Archive for October, 2017

Malfatti’s Circles

Sometimes the “obvious” answer to a mathematical problem is not the correct one. The case of Malfatti’s circles is an example of this. In an equilateral triangle of unit side length, we must draw three non-overlapping circles such that the total area of the circles is maximal.


The solution seems obvious: draw three identical circles, each one tangent to two sides and to the other two circles (above figure, left). This is certainly the most symmetric arrangement possible. However, it turns out not to be the optimal solution. There is another arrangement (above figure, right) for which the three circles have greater total area.

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Learning Maths has never been Easier

Maths is hard: many people find it inscrutable and have negative attitudes towards maths. They may have bad memories of school maths or have been told they lack mathematical talents. This is unfortunate: we all have the capacity to apply reasoning and logic and we can all do maths. Given the vital role mathematics plays in modern society, there is an urgent need to help young people to become more numerate and comfortable with mathematics. With a wealth of online resources, learning maths has never been easier. [TM125 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Eoin Gill and Sheila Donegan with Jadine Rock of Rutland National School, Dublin , at the launch of Maths Week Ireland. Image: Shane O’Neill, SON Photographic.

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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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