Archive for April, 2021

Can You Believe Your Eyes?

Scene from John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939).

Remember the old cowboy movies? As the stage-coach comes to a halt, the wheels appear to spin backwards, then forwards, then backwards again, until the coach stops. How can this be explained?

The Size of Things

In Euclidean geometry, all lengths, areas and volumes are relative. Once a unit of length is chosen, all other lengths are given in terms of this unit. Classical geometry could determine the lengths of straight lines, the areas of polygons and the volumes of simple solids. However, the lengths of curved lines, areas bounded by curves and volumes with curved surfaces were mostly beyond the scope of Euclid. Only a few volumes — for example, the sphere, cylinder and cone — could be measured using classical methods.

Entropy and the Relentless Drift from Order to Chaos

In a famous lecture in 1959, scientist and author C P Snow spoke of a gulf of comprehension between science and the humanities, which had become split into “two cultures”. Many people in each group had a lack of appreciation of the concerns of the other group, causing grave misunderstandings and making the world’s problems more difficult to solve. Snow compared ignorance of the Second Law of Thermodynamics to ignorance of Shakespeare [TM209 or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

Circles, polygons and the Kepler-Bouwkamp constant

If circles are drawn in and around an equilateral triangle (a regular trigon), the ratio of the radii is ${\cos \pi/3 = 0.5}$. More generally, for an N-gon the ratio is easily shown to be ${\cos \pi/N}$. Johannes Kepler, in developing his amazing polyhedral model of the solar system, started by considering circular orbits separated by regular polygons (see earlier post on the Mysterium Cosmographicum here).

Kepler was unable to construct an accurate model using polygons, but he noted that, if successive polygons with an increasing number of sides were inscribed within circles, the ratio did not diminish indefinitely but appeared to tend towards some limiting value. Likewise, if the polygons are circumscribed, forming successively larger circles (see Figure below), the ratio tends towards the inverse of this limit. It is only relatively recently that the limit, now known as the Kepler-Bouwkamp constant, has been established.

Continue reading ‘Circles, polygons and the Kepler-Bouwkamp constant’

Was Space Weather the cause of the Titanic Disaster?

Space weather, first studied in the 1950’s, has grown in importance with recent technological advances. It concerns the influence on the Earth’s magnetic field and upper atmosphere of events on the Sun. Such disturbances can enhance the solar wind, which interacts with the magnetosphere, with grave consequences for navigation. Space weather affects the satellites of the Global Positioning System, causing serious navigation problems [TM208 or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

Continue reading ‘Was Space Weather the cause of the Titanic Disaster?’