Yesterday I was too sick to attend this conference:
• Tutorials on discrete mathematics and probability in networks and population biology, Institute of Mathematical Sciences, National University of Singapore, 2-6 May 2011. Organized by Andrew Barbour, Malwina Luczak, Gesine Reinert and Rongfeng Sun.
Since Persi Diaconis is one of those people who make it really obvious that being a mathematician is more fun than any other profession, I should say a bit about him. He left home at the age of 14 to become a professional stage magician, and only returned to school so that he could learn all the math needed to understand Feller’s famous book An Introduction to Probability Theory and Its Applications. Since then he has worked on the mathematics of shuffling cards and the physics of flipping coins. He also works on random matrix theory, the statistics of Riemann zeta zeroes, applications of Hopf algebras to probability theory, and all sorts of other things that don’t sound fun unless you know enough to realize that yes, they are.
In my last blog post on this conference Tim van Beek asked if Persi could really flip a coin and have it land with whatever side up he wanted. So, I asked him about that. He said yes, he could. He didn’t demonstrate it at the time, since we were just about to go to a talk. But he said you can see videos of other people doing it on the web.
Unfortunately, the videos I’ve found so far mainly convince me, not that there are people who have mastered the physical skill of controlling a coin flip, but that there are lots of tricksters out there! Here are two:
• Derrin Brown, The system – coin toss.
• EricSurf6, How to win a coin toss.
Can you figure out how they do it? If you don’t get the second one, you can watch this.
So, I have to wonder: can Persi really flip a coin and have it land the way he wants, or is just fooling people into thinking he can? Mind you, I wouldn’t consider the latter a bad thing, at least insofar as he’s still a practicing stage magician: a basic part of the craft is trickery of this sort. I should ask if he’s sworn the Magician’s Oath:
“As a magician I promise never to reveal the secret of any illusion to a non-magician, unless that one swears to uphold the Magician’s Oath in turn. I promise never to perform any illusion for any non-magician without first practicing the effect until I can perform it well enough to maintain the illusion of magic.”
Anyway, he is giving a series of talks on “Graph limits and exponential models”. There are lots of very large graphs in biology, so he plans to talk about ways to study large graphs by taking limits where the graphs become infinite. He began by describing a result so beautiful that I would like to state it here.
‘Graph’ means many things, but in his talk a graph is simple (no self-loops or multiple edges between vertices), undirected and labeled. In other words, something like this:
A graph homomorphism
is a map sending vertices of to vertices of , such that whenever vertices of have an edge between them, the vertices have an edge between them in .
Given this, we can define to be the fraction of the functions from vertices of to vertices of that are actually graph homomorphisms.
The famous graph theorist Lovasz said that a sequence of graphs converges if converges for all graphs .
Using this definition, we have:
Theorem (Aldous-Hoover, Lovasz et al). There is a compact metric space such that each graph gives a point in , and a sequence of graphs converges iff
for some point .
The space is called the space of graph limits, and the important thing is that one can construct it rather explicitly! Persi explained how. For a written explanation, see:
• Miklos Racz, Dense graph limits, 31 October 2010.
After a break, Susan Holmes began her series of talks on “Phylogeny, trees and the human microbiome”. I can’t easily summarize all she said, but here are the slides for the first talk:
• Susan Holmes, Molecular evolution: phylogenetic tree building.
Her basic plan today was to teach us a little genomics, a little statistics, and a little bit about Markov chains, so that we could start to understand how people attempt to reconstruct phylogenetic trees from DNA data.
A phylogenetic tree is something like this:
or something less grand where, for example, you only consider species of frogs, or even HIV viruses in a single patient. These days there are programs to generate such trees given copies of the ‘same gene’ in the different organisms you’re considering. These programs have names like PhyML, FastML, RaxML and Mr. Bayes. In case you’re wondering, ‘ML’ stands for ‘maximum likelihood’ a standard technique in statistics, while Bayes was the originator of some very important ideas in statistical reasoning.
But even though there are programs to do these things, there are still lots of fascinating problems to solve in this area! And indeed, even understanding the programs is a bit of a challenge.
Since we were talking about the genetic code here recently, I’ll wrap up by mentioning one thing learned about this from Susan’s talk.
It’s common to describe the accumulation of changes in DNA using substitution models. These are continuous time Markov chains where each base pair has a given probability of mutating to another one. Often people assume this probability for each base pair is independent of what its neighbors do. The last assumption is known to be false, but that’s another story for another day! What I wanted to say is that there are two famous models. The simplest is the Jukes-Cantor model, where each of the four bases—A, T, C, and G—has an equal probability of mutating into any other. But a somewhat better model is the Kimura model, where the transitions
A ↔ T
C ↔ G
have a different rate of occuring than all the remaining possibilities. If you look at the pictures of the A, T, C, and G molecules here you’ll instantly see why:
Since I’m busy learning about continuous-time Markov chains, it’s nice to see more good examples!