Archive for the 'Irish Times' Category

Who Uses Maths? Almost Everyone!

In the midst of Maths Week Ireland, many students may be asking “What use is mathematics and what purpose is served by studying it?” Mathematicians often stress the inherent beauty and intellectual charm of the subject, but that is unlikely to persuade many people, who demand to know how mathematics can be of use and value to them. [TM149, or search for “thatsmaths” at].


In reality, mathematics is essential in numerous contexts: the diversity is remarkable, and you may be surprised how maths plays a vital role in the everyday work of so many people.

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The Many Modern Uses of Quaternions

Hamiltons-Bridge-PlaqueThe story of William Rowan Hamilton’s discovery of new four-dimensional numbers called quaternions is familiar. The solution of a problem that had bothered him for years occurred to him in a flash of insight as he walked along the Royal Canal in Dublin. But this Eureka moment did not arise spontaneously: it was the result of years of intense effort. The great French mathematician Henri Poincaré also described how sudden inspiration occurs unexpectedly, but always following a period of concentrated research [TM148, or search for “thatsmaths” at].

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Tom Lehrer: Comical Musical Mathematical Genius


Tom Lehrer, mathematician, singer, songwriter and satirist, was born in New York ninety years ago. He was active in public performance for about 25 years from 1945 to 1970. He is most renowned for his hilarious satirical songs, many of which he recorded and which are available today on YouTube [see TM147, or search for “thatsmaths” at].

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Face Recognition

As you pass through an airport, you are photographed several times by security systems. Face recognition systems can identify you by comparing your digital image to faces stored in a database. This form of identification is gaining popularity, allowing you to access online banking without a PIN or password.  [see TM146, or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, answering a question. Face detection indicated by squares.

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The Miraculous Spiral on Booterstown Strand

We all know what a spiral looks like. Or do we? Ask your friends to describe one and they will probably trace out the form of a winding staircase. But that is actually a helix, a curve in three-dimensional space. A spiral is confined to a plane – it is a flat curve. In general terms, a spiral is formed by a point moving around a fixed centre while its distance increases or decreases as it revolves [see TM145, or search for “thatsmaths” at].


The spiral sandbank on Booterstown strand (satellite image digitally enhanced by Andrew Lynch).

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Tides: a Tug-of-War between Earth, Moon and Sun

All who set a sail, cast a hook or take a dip have a keen interest in the water level, and the regular ebb and flow of the tides. At most places the tidal variations are semi-diurnal, with high and low water twice each day  [see TM144, or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Animation of tide prediction machine, showing outputs for New York (semi-diurnal tides) and Kuril Islands (diurnal tides) [Source: American Mathematical Society (see below)].

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The Empty Set is Nothing to Worry About

Today’s article is about nothing: nothing at all, as encapsulated in the number zero and the empty set. It took humanity millennia to move beyond the counting numbers. Zero emerged in several civilizations, first as a place-holder to denote a space or gap between digits, and later as a true number, which could be manipulated like any other. [see TM143, or search for “thatsmaths” at].


A selection of images of zero (google images).

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