Learning Maths without even Trying

Children have an almost limitless capacity to absorb knowledge if it is presented in an appealing and entertaining manner. Mathematics can be daunting, but it is possible to convey key ideas visually so that they are instantly accessible. Visiting Explorium recently, I saw such a visual display demonstrating the theorem of Pythagoras, which, according to Jacob Bronowski, “remains the most important single theorem in the whole of mathematics” [TM1667 or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

Explorium-Banner

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Boxes and Loops

We will describe some generic behaviour patterns of dynamical systems. In many systems, the orbits exhibit characteristic patterns called boxes and loops. We first describe orbits for a simple pendulum, and then look at some systems in higher dimensions.

SimplePendulum-PhasePortrait-Colour

Phase portrait for a simple pendulum. Each line represents a different orbit.

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What did the Romans ever do for Maths?

The ancient Romans developed many new techniques for engineering and architecture. The citizens of Rome enjoyed fountains, public baths, central heating, underground sewage systems and public toilets. All right, but apart from sanitation, medicine, education, irrigation, roads and aqueducts, what did the Romans ever do for maths? [TM166 or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

Roman-Aquaduct-Segovia

Roman aqueduct at Segovia, Spain.

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Cumbersome Calculations in Ancient Rome

Arithmetica-WoodcutTypus Arithmeticae” is a woodcut from the book Margarita Philosophica by Gregor Reisch of Freiburg, published in 1503. In the centre of the figure stands Arithmetica, the muse of mathematics. She is watching a competition between the Roman mathematician Boethius and the great Pythagoras. Boethius is crunching out a calculation using Hindu-Arabic numerals, while Pythagoras uses a counting board or abacus (tabula) and – presumably – a less convenient number system. Arithmetica is looking with favour towards Boethius. He smiles smugly while Pythagoras is looking decidedly glum.

The figure aims to show the superiority of the Hindu-Arabic number system over the older Greek and Roman number systems. Of course, it is completely anachronistic: Pythagoras flourished around 500 BC and Boethius around AD 500, while the Hindu-Arabic numbers did not arrive in Europe until after AD 1200.

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Simple Curves that Perplex Mathematicians and Inspire Artists

The preoccupations of mathematicians can seem curious and strange to normal people. They sometimes expend great energy proving results that appear glaringly obvious. One such result is called the Jordan Curve Theorem. We all know that a circle has an inside and an outside, and that this property also holds for a much larger collection of closed curves [TM165 or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

Michaelangelo-RobertBosch-Hands

Detail from Michaelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, and a Jordan Curve representation [image courtesy of Prof Robert Bosch, Oberlin College. Downloaded from here].

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Bernard Bolzano, a Voice Crying in the Wilderness

Bernard-Bolzano

Bernard Bolzano (1781-1848)

Bernard Bolzano, born in Prague in 1781, was a Bohemian mathematician with Italian origins. Bolzano made several profound advances in mathematics that were not well publicized. As a result, his mathematical work was overlooked, often for many decades after his death. For example, his construction of a function that is continuous on an interval but nowhere differentiable, did not become known. Thus, the credit still goes to Karl Weierstrass, who found such a function about 30 years later. Boyer and Merzbach described Bolzano as “a voice crying in the wilderness,” since so many of his results had to be rediscovered by other workers.

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Spin-off Effects of the Turning Earth

G-G-Coriolis

Gaspard-Gustave de Coriolis (1792-1843).

On the rotating Earth, a moving object deviates from a straight line, being deflected to the right in the northern hemisphere and to the left in the southern hemisphere. The deflecting force is named after a nineteenth century French engineer, Gaspard-Gustave de Coriolis [TM164 or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

Coriolis was interested in the dynamics of machines, such as water mills, with rotating elements. He was not concerned with the turning Earth or the oceans and atmosphere surrounding it. But it is these fluid envelopes of the planet that are most profoundly affected by the Coriolis force.

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