Archive for the 'Irish Times' Category

Image Processing Emerges from the Shadows

Satellite images are of enormous importance in military contexts. A battery of mathematical and image-processing techniques allows us to extract information that can play a critical role in tactical planning and operations. The information in an image may not be immediately evident. For example, an overhead image gives no direct information about the height of buildings or industrial installations, but shadows, together with the time, date and basic trigonometry, enable heights to be determined  [TM233 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

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The Whole is Greater than the Part — Or is it?

Euclid flourished about fifty years after Aristotle and was certainly familiar with Aristotle’s Logic.  Euclid’s organization of the work of earlier geometers was truly innovative. His results depended upon basic assumptions, called axioms and “common notions”. There are in total 23 definitions, five axioms and five common notions in The Elements. The axioms, or postulates, are specific assumptions that may be considered as self-evident, for example “the whole is greater than the part”  [TM232 or search for “thatsmaths” at]. Continue reading ‘The Whole is Greater than the Part — Or is it?’

The Improbability Principle and the Seanad Election

A by-election for the Seanad Éireann Dublin University constituency, arising from the election of Ivana Bacik to Dáil Éireann, is in progress. There are seventeen candidates, eight men and nine women. Examining the ballot paper, I immediately noticed an imbalance: the top three candidates, and seven of the top ten, are men. The last six candidates listed are all women. Is there a conspiracy, or could such a lopsided distribution be a matter of pure chance?

To avoid bias, the names on the ballot paper are always listed in alphabetical order. We may assume that the name of a randomly chosen candidate is equally likely to appear at any of the positions on the list; with 17 candidates, there about 6% chance for each of the 17 positions; the distribution for a single candidate is uniform. However, when several candidates are grouped, the distribution is more complicated  [TM231 or search for “thatsmaths” at].
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A Prescient Vision of Modern Weather Forecasting

Lewis Fry Richardson in 1931.

One hundred years ago, a remarkable book was published by Cambridge University Press. It was a commercial flop: although the print run was just 750 copies, it was still in print thirty years later. Yet, it held the key to forecasting the weather by scientific means. The book, Weather Prediction by Numerical Process, was written by Lewis Fry Richardson, a brilliant, eccentric mathematician. He described in detail how the mathematical equations that govern the evolution of the atmosphere could be solved by numerical means to deduce future weather conditions from a set of observations [TM230 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

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Sources and Scenes of Mathematical Inspiration

Henri Poincaré

Where does new mathematics come from? The great French mathematician Henri Poincaré, a brilliant expositor of the scientific method, described how he grappled for months with an arcane problem in function theory. Exasperated by lack of progress, he went on vacation and forgot about the problem. But, as he was boarding a bus in Caen, the answer came to him in a flash. He was later able to return to his office and complete a proof of the result [TM229 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

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Mathematical Equations are our Friends

In his scientific best-seller, A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking remarked that every equation he included would halve sales of the book, so he put only one in it, Einstein’s equation relating mass and energy, E = mc2. This cynical view is a disservice to science; we should realize that, far from being inimical, equations are our friends [TM228 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

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Letters to a German Princess: Euler’s Blockbuster Lives On

The great Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler produced profound and abundant mathematical works. Publication of his Opera Omnia began in 1911 and, with close to 100 volumes in print, it is nearing completion. Although he published several successful mathematical textbooks, the book that attracted the widest readership was not a mathematical work, but a collection of letters  [TM227 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

For several years, starting in 1760, Euler wrote a series of letters to Friederike Charlotte, Princess of Brandenburg-Schwedt, a niece of Frederick the Great of Prussia. The collection of 234 letters was first published in French, the language of the nobility, as Lettres à une Princesse d’Allemagne. This remarkably successful popularisation of science appeared in many editions, in several languages, and was widely read. Subtitled “On various subjects in physics and philosophy”, the first two of three volumes were published in 1768 by the Imperial Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, with the support of the empress, Catherine II.

Continue reading ‘Letters to a German Princess: Euler’s Blockbuster Lives On’

Some Characteristics of the Mathematical Psyche

What are mathematicians really like? What are the characteristics or traits of personality typical amongst them?  Mathematicians are rarely the heroes of novels, so we have little to learn from literature. A few films have featured mathematicians, but most give little insight into the personalities of their subjects [TM226 or search for “thatsmaths” at]. Continue reading ‘Some Characteristics of the Mathematical Psyche’

Bernoulli’s Golden Theorem and the Law of Large Numbers

Swiss postage stamp, issued in 1994 for the International Congress of Mathematicians in Zurich, featuring Jakob Bernoulli and illustrating his “golden theorem”.

Jakob Bernoulli, head of a dynasty of brilliant scholars, was one of the world’s leading mathematicians. Bernoulli’s great work, Ars Conjectandi, published in 1713, included a profound result that he established “after having meditated on it for twenty years”. He called it his “golden theorem”. It is known today as the law of large numbers, and it was the first limit theorem in probability, and the first attempt to apply probability outside the realm of games of chance [TM225 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

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Buffon’s Noodle and the Mathematics of Hillwalking  

In addition to some beautiful photos and maps and descriptions of upland challenges in Ireland and abroad, the November issue of The Summit, the Mountain Views Quarterly Newsletter for hikers and hillwalkers, describes a method to find the length of a walk based on ideas originating with the French naturalist and mathematician George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon [TM224 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

[Image from November issue of The Summit, the Mountain Views Quarterly Newsletter.]

Continue reading ‘Buffon’s Noodle and the Mathematics of Hillwalking  ‘

Émilie Du Châtelet and the Conservation of Energy

A remarkable French natural philosopher and mathematician who lived in the early eighteenth century, Émilie Du Châtalet, is generally remembered for her translation of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, but her work was much more than a simple translation: she added an extensive commentary in which she included new developments in mechanics, the most important being her formulation of the principle of conservation of energy [TM223 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

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Topsy-turvy Maths: Proving Axioms from Theorems

Mathematics is distinguished from the sciences by the freedom it enjoys in choosing basic assumptions from which consequences can be deduced by applying the laws of logic. We call the basic assumptions axioms and the consequent results theorems. But can things be done the other way around, using theorems to prove axioms? This is a central question of reverse mathematics  [TM222 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

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Mathematical Scandals and Scoundrels

Edna St Vincent Millay’s sonnet “Euclid alone has looked on beauty bare” evokes the ethereal, otherworldly quality of mathematics. Scandalous behaviour is not usually associated with mathematicians, but they are human: pride, overblown ego and thirst for fame have led to skulduggery, plagiarism and even murder. Some of the more egregious scandals are reviewed here [TM221 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

French postage stamp issued in 1984.

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A Grand Unification of Mathematics

Rene Descartes

There are numerous branches of mathematics, from arithmetic, geometry and algebra at an elementary level to more advanced fields like number theory, topology and complex analysis. Each branch has its own distinct set of axioms, or fundamental assumptions, from which theorems are derived by logical processes. While each branch has its own flavour, character and methods, there are also strong overlaps and interdependencies. Several attempts have been made to construct a grand unified theory that embraces the entire field of maths  [TM220 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

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Earth System Models simulate the changing climate

Image credit: NASA.

The climate is changing, and we need to know what changes to expect and how soon to expect them. Earth system models, which simulate all relevant components of the Earth system, are the primary means of anticipating future changes of our climate [TM219 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

Continue reading ‘Earth System Models simulate the changing climate’

The Social Side of Mathematics

On a cold December night in 1976, a group of mathematicians assembled in a room in Trinity College Dublin for the inaugural meeting of the Irish Mathematical Society (IMS). Most European countries already had such societies, several going back hundreds of years, and it was felt that the establishment of an Irish society to promote the subject, foster research and support teaching of mathematics was timely [TM218 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

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Changing Views on the Age of the Earth

[Image credit: NASA]

In 1650, the Earth was 4654 years old. In 1864 it was 100 million years old. In 1897, the upper limit was revised to 40 million years. Currently, we believe the age to be about 4.5 billion years. What will be the best guess in the year 2050? [TM217 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

Continue reading ‘Changing Views on the Age of the Earth’

Phantom traffic-jams are all too real

Driving along the motorway on a busy day, you see brake-lights ahead and slow down until the flow grinds to a halt. The traffic stutters forward for five minutes or so until, mysteriously, the way ahead is clear again. But, before long, you arrive at the back of another stagnant queue. Hold-ups like this, with no apparent cause, are known as phantom traffic jams and you may experience several such delays on a journey of a few hours [TM216 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

Traffic jams can have many causes [Image © JPEG]

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All Numbers Great and Small

Is space continuous or discrete? Is it smooth, without gaps or discontinuities, or granular with a limit on how small a distance can be? What about time? Can time be repeatedly divided into smaller periods without any limit, or is there a shortest interval of time? We don’t know the answers. There is much we do not know about physical reality: is the universe finite or infinite? Are space and time arbitrarily divisible? Does our number system represent physical space and time? [TM215 or search for “thatsmaths” at]. Continue reading ‘All Numbers Great and Small’

Kalman Filters: from the Moon to the Motorway

Before too long, we will be relieved of the burden of long-distance driving. Given the desired destination and access to a mapping system, electronic algorithms will select the best route and control the autonomous vehicle, constantly monitoring and adjusting its direction and speed of travel. The origins of the methods used for autonomous navigation lie in the early 1960s, when the space race triggered by the Russian launch of Sputnik I was raging  [TM214 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

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Seeing beyond the Horizon

From a hilltop, the horizon lies below the horizontal level at an angle called the “dip”. Around AD 1020, the brilliant Persian scholar al-Biruni used a measurement of the dip, from a mountain of known height, to get an accurate estimate of the size of the Earth. It is claimed that his estimate was within 1% of the true value but, since he was not aware of atmospheric refraction and made no allowance for it, this high precision must have been fortuitous  [TM213 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

Snowdonia photographed from the Ben of Howth, 12 January 2021. Photo: Niall O’Carroll (Instagram).

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The Simple Arithmetic Triangle is full of Surprises

Pascal’s triangle is one of the most famous of all mathematical diagrams, simple to construct and yet rich in mathematical patterns. These can be found by a web search, but their discovery by study of the diagram is vastly more satisfying, and there is always a chance of finding something never seen before  [TM212 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

Pascal’s triangle as found in Zhu Shiji’s treatise The Precious Mirror of the Four Elements (1303).

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Multi-faceted aspects of Euclid’s Elements

A truncated octahedron within the coronavirus [image from Cosico et al, 2020].

Euclid’s Elements was the first major work to organise mathematics as an axiomatic system. Starting from a set of clearly-stated and self-evident truths called axioms, a large collection of theorems is constructed by logical reasoning. For some, the Elements is a magnificent triumph of human thought; for others, it is a tedious tome, painfully prolix and patently pointless  [TM211 or search for “thatsmaths” at]. Continue reading ‘Multi-faceted aspects of Euclid’s Elements’

Improving Weather Forecasts by Reducing Precision

Weather forecasting relies on supercomputers, used to solve the mathematical equations that describe atmospheric flow. The accuracy of the forecasts is constrained by available computing power. Processor speeds have not increased much in recent years and speed-ups are achieved by running many processes in parallel. Energy costs have risen rapidly: there is a multimillion Euro annual power bill to run a supercomputer, which may consume something like 10 megawatts [TM210 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

The characteristic butterfly pattern for solutions of Lorenz’s equations [Image credit: source unknown].

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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].

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Making the Best of Waiting in Line

Queueing system with several queues, one for each serving point [Wikimedia Commons].

Queueing is a bore and waiting to be served is one of life’s unavoidable irritants. Whether we are hanging onto a phone, waiting for response from a web server or seeking a medical procedure, we have little choice but to join the queue and wait. It may surprise readers that there is a well-developed mathematical theory of queues. It covers several stages of the process, from patterns of arrival, through moving gradually towards the front, being served and departing  [TM207 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

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Goldbach’s Conjecture: if it’s Unprovable, it must be True

The starting point for rigorous reasoning in maths is a system of axioms. An axiom is a statement that is assumed, without demonstration, to be true. The Greek mathematician Thales is credited with introducing the axiomatic method, in which each statement is deduced either from axioms or from previously proven statements, using the laws of logic. The axiomatic method has dominated mathematics ever since [TM206 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

Continue reading ‘Goldbach’s Conjecture: if it’s Unprovable, it must be True’

Machine Learning and Climate Change Prediction

Current climate prediction models are markedly defective, even in reproducing the changes that have already occurred. Given the great importance of climate change, we must identify the causes of model errors and reduce the uncertainty of climate predictions [TM205 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

Schematic diagram of some key physical processes in the climate system.

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Complexity: are easily-checked problems also easily solved?

From the name of the Persian polymath Al Khwarizmi, who flourished in the early ninth century, comes the term algorithm. An algorithm is a set of simple steps that lead to the solution of a problem. An everyday example is a baking recipe, with instructions on what to do with ingredients (input) to produce a cake (output). For a computer algorithm, the inputs are the known numerical quantities and the output is the required solution [TM204 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

Al Khwarizmi, Persian polymath (c. 780 – 850) [image, courtesy of Prof. Irfan Shahid].

Continue reading ‘Complexity: are easily-checked problems also easily solved?’

Euler: a mathematician without equal and an overall nice guy

Mathematicians are an odd bunch. Isaac Newton was decidedly unpleasant, secretive and resentful while Carl Friedrich Gauss, according to several biographies, was cold and austere, more likely to criticize than to praise. It is frequently claimed that a disproportionate number of mathematicians exhibit signs of autism and have significant difficulties with social interaction and everyday communication [TM203 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

It is true that some of the greatest fit this stereotype, but the incomparable Leonhard Euler is a refreshing counter-example. He was described by his contemporaries as a generous man, kind and loving to his 13 children and maintaining his good-natured disposition even after he became completely blind. He is comforting proof that a neurotic personality is not essential for mathematical prowess.

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We are living at the bottom of an ocean

Anyone who lives by the sea is familiar with the regular ebb and flow of the tides. But we all live at the bottom of an ocean of air. The atmosphere, like the ocean, is a fluid envelop surrounding the Earth, and is subject to the influence of the Sun and Moon. While sea tides have been known for more than two thousand years, the discovery of tides in the atmosphere had to await the invention of the barometer  [TM202 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

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Arrangements and Derangements

Six students entering an examination hall place their cell-phones in a box. After the exam, they each grab a phone at random as they rush out. What is the likelihood that none of them gets their own phone? The surprising answer — about 37% whatever the number of students — emerges from the theory of derangements.

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On what Weekday is Christmas? Use the Doomsday Rule

An old nursery rhyme begins “Monday’s child is fair of face / Tuesday’s child is full of grace”. Perhaps character and personality were determined by the weekday of birth. More likely, the rhyme was to help children learn the days of the week. But how can we determine the day on which we were born without the aid of computers or calendars? Is there an algorithm – a recipe or rule – giving the answer? [TM201 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

Continue reading ‘On what Weekday is Christmas? Use the Doomsday Rule’

Decorating Christmas Trees with the Four Colour Theorem

When decorating our Christmas trees, we aim to achieve an aesthetic balance. Let’s suppose that there is a plenitude of baubles, but that their colour range is limited. We could cover the tree with bright shiny balls, but to have two baubles of the same colour touching might be considered garish. How many colours are required to avoid such a catastrophe? [TM200 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

Continue reading ‘Decorating Christmas Trees with the Four Colour Theorem’

Ireland’s Mapping Grid in Harmony with GPS

The earthly globe is spherical; more precisely, it is an oblate spheroid, like a ball slightly flattened at the poles. More precisely still, it is a triaxial ellipsoid that closely approximates a “geoid”, a surface of constant gravitational potential  [TM199 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

Transverse Mercator projection with central meridian at Greenwich.

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Weather Forecasts get Better and Better

Weather forecasts are getting better. Fifty years ago, predictions beyond one day ahead were of dubious utility. Now, forecasts out to a week ahead are generally reliable  [TM198 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

Anomaly correlation of ECMWF 500 hPa height forecasts over three decades [Image from ECMWF].

Careful measurements of forecast accuracy have shown that the range for a fixed level of skill has been increasing by one day every decade. Thus, today’s one-week forecasts are about as good as a typical three-day forecast was in 1980. How has this happened? And will this remarkable progress continue?

Continue reading ‘Weather Forecasts get Better and Better’

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].

Fields Medalist Professor Terence Tao.

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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]. Continue reading ‘Mathematics and the Nature of Physical Reality’

Will mathematicians be replaced by computers?

There are ongoing rapid advances in the power and versatility of AI or artificial intelligence. Computers are now producing results in several fields that are far beyond human capability. The trend is unstoppable, and is having profound effects in many areas of our lives. Will mathematicians be replaced by computers?  [TM195 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

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Suitable Names for Large Numbers

One year ago, there were just two centibillionaires, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates. Recently, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has joined the Amazon and Microsoft founders. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, is tipped to be next to join this exclusive club [TM194 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

Shot from “A Suitable Boy” with Maan Kapoor (Ishaan Khatter), Mrs. Mahesh Kapoor (Geeta Agarwal) and Bhaskar (Yusuf Akhtar), covered in colours during the Holi festival [image from Instagram.  See also here].

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Is There Anyone Out There? The Drake Equation gives a Clue

The Drake Equation is a formula for the number of developed civilizations in our galaxy, the Milky Way. This number is determined by seven factors. Some are known with good accuracy but the values of most are quite uncertain. It is a simple equation comprising seven terms multiplied together [TM193 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


A plaque commemorating the first appearance of the Drake Equation at a conference at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Green Bank, West Virginia in 1961.

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Cornelius Lanczos – Inspired by Hamilton’s Quaternions

Lanczos240In May 1954, Cornelius Lanczos took up a position as senior professor in the School of Theoretical Physics at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS). The institute had been established in 1940 by Eamon de Valera, with a School of Theoretical Physics and a School of Celtic Studies, reflecting de Valera’s keen interest in mathematics and in the Irish language. Later, a School of Cosmic Physics was added. DIAS remains a significant international centre of research today [TM191 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

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The Ever-growing Goals of Googology

In 1920, a kindergarten class was asked to describe the biggest number that they could imagine. One child proposed to “write down digits until you get tired”. A more concrete idea was to write a one followed by 100 zeros. This number, which scientists would express as ten to the power 100, was given the name “googol” by its inventor [TM190; or search for “thatsmaths” at ].


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The Geography of Europe is Mapped in our Genes

It may seem too much to expect that a person’s geographic origin can be determined from a DNA sample. But, thanks to a mathematical technique called principal component analysis, this can be done with remarkable accuracy. It works by reducing multi-dimensional data sets to just a few variables  [TM189; or search for “thatsmaths” at ].


Predicted locations for more than 1200 individuals, based on DNA markers in their genome (figure from Nature).

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Pooling Expertise to Tackle Covid-19

Our lives have been severely restricted in recent months. We are assured that the constraints have been imposed following “the best scientific advice”, but what is the nature of this advice? Among the most important scientific tools used for guidance on the Covid-19 outbreak are mathematical models  [TM188; or search for “thatsmaths” at ].


Prof Philip Nolan, Chairman of IEMAG (Photograph: Tom Honan

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Changing the way that we look at the world


Self-portrait by Dürer when aged 26.

Albrecht Dürer was born in Nuremberg in 1471, third of a family of eighteen children. Were he still living, he would be celebrating his 549th birthday today. Dürer’s artistic genius was clear from an early age, as evidenced by a self-portrait he painted when just thirteen [TM187; or search for “thatsmaths” at ].

In 1494, Dürer visited Italy, where he travelled for a year. A novel connection between art and mathematics was emerging around that time. By using rules of perspective, artists could represent objects in three-dimensional space on a plane canvas with striking realism. Dürer was convinced that the new art must be based upon science; in particular, upon mathematics, as the most exact, logical, and graphically constructive of the sciences”.

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John Casey: a Founder of Modern Geometry


John Casey (1820-1891).

Next Tuesday – 12th May – is the 200th anniversary of the birth of John Casey, a notable Irish geometer. Casey was born in 1820 in Kilbeheny, Co Limerick. He was educated in nearby Mitchelstown, where he showed great aptitude for mathematics and also had a gift for languages. He became a mathematics teacher, first in Tipperary Town and later in Kilkenny [TM186; or search for “thatsmaths” at ].

Continue reading ‘John Casey: a Founder of Modern Geometry’

Exponential Growth must come to an End

In its initial stages, the Covid-19 pandemic grew at an exponential rate. What does this mean? The number of infected people in a country is growing exponentially if it increases by a fixed multiple R each day: if N people are infected today, then R times N are infected tomorrow. The size of the growth-rate R determines how rapidly the virus is spreading. An example should make this clear [TM185 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


“Flattening the curve” [image from ECDC].

Continue reading ‘Exponential Growth must come to an End’

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.

Continue reading ‘The Mathematics of Fair Play in Video Games’

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.

Continue reading ‘Covid-19: Modelling the evolution of a viral outbreak’

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