The Wonders of Complex Analysis


Augustin-Louis Cauchy (1789–1857)

If you love mathematics and have never studied complex function theory, then you are missing something wonderful. It is one of the most beautiful branches of maths, with many amazing results. Don’t be put off by the name: complex does not mean complicated. With elementary calculus and a basic knowledge of imaginary numbers, a whole world of wonder is within your grasp.

In the early nineteenth century, Augustin-Louis Cauchy (1789–1857) constructed the foundations of what became a major new branch of mathematics, the theory of functions of a complex variable.

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Emergence of Complex Behaviour from Simple Roots

It is exhilarating to watch a large flock of birds swarming in ever-changing patterns. Swarming is an emergent behaviour, resulting from a set of simple rules followed by each individual animal, bird or fish, without any centralized control or leadership.


A murmuration of starlings at dusk near Ballywilliam, Co Wexford. Photograph: Cyril Byrne.

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Zeroing in on Zeros

Given a function {f(x)} of a real variable, we often have to find the values of {x} for which the function is zero. A simple iterative method was devised by Isaac Newton and refined by Joseph Raphson. It is known either as Newton’s method or as the Newton-Raphson method. It usually produces highly accurate approximations to the roots of the equation {f(x) = 0}.


A rational function with five real zeros and a pole at x = 1.

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George Salmon, Mathematician & Theologian


George Salmon (1819-1904) [Image: MacTutor]

As you pass through the main entrance of Trinity College, the iconic campanile stands before you, flanked, in pleasing symmetry, by two life-size statues. On the right, on a granite plinth is the historian and essayist William Lecky. On the left, George Salmon (18191904) sits on a limestone platform.

Salmon was a distinguished mathematician and theologian and Provost of Trinity College. For decades, the two scholars have gazed down upon multitudes of students crossing Front Square. The life-size statue of Salmon, carved from Galway marble by the celebrated Irish sculptor John Hughes, was erected in 1911. Next Wednesday will be the 200th anniversary of Salmon’s birth [TM171 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

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Spiralling Primes


The Sacks Spiral.

The prime numbers have presented mathematicians with some of their most challenging problems. They continue to play a central role in number theory, and many key questions remain unsolved.

Order and Chaos

The primes have many intriguing properties. In his article “The first 50 million prime numbers”, Don Zagier noted two contradictory characteristics of the distribution of prime numbers. The first is the erratic and seemingly chaotic way in which the primes “grow like weeds among the natural numbers”. The second is that, when they are viewed in the large, they exhibit “stunning regularity”.

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An English Lady with a Certain Taste


Ronald Fisher in 1913

One hundred years ago, an English lady, Dr Muriel Bristol, amazed some leading statisticians by proving that she could determine by taste the order in which the constituents are poured in a cup of tea. One of the statisticians was Ronald Fisher. The other was William Roach, who was to marry Dr Bristol shortly afterwards.

Many decisions in medicine, economics and other fields depend on carefully designed experiments. For example, before a new treatment is proposed, its efficacy must be established by a series of rigorous tests. Everyone is different, and no one course of treatment is necessarily best in all cases. Statistical evaluation of data is an essential part of the evaluation of new drugs [TM170 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

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ToplDice is Markovian

Many problems in probability are solved by assuming independence of separate experiments. When we toss a coin, it is assumed that the outcome does not depend on the results of previous tosses. Similarly, each cast of a die is assumed to be independent of previous casts.

However, this assumption is frequently invalid. Draw a card from a shuffled deck and reveal it. Then place it on the bottom and draw another card. The odds have changed: if the first card was an ace, the chances that the second is also an ace have diminished.

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