Archive for the 'Irish Times' Category

The Mathematics of Fair Play in Video Games

Video games generate worldwide annual sales of about $150 billion. With millions of people confined at home with time to spare, the current pandemic may benefit the industry. At the core of a video game is a computer program capable of simulating a range of phenomena in the real world or in a fantasy universe, of generating realistic imagery and of responding to the actions and reactions of the players. At every level, mathematics is crucial [TM184 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


League of Legends, from Riot Games.

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Covid-19: Modelling the evolution of a viral outbreak


The illness is called Covid-19 but the virus is known as SARS-CoV-2 (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2) [Image from US agency Centers for Disease Control and Prevention].

There is widespread anxiety about the threat of the Covid-19 virus. Mathematics now plays a vital role in combating the spread of epidemics, and will help us to bring this outbreak under control. For centuries, mathematics has been used to solve problems in astronomy, physics and engineering. But now biology and medicine have become topics of mathematical investigation, and applications in these areas are certain to expand in the future [TM183 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

How rapidly will the viral infection spread? How long will it remain a problem? When will it reach a peak and how quickly will it die out? Most important, what effective steps can we can take to control the outbreak and to minimize the damage caused? When vaccines become available, what is the optimal strategy for their use? Models provide valuable evidence for decision makers.

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Samuel Haughton and the Humane Drop


Samuel Haughton (1821-1897).

Samuel Haughton was born in Co. Carlow in 1821. He entered Trinity College Dublin aged just sixteen and graduated in 1843. He was elected a fellow in 1844 and was appointed professor of geology in 1851. He took up the study of medicine and graduated as a Doctor of Medicine in 1862, aged 40 [TM182 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

In addition to his expertise in geology and medicine, Haughton was a highly talented applied mathematician. His mathematical investigations included the study of the motion of solid and fluid bodies, solar radiation, climatology, animal mechanics and ocean tides. One of his more bizarre applications of mathematics was to demonstrate a humane method of execution by hanging, by lengthening the drop to ensure instant death.

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How many numbers begin with a 1? More than 30%!

The irregular distribution of the first digits of numbers in data-bases provides a valuable tool for fraud detection. A remarkable rule that applies to many datasets was accidentally discovered by an American physicist, Frank Benford, who described his discovery in a 1938 paper, “The Law of Anomalous Numbers” [TM181 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


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Using Maths to Reduce Aircraft Noise

If you have ever tried to sleep under a flight-path near an airport, you will know how serious the problem of aircraft noise can be. Aircraft noise is amongst the loudest sounds produced by human activities. The noise is over a broad range of frequencies, extending well beyond the range of hearing. The problem of aviation noise has become more severe as aircraft engines have become more powerful  [TM180 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Engine inlet of a CFM56-3 turbofan engine on a Boeing 737-400 [image Wikimedia Commons].

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The “extraordinary talent and superior genius” of Sophie Germain

When a guitar string is plucked, we don’t see waves travelling along the string. This is because the ends are fixed. Instead, we see a standing-wave pattern. Standing waves are also found on drum-heads and on the sound-boxes of violins. The shape of a violin strongly affects the quality and purity of the sound, as it determines the mixture of standing wave harmonics that it can sustain [TM179 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


French postage stamp, issued in 2016, to commemorate the
250th anniversary of the birth of Sophie Germain (1776-1831).

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The knotty problem of packing DNA

Soon it will be time to pack away the fairy lights. If you wish to avoid the knotty task of disentangling them next December, don’t just throw them in a box; roll them carefully around a stout stick or a paper tube. Any long and flexible string or cable, squeezed into a confined volume, is likely to become entangled: just think of garden hoses or the wires of headphones [TM178 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


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