The “extraordinary talent and superior genius” of Sophie Germain

When a guitar string is plucked, we don’t see waves travelling along the string. This is because the ends are fixed. Instead, we see a standing-wave pattern. Standing waves are also found on drum-heads and on the sound-boxes of violins. The shape of a violin strongly affects the quality and purity of the sound, as it determines the mixture of standing wave harmonics that it can sustain [TM179 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


French postage stamp, issued in 2016, to commemorate the
250th anniversary of the birth of Sophie Germain (1776-1831).

Continue reading ‘The “extraordinary talent and superior genius” of Sophie Germain’

Grad, Div and Curl on Weather Maps: a Gateway to Vector Analysis

Vector analysis can be daunting for students. The theory can appear abstract, and operators like Grad, Div and Curl seem to be introduced without any obvious motivation. Concrete examples can make things easier to understand. Weather maps, easily obtained on the web, provide real-life applications of vector operators.


Fig. 1. An idealized scalar field representing the mean sea-level atmospheric pressure over the North Atlantic area.

Continue reading ‘Grad, Div and Curl on Weather Maps: a Gateway to Vector Analysis’

The knotty problem of packing DNA

Soon it will be time to pack away the fairy lights. If you wish to avoid the knotty task of disentangling them next December, don’t just throw them in a box; roll them carefully around a stout stick or a paper tube. Any long and flexible string or cable, squeezed into a confined volume, is likely to become entangled: just think of garden hoses or the wires of headphones [TM178 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Continue reading ‘The knotty problem of packing DNA’

Divergent Series Yield Valuable Results

Mathematicians have traditionally dealt with convergent series and shunned divergent ones. But, long ago, astronomers found that divergent expansions yield valuable results. If these so-called asymptotic expansions are truncated, the error is bounded by the first term omitted. Thus, by stopping just before the smallest term, excellent approximations may be obtained.

Continue reading ‘Divergent Series Yield Valuable Results’

Having your Christmas Cake and Eating it

As Christmas approaches, the question of fair sharing comes into focus. Readers can rejoice that there has been a recent breakthrough in cake-cutting theory. Cake cutting may sound limited, but it is important for many practical problems. A cake is a metaphor for a parcel of land to be divided, broadcast frequencies to be allocated, divorce settlements, chores to be done by flatmates, border resolutions or any other valuable or scarce resource to be shared  [TM177 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

Continue reading ‘Having your Christmas Cake and Eating it’

The Intermediate Axis Theorem

In 1985, cosmonaut Vladimir Dzhanibekov commanded a mission to repair the space station Salyut-7. During the operation, he flicked a wing-nut to remove it. As it left the end of the bolt, the nut continued to spin in space, but every few seconds, it turned over through {180^\circ}. Although the angular momentum did not change, the rotation axis moved in the body frame. The nut continued to flip back and forth, although there were no forces or torques acting on it.


Flipping nut [image from Veritasium].

Continue reading ‘The Intermediate Axis Theorem’

A New Mathematical Discovery from Neutrino Physics

Although abstract in character, mathematics has concrete origins: the greatest advances have been inspired by the natural world. Recently, a new result in linear algebra was discovered by three physicists trying to understand the behaviour of neutrinos [TM176 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Neutrino trails in a bubble chamber [image from Physics World]

Continue reading ‘A New Mathematical Discovery from Neutrino Physics’

Last 50 Posts