobedience.


We’ll end with some more science awards, the Ig Nobels. This year’s include an one for determining that many entomologists–those are the folks who study insects–are afraid of spiders. Which aren’t insects, so it seems fair. Another went to a study that tried to spot narcissists by the shape of their eyebrows. A third went to a study that looked for a correlation between a nation’s income inequality and the prevalence of mouth-to-mouth kissing.

92 thoughts on “Math, medicine, and research: It’s the news from Britain–and elsewhere

    • Oh, groan. I did notice it but the less I thought about it, the happier I was. However, since you’ve brought it up you have no one to blame but yourself. I seem to remember that the research was inspired by a novel: The researcher wondered if what the author had written was possible. Speaking as a fiction writer for a minute, I’d like to remind that world that we’re not an entirely reliable guide to reality. Take us too seriously on some issues and you can find yourself in a freezer trying playing with frozen shit and trying to cut with it.

      Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Good one Ellen. The news has been so unrelentingly awful (and I’m a pessimist anyhow and expect bad news but now I’d like to have a different character structure, thank you very much) that anything intelligent and funny is just SO welcome. I’ve read this, I laughed which is good for you (there are studies) so now with another cup of tea, on to the daily paper. At which point I won’t feel good so I hope you’re busy with your next blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Stirring with a figure-8 motion mimics the way a hummingbird’s wings move .And that butterfly in the Amazon (rain forest – not the company) flapping its wings and starting a monsoon seems to figure in.
    Now that Ig-Nobels are announced, are the Darwin Awards waiting for the American election ?

    Hurrah for Emily Dickinson !

    Yes, the medical research equating women to an inferior species of men indicates how far we haven’t come.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The Break-Through write-up on tea stirring sounds like a fascinating read. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’d understand it even though I took a college course entitled Stochastic Processes. Perhaps my hormonal fluctuations have prevented me from remembering much more than the course name. Or, perhaps my deficiency can be explained by the roughly 40 years that have transpired since I cracked the textbook. I never liked that professor anyway who had thickly joined eyebrows–no doubt a narcissist.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It all comes together, doesn’t it? You may have sunk your teeth into the hem of a unified theory of everything. Which is going to make it difficult to eat, so you’re going to have to decide which, in the short run at least, matters more.

      I don’t even understand the name of the course. I suppose I could ask Lord Google, but I have no faith that I’d understand the answer.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Stay tuned for next year when we find out who wins the 2098 Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics. It should be a doozie! Something like explaining the math behind how a country can elect a dolt who received fewer than 2.9 million votes than his opponent while claiming any future elections that said dolt are involved in must be rigged if he loses.😂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ha ! With the candidates over Here you would not even make the list !
    The news just showed an ongoing Dear Leader rally in Florida – no distancing or masks- and the commentator referred to him as “Typhoid Trump.” So BoJo still has a ways to sink.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. When I worked in the Pain Medicine Department, I discovered that men who take opioid medication on a long-term basis also suffer hot flushes associated with menopause. This is because opioids reduce the amount of testosterone if men take them for a long time. Therefore some men can be just as hormonal as women and also go through a kind of menopause, which of course in itself is associated with low hormone levels.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. On Rebecca Shanksy – I’ve been enjoying Caroline Criado Perez’s book “Invisible Women” on data bias and the male default (well, enjoying the research and writing of, rather than the information, which goes from annoying to appalling). One example is the difference in symptoms of a heart attack in males and females, which leads doctors to misdiagnose a woman with a heart attack (at rates of around 50% of misdiagnosis in research from UK), accordingly leading to poorer outcomes. Genuinely frightening.

    Liked by 1 person

    • By that time, they’d sorted out, I think, that his family and the press conference were there. It sounds odd, but it may well have been the only public building in the village. The rescue people would’ve been capable of evaluating whether he needed a hospital or not.

      Okay, they would’ve been capable of deciding whether he needed a hospital or a beer. They came down on the side of beer. I’m sure he was grateful.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Ellen, a very interesting post! Love how you ferret out the absurdities in the news. :)

    I find the use of robots in nuursing homes quetionable. The residents often don’t have enough human contact already! And there are unemployed people who need jobs.

    I am not against robotics in industry, as long as replaced workers are being retrained. But in nursing homes, we’re not making cars! These are human beings who need love and care.

    All the best! Cheryl

    Liked by 1 person

    • I suspect they’ve kind of lost track of the idea that they’re not making cars. The robots are cute looking, and I can see where if one of them talked to you you’d feel odd ignoring it, so it would probably bend your send of reality a bit.


  9. I did not know that women experienced more side effect from medication than me, this bias in testing goes a long way to explain that. I know that in medical trials they mostly use men (I knew men who did it as students to make some cash) . I always thought it was because they worried about birth defect is women were pregnant when they took part (if they didn’t know it, that is).

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Infinity doesn’t end; nothing can be beyond it. That’s not my real comment this however is perplexing. Will the robots have to wash their hands after doing all the taking care of patients stuff?

    Liked by 1 person

    • To the first part–the non-comment part of your comment: No matter how many times my father tried to explain that to me when I was a kid, my mind couldn’t take the idea in. I’m sure it frustrated him as much as it baffled me. For the rest, um, probably. Until someone realizes that they’d be more efficient if they find a shortcut and reprograms them.


Talk to me

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.