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Rambling and Reckoning

A walk on the beach, in the hills or along a river bank provides great opportunities for mathematical reflection. How high is the mountain? How many grains of sand are on the beach? How much water is flowing in the river?  [TM156 or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].


Daily average flow (cubic metres per second) at Ardnacrusha, on the Shannon near Limerick. Data from the Electricity Supply Board (ESB).

While the exact answers may be elusive, we can make reasonable guesstimates using basic knowledge and simple mathematical reasoning. And we will be walking in the footsteps of some of the world’s greatest thinkers.

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Discoveries by Amateurs and Distractions by Cranks

Do amateurs ever solve outstanding mathematical problems? Professional mathematicians are aware that almost every new idea they have about a mathematical problem has already occurred to others. Any really new idea must have some feature that explains why no one has thought of it before  [TM155 or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

fermat-ramanujan

Pierre de Fermat and Srinivasa Ramanujan, two brilliant “amateur” mathematicians.

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Trappist-1 & the Age of Aquarius

The Pythagoreans believed that the planets generate sounds as they move through the cosmos. The idea of the harmony of the spheres was brought to a high level by Johannes Kepler in his book Harmonices Mundi, where he identified many simple relationships between the orbital periods of the planets [TM154 or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

Artist’s impressions of the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system

Artist’s impression of the Trappist-1 planetary system. Image from https://www.eso.org/public/images/eso1805b/

Kepler’s idea was not much supported by his contemporaries, but in recent times astronomers have come to realize that resonances amongst the orbits has a crucial dynamical function. Continue reading ‘Trappist-1 & the Age of Aquarius’

Consider a Spherical Christmas Tree

ChristmasTreeLights

A minor seasonal challenge is how to distribute the fairy lights evenly around the tree, with no large gaps or local clusters. Since the lights are strung on a wire, we are not free to place them individually but must weave them around the branches, attempting to achieve a pleasing arrangement. Optimization problems like this occur throughout applied mathematics [TM153 or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

Trees are approximately conical in shape and we may assume that the lights are confined to the surface of a cone. The peak, where the Christmas star is placed, is a mathematical singularity: all the straight lines that can be drawn on the cone, the so-called generators, pass through this point. Cones are developable surfaces: they can be flattened out into a plane without being stretched or shrunk.

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Random Numbers Plucked from the Atmosphere

Randomness is a slippery concept, defying precise definition. A simple example of a random series is provided by repeatedly tossing a coin. Assigning “1” for heads and “0” for tails, we generate a random sequence of binary digits or bits. Ten tosses might produce a sequence such as 1001110100. Continuing thus, we can generate a sequence of any length having no discernible pattern [TM152 or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

Lightning-01

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The “Napoleon of Crime” and The Laws of Thought

NewLightOnGBooleA fascinating parallel between a brilliant mathematician and an arch-villain of crime fiction is drawn in a forthcoming book – New Light on George Boole – by Des MacHale and Yvonne Cohen. Professor James Moriarty, master criminal and nemesis of Sherlock Holmes, was described by the detective as “the Napoleon of crime”. The book presents convincing evidence that Moriarty was inspired by Professor George Boole [TM151, or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

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Johannes Kepler and the Song of the Earth

Johannes Kepler, German mathematician and astronomer, sought to explain the solar system in terms of divine harmony. His goal was to find a system of the world that was mathematically correct and harmonically pleasing. His methodology was scientific in that his hypotheses were inspired by and confirmed by observations. However, his theological training and astrological interests influenced his thinking [TM150, or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

Solar-System-Inner

The six planets known to Kepler [Image NASA].

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