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Maths in the city of Oxford

Short description

This is the route and notes to accompany our Maths in the City tour of Oxford.


This is the Maths in the City walking tour of Oxford.  We'll be looking at symmetry, geometry, GPS and engineering using footprints, string, chalk, woks and marbles!

The tour is suitable for anyone of any age and includes a lot of demonstrations that illustrate the maths behind what you see. If you choose to take your own tour of Oxford and want to make it a bit more interactive, look at the ‘Demonstration’ sections listed in the full tour to see what materials you need to bring with you.


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Tour summary

  1. Rewley House
    Rewley House is the home of the Department for Continuing Education at the University of Oxford, where Maths in the City is based. It is also the starting point of our walking tour of Oxford!
  2. Sackler Libary – a round peg in a square hole
    To a mathematical eye a circle seems a strange choice for a building's shape, due to the space wasted between the circular Sackler Library and its straight-sided neighbours. But architectural historian Giles Worsley said the architect, Robert Adam, "chose a rotunda to get the greatest volume on the site with the least impact. The circular form ensures that the building always appears to be receding, minimising its bulk."
  3. Frieze symmetries at the Ashmolean Museum
    Artists have used friezes to decorate buildings for thousands of years. The symmetries of these patterns are key to their aesthetic beauty, and also to their mathematical significance.
  4. The Beehive, Oxford
    In St John’s College, Oxford, one of the buildings is hexagonal in shape. Was this hexagonal structure a whim of the architect? Why are most buildings square? What does all of this have to do with bees?
  5. You are here – GPS and geometry
    Many of us now rely on a little electronic help in finding our way, making the most of the GPS in our phones and satnavs. GPS shows us the way thanks to some simple geometry and a little help from Einstein.
  6. Penrose tiles at Wadham College, Oxford
    No matter where you stand, the pattern in the pavement outside the student bar at Wadham College never repeats. This is because it is a Penrose tiling, named after the mathematician Roger Penrose who invented it in the 1970s. Penrose tilings not only have many interesting mathematical properties, they also explain the structure of some unusual metallic crystals, called quasicrystals, that were discovered in the 1980s and won Dan Shechtman the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2011.
  7. The roof of the Sheldonian Theatre
    The fascinating and inspired mathematics behind the construction of the Sheldonian Theatre allowed it to have the largest unsupported roof the world of the 17th century had ever seen.
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