Archive for the 'Irish Times' Category

The Water is Rising Fast

Seventy percent of the Earth is covered by water and three quarters of the world’s great cities are on the coast. Ever-rising sea levels pose a real threat to more than a billion people living beside the sea. As the climate warms, this is becoming a greater threat every year [TM114 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Mean Sea level in Seattle from 1900 to 2013

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The Improbability Principle

Extremely improbable events are commonplace.

It’s an unusual day if nothing unusual happens”. This aphorism encapsulates a characteristic pattern of events called the Improbability Principle. Popularised by statistician Sir David Hand, emeritus professor at Imperial College London, it codifies the paradoxical idea that extremely improbable events happen frequently.  [TM112 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


From front cover of  The Improbability Principle

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A Life-saving Whirligig

Modern science is big: the gravitational wave detector (LIGO) cost over a billion dollars, and the large hadron collider (LHC) in Geneva took decades to build and cost almost five billion euros. It may seem that scientific advances require enormous financial investment. So, it is refreshing to read in Nature Biomedical Engineering (Vol 1, Article 9) about the development of an ultra-cheap centrifuge that costs only a few cents to manufacture [TM111 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Whirligig, made from a plastic disk and handles and some string

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Enigmas of Infinity

Children sometimes amuse themselves searching for the biggest number. After trying millions, billions and trillions, they realize that there is no end to the game: however big a number may be, we can always add 1 to produce a bigger number: the set of counting numbers is infinite. The concept of infinity has intrigued philosophers since antiquity, and it leads to many surprises and paradoxical results [TM110 or search for “thatsmaths” at]. 


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The Spire of Light


Towering over O’Connell Street in Dublin, the Spire of Light, at 120 metres, is about three times the height of its predecessor [TM109 or search for “thatsmaths” at]. The Spire was erected in 2003, filling the void left by the destruction in 1966 of Nelson’s Pillar. The needle-like structure is a slender cone of stainless steel, the diameter tapering from 3 metres at the base to 15 cm at its apex. The illumination from the top section shines like a beacon throughout the city.


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Voronoi Diagrams: Simple but Powerful

We frequently need to find the nearest hospital, surgery or supermarket. A map divided into cells, each cell covering the region closest to a particular centre, can assist us in our quest. Such a map is called a Voronoi diagram, named for Georgy Voronoi, a mathematician born in Ukraine in 1868. He is remembered today mostly for his diagram, also known as a Voronoi tessellation, decomposition, or partition. [TM108 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Voronoi diagram drawn using the applet of Paul Chew (see Sources below).

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The Library of Babel and the Information Explosion


The world has been transformed by the Internet. Google, founded just 20 years ago, is a major force in online information. The company name is a misspelt version of “googol”, the number one followed by one hundred zeros. This name echoes the vast quantities of information available through the search engines of the company [TM107 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Artist’s impression of the Library of Babel [Image from Here].

Long before the Internet, the renowned Argentine writer, poet, translator and literary critic Jorge Luis Borges (1889 – 1986) envisaged the Universe as a vast information bank in the form of a library. The Library of Babel was imagined to contain every book that ever was or ever could be written.

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