Archive for the 'Occasional' Category

Torricelli’s Trumpet & the Painter’s Paradox



Torricelli’s Trumpet


Evangelista Torricelli, a student of Galileo, is remembered as the inventor of the barometer. He was also a talented mathematician and he discovered the remarkable properties of a simple geometric surface, now often called Torricelli’s Trumpet. It is the surface generated when the curve {y=1/x} for {x\ge1} is rotated in 3-space about the x-axis.

Continue reading ‘Torricelli’s Trumpet & the Painter’s Paradox’

Treize: A Card-Matching Puzzle

Probability theory is full of surprises. Possibly the best-known paradoxical results are the Monty Hall Problem and the two-envelope problem, but there are many others. Here we consider a simple problem using playing cards, first analysed by Pierre Raymond de Montmort (1678–1719).


Shuffle spades in one pile, hearts in another. Place both piles face downwards. Turn over a card from each pile. Do the two cards match?

Continue reading ‘Treize: A Card-Matching Puzzle’

Numerical Coincidences

A numerical coincidence is an equality or near-equality between different mathematical quantities which has no known theoretical explanation. Sometimes such equalities remain mysterious and intriguing, and sometimes theory advances to the point where they can be explained and are no longer regarded as surprising.

Cosine of 355 radians is almost exactly equal to -1. Is this a coincidence? Read on!

Continue reading ‘Numerical Coincidences’

Brun’s Constant and the Pentium Bug

Euclid showed by a deliciously simple argument that the number of primes is infinite. In a completely different manner, Euler confirmed the same result. Euler’s conclusion followed from his demonstration that the sum of the reciprocals of the primes diverges:

\displaystyle \sum_{p\in\mathbb{P}} \frac{1}{p} = \infty

Obviously, this could not happen if there were only finitely many primes.

Continue reading ‘Brun’s Constant and the Pentium Bug’

Topology in the Oval Office

Imagine a room – the Oval Office for example – that has three electrical appliances:

•  An air-conditioner ( a ) with an American plug socket ( A ),

•  A boiler ( b ) with a British plug socket ( B ),

•  A coffee-maker ( c ) with a Continental plug socket ( C ).

The problem is to connect each appliance to the correct socket, avoiding any crossings of the connecting wires.


Fig. 1: Positions of appliances and sockets for Problem 1.

Continue reading ‘Topology in the Oval Office’

Metallic Means


The golden mean occurs repeatedly in the pentagram [image Wikimedia Commons]

Everyone knows about the golden mean. It must be one of the most written-about numbers, certainly in recreational mathematics. It is usually denoted by {\phi} and is the positive root of the quadratic equation

\displaystyle x^2 - x - 1 = 0 \ \ \ \ \ (1)

with the value

{\phi = (1+\sqrt{5})/2 \approx 1.618}.

There is no doubt that {\phi} is significant in many biological contexts and has also been an inspiration for artists. Called the Divine Proportion, it  was described in a book of that name by Luca Pacioli, a contemporary and friend of Leonardo da Vinci.

Continue reading ‘Metallic Means’

The Beginning of Modern Mathematics

The late fifteenth century was an exciting time in Europe. Western civilization woke with a start after the slumbers of the medieval age. Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press arrived in 1450 and changed everything. Universities in Bologna, Oxford, Salamanca, Paris and elsewhere began to flourish. Leonardo da Vinci was in his prime and Christopher Columbus was discovering a new world.


Illustrations by Leonardo da Vinci in Pacioli’s De Divina Proportione.

Continue reading ‘The Beginning of Modern Mathematics’

Last 50 Posts