Pedro Nunes and Solar Retrogression

In northern latitudes we are used to the Sun rising in the East, following a smooth and even course through the southern sky and setting in the West. The idea that the compass bearing of the Sun might reverse seems fanciful. But in 1537 Portuguese mathematician Pedro Nunes showed that the shadow cast by the gnomon of a sun dial can move backwards.


Pedro Nunes (1502–1578). Portuguese postage stamp issued in 1978.

Nunes’ prediction was counter-intuitive. It came long before Newton, Galileo and Kepler, and Copernicus’ heliocentric theory had not yet been published. The retrogression was a remarkable example of the power of mathematics to predict physical behaviour.

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From Sailing on a Rhumb to Flying on a Geodesic

If you fly 14,500 km due westward from New York you will come to Beijing. The two cities are on the fortieth parallel of latitude. However, by flying a great circle route over the Arctic, you can reach Beijing in 11,000 km, saving 3,500 km and much time and aviation fuel.  [TM124 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Great circle route from New York to Beijing (gnomonic projection).

On a gnomonic projection (as above) each point on the Earth’s surface is projected from the centre of the Earth onto a plane tangent to the globe. On this map, great circles appear as straight lines.

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Building Moebius Bands

We are all familiar with the Möbius strip or Möbius band. This topologically intriguing object with one side and one edge has fascinated children of all ages since it was discovered independently by August Möbius and Johann Listing in the same year, 1858.


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Andrey Markov’s Brilliant Ideas are still a Driving Force


A A Markov (1856-1922)

Imagine examining the first 20,000 letters of a book, counting frequencies and studying patterns. This is precisely what Andrey Markov did when he analyzed the text of Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin. This work comprises almost 400 stanzas of iambic tetrameter and is a classic of Russian literature. Markov studied the way vowels and consonants alternate and deduced the probabilities of a vowel being followed by a another vowel, by a consonant, and so on. He was applying a statistical model that he had developed in 1906 and that we now call a Markov Process or Markov chain. [TM123 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

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Moessner’s Magical Method

Amongst the many joys of mathematics are the beautiful patterns that appear unexpectedly from time to time. In 1951, Alfred Moessner discovered a delightful and ingenious way of generating sequences of powers of natural numbers. It is surprisingly simple and offers great opportunities for development and generalization.


It is well-known that the sum of odd numbers yields a perfect square:

1 + 3 + 5 + … + (2n – 1) = n 2

This is easily demonstrated in a geometric way. We start with a unit square, and repeatedly add an additional row and column on the “east” and “north” sides and a unit square at the “north-east” corner. This amounts to adding the next odd number and, at each stage, a new square is produced.

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Euler and the Fountains of Sanssouci

When Frederick the Great was crowned King of Prussia in 1740 he immediately revived the Berlin Academy of Sciences and invited scholars from throughout Europe to Berlin. The most luminous of these was Leonhard Euler, who arrived at the academy in 1741. Euler was an outstanding genius, brilliant in both mathematics and physics. Yet, a myth persists that he failed spectacularly to solve a problem posed by Frederick. Euler is reputed to have bungled his mathematical analysis. In truth, there was much bungling, but the responsibility lay elsewhere. [TM122 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Sanssouci Palace, the summer home of Frederick the Great in Potsdam.

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Drawing Multi-focal Ellipses: The Gardener’s Method

Common-or-Garden Ellipses

In an earlier post we saw how a gardener may set out oval flower-beds using a well-known property of ellipses: the sum of the distances from any point on the ellipse to the two foci is always the same value, {2a}, the length of the major axis. The gardener puts down two stakes and loops a piece of rope around them. Using a stick, he pulls the loop taut, marking the points around a curve. This is illustrated here.


Gardener’s method of drawing an ellipse [Image Wikimedia].

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