Archive for October, 2020

The p-Adic Numbers (Part 2)

Kurt Hensel (1861-1941)

Kurt Hensel, born in Königsberg, studied mathematics in Berlin and Bonn, under Kronecker and Weierstrass; Leopold Kronecker was his doctoral supervisor. In 1901, Hensel was appointed to a full professorship at the University of Marburg. He spent the rest of his career there, retiring in 1930.

Hensel is best known for his introduction of the p-adic numbers. They evoked little interest at first but later became increasingly important in number theory and other fields. Today, p-adics are considered by number theorists as being “just as good as the real numbers”. Hensel’s p-adics were first described in 1897, and much more completely in his books, Theorie der algebraischen Zahlen, published in 1908 and Zahlentheorie published in 1913.

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The p-Adic Numbers (Part I)

Image from Cover of Katok, 2007.

The motto of the Pythagoreans was “All is Number”. They saw numbers as the essence and foundation of the physical universe. For them, numbers meant the positive whole numbers, or natural numbers {\mathbb{N}}, and ratios of these, the positive rational numbers {\mathbb{Q}^{+}}. It came as a great shock that the diagonal of a unit square could not be expressed as a rational number.

If we arrange the rational numbers on a line, there are gaps everywhere. We can fill these gaps by introducing additional numbers, which are the limits of sequences of rational numbers. This process of completion gives us the real numbers \mathbb{R}, which include rationals, irrationals like {\sqrt{2}} and transcendental numbers like {\pi}.

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Terence Tao to deliver the Hamilton Lecture

Pick a number; if it is even, divide it by 2; if odd, triple it and add 1. Now repeat the process, each time halving or else tripling and adding 1. Here is a surprise: no matter what number you pick, you will eventually arrive at 1. Let’s try 6: it is even, so we halve it to get 3, which is odd so we triple and add 1 to get 10. Thereafter, we have 5, 16, 8, 4, 2 and 1. From then on, the value cycles from 1 to 4 to 2 and back to 1 again, forever. Numerical checks have shown that all numbers up to one hundred million million million reach the 1–4–2–1 cycle  [TM197 or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

Fields Medalist Professor Terence Tao.

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From Impossible Shapes to the Nobel Prize

Roger Penrose, British mathematical physicist, mathematician and philosopher of science has just been named as one of the winners of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics. Penrose has made major contributions to general relativity and cosmology.

Impossible triangle sculpture in Perth, Western Australia [image Wikimedia Commons].

Penrose has also come up with some ingenious mathematical inventions. He discovered a way of defining a pseudo-inverse for matrices that are singular, he rediscovered an “impossible object”, now called the Penrose Triangle, and he discovered that the plane could be tiled in a non-periodic way using two simple polygonal shapes called kites and darts.

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Mathematics and the Nature of Physical Reality

Applied mathematics is the use of maths to address questions and solve problems outside maths itself. Counting money, designing rockets and vaccines, analysing internet traffic and predicting the weather all involve maths. But why does this work? Why is maths so successful in describing physical reality? How is it that the world can be understood mathematically? [TM196, or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com]. Continue reading ‘Mathematics and the Nature of Physical Reality’


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