Archive for the 'Occasional' Category

From a Wide Wake to the Width of the World

The finite angular width of a ship’s turbulent wake at the horizon enables the Earth’s radius to be estimated.

By ignoring evidence, Flat-Earthers remain secure in their delusions. The rest of us benefit greatly from accurate geodesy. Satellite communications, GPS navigation, large-scale surveying and cartography all require precise knowledge of the shape and form of the Earth and a precise value of its radius.

Continue reading ‘From a Wide Wake to the Width of the World’

Really, 0.999999… is equal to 1. Surreally, this is not so!

The value of the recurring decimal 0.999999 … is a popular topic of conversation amongst amateur mathematicians of various levels of knowledge and expertise. Some of the discussions on the web are of little value or interest, but the topic touches on several subtle and deep aspects of number theory.


[Image Wikimedia Commons]

Continue reading ‘Really, 0.999999… is equal to 1. Surreally, this is not so!’

Gaussian Curvature: the Theorema Egregium


Surfaces of positive curvature (top), negative curvature (middle) and vanishing curvature (bottom) [image credit: NASA].

One of greatest achievements of Carl Friedrich Gauss was a theorem so startling that he gave it the name Theorema Egregium or outstanding theorem. In 1828 he published his “Disquisitiones generales circa superficies curvas”, or General investigation of curved surfaces. Gauss defined a quantity that measures the curvature of a two-dimensional surface. He was inspired by his work on geodesy, surveying and map-making, which involved taking measurements on the surface of the Earth. The total curvature — or Gaussian curvature — depends only on measurements within the surface and Gauss showed that its value is independent of the coordinate system used. This is his Theorema Egregium. The Gaussian curvature {K} characterizes the intrinsic geometry of a surface.

Continue reading ‘Gaussian Curvature: the Theorema Egregium

The 3 : 2 Resonance between Neptune and Pluto

For every two orbits of Pluto around the Sun, Neptune completes three orbits. This 3 : 2 resonance has profound consequences for the stability of the orbit of Pluto.


Unstable (left) and stable (right) orbital configurations.

Continue reading ‘The 3 : 2 Resonance between Neptune and Pluto’

The Two Envelopes Fallacy

During his Hamilton lecture in Dublin recently, Fields medalist Martin Hairer made a passing mention of the “Two Envelopes Paradox”. This is a well-known problem in probability theory that has led to much misunderstanding. It was originally developed in 1912 by the leading German number theorist Edmund Landau (see Gorroochurn, 2012). It is frequently discussed on the web, with much misunderstanding and confusion. I will try to avoid adding to that.


Continue reading ‘The Two Envelopes Fallacy’

Gravitational Waves & Ringing Teacups

Newton’s law of gravitation describes how two celestial bodies orbit one another, each tracing out an elliptical path. But this is imprecise: the theory of general relativity shows that two such bodies radiate energy away in the form of gravitational waves (GWs), and spiral inwards until they eventually collide.


Warning sign, described by Thomas Moore as a “geeky insider GR joke” [image from Moore, 2013].

Continue reading ‘Gravitational Waves & Ringing Teacups’

Listing the Rational Numbers III: The Calkin-Wilf Tree

Calkin-Wilf-TreeThe rational numbers are countable: they can be put into one-to-one correspondence with the natural numbers. In previous articles we showed how the rationals can be presented as a list that includes each rational precisely once. One approach leads to the Farey Sequences. A second, related, approach gives us the Stern-Brocot Tree. Here, we introduce another tree structure, The Calkin-Wilf Tree.

Continue reading ‘Listing the Rational Numbers III: The Calkin-Wilf Tree’

Saving Daylight with Hip-hop Time: a Modest Proposal

At 2:00 AM on Sunday 28 October the clocks throughout Europe will be set back one hour, reverting to Standard Time. In many countries, the clocks are put forward one hour in Spring and set back to Standard Time in the Autumn. Daylight saving time gives brighter evenings in Summer.


In Summer, the mornings are already bright before most of us wake up but, in Winter, the mornings would be too dark unless we reverted to Standard Time.

Continue reading ‘Saving Daylight with Hip-hop Time: a Modest Proposal’

Listing the Rational Numbers II: The Stern-Brocot Tree

The rational numbers are countable: they can be put into one-to-one correspondence with the natural numbers. But it is not obvious how to construct a list that is sure to contain every rational number precisely once. In a previous post we described the Farey Sequences. Here we examine another, related, approach.

Mediant-red Continue reading ‘Listing the Rational Numbers II: The Stern-Brocot Tree’

Listing the Rational Numbers: I. Farey Sequences

We know, thanks to Georg Cantor, that the rational numbers — ratios of integers — are countable: they can be put into one-to-one correspondence with the natural numbers.


Continue reading ‘Listing the Rational Numbers: I. Farey Sequences’

A Trapezoidal Prism on the Serpentine

Walking in Hyde Park recently, I spied what appeared to be a huge red pyramid in the middle of the Serpentine. On closer approach, and with a changing angle of view, it became clear that it was prismatic in shape, composed of numerous barrels in red, blue and purple.


Changing perspective on approach to the Mastaba

Continue reading ‘A Trapezoidal Prism on the Serpentine’

A Zero-Order Front


Sharp gradients known as fronts form in the atmosphere when variations in the wind field bring warm and cold air into close proximity. Much of our interesting weather is associated with the fronts that form in extratropical depressions.

Below, we describe a simple mechanistic model of frontogenesis, the process by which fronts are formed.

Continue reading ‘A Zero-Order Front’

The Flight of the Bumble Bee

Alice and Bob, initially a distance l apart, walk towards each other, each at a speed w. A bumble bee flies from the nose of one to the nose of the other and back again, repeating this zig-zag flight at speed f until Alice and Bob meet. How far does the bumble bee fly?


Continue reading ‘The Flight of the Bumble Bee’

Euler’s “Degree of Agreeableness” for Musical Chords

Euler-10_Swiss_Franc_banknoteThe links between music and mathematics stretch back to Pythagoras and many leading mathematicians have studied the theory of music. Music and mathematics were pillars of the Quadrivium, the four-fold way that formed the basis of higher education for thousands of years. Music was a central theme for Johannes Kepler in his Harmonices Mundi – Harmony of the World, and René Descartes’ first work was a compendium of music.

Continue reading ‘Euler’s “Degree of Agreeableness” for Musical Chords’

Grandi’s Series: A Second Look

In an earlier post, we discussed Grandi’s series, originally studied by the Italian monk Dom Guido Grandi around 1703. It is the series

\displaystyle G = 1 - 1 + 1 - 1 + 1 - 1 + \dots

This is a divergent series: the sequence of partial sums is {\{ 1, 0, 1, 0, 1, 0, \dots \}}, which obviously does not converge, but alternates between {0} and {1}.

Continue reading ‘Grandi’s Series: A Second Look’

Grandi’s Series: Divergent but Summable

Is the Light On or Off?

Suppose a light is switched on for a half-minute, off for a quarter minute, on for one eighth of a minute and so on until precisely one minute has elapsed. Is the light on or off at the end of this (infinite) process? Representing the two states “on” and “off” by {1} and {0}, the sequence of states over the first minute is {\{ 1, 0, 1, 0, 1, 0, \dots \}}. But how do we ascertain the final state from this sequence? This question is sometimes known as Thomson’s Lamp Puzzle.


Continue reading ‘Grandi’s Series: Divergent but Summable’

Numbers with Nines

What proportion of all numbers less than a given size N have a 9 in their decimal expansion? A naive argument would be that, since 9 is one of ten distinct digits, the answer must be about 10%. But this is not “remotely close” to the true answer.

Continue reading ‘Numbers with Nines’

“Dividends and Divisors Ever Diminishing”

Next Saturday is Bloomsday, the anniversary of the date on which the action of Ulysses took place. Mathematical themes occur occasionally throughout Ulysses, most notably in the penultimate episode, Ithaca, where the exchanges between Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus frequently touch on weighty scientific matters. [Last week’s ThatsMaths post]


Joyce in Zurich: did he meet Zermelo?

Continue reading ‘“Dividends and Divisors Ever Diminishing”’

Motifs: Molecules of Music

Motif: A short musical unit, usually just few notes, used again and again.  

A recurrent short phrase that is developed in the course of a composition.

A motif in music is a small group of notes encapsulating an idea or theme. It often contains the essence of the composition. For example, the opening four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony express a musical idea that is repeated throughout the symphony. 


Continue reading ‘Motifs: Molecules of Music’

A Glowing Geometric Proof that Root-2 is Irrational

Tennenbaum-00It was a great shock to the Pythagoreans to discover that the diagonal of a unit square could not be expressed as a ratio of whole numbers. This discovery represented a fundamental fracture between the mathematical domains of Arithmetic and Geometry: since the Greeks recognized only whole numbers and ratios of whole numbers, the result meant that there was no number to describe the diagonal of a unit square.

Continue reading ‘A Glowing Geometric Proof that Root-2 is Irrational’

Marden’s Marvel

Although polynomial equations have been studied for centuries, even millennia, surprising new results continue to emerge. Marden’s Theorem, published in 1945, is one such — delightful — result.


Cubic with roots at x=1, x=2 and x=3.

Continue reading ‘Marden’s Marvel’

Waves Packed in Envelopes

In this article we take a look at group velocity and at the extraction of the envelope of a wave packet using the ideas of the Hilbert transform.


Continue reading ‘Waves Packed in Envelopes’

Geodesics on the Spheroidal Earth – I

Both Quito in Ecuador and Singapore are on the Equator. One can fly due eastward from Singapore and reach Quito in due course. However, this is not the shortest route. The equatorial trans-Pacific route from Singapore to Quito is not a geodesic on Earth! Why not?


A drastically flattened spheroid. Clearly, the equatorial route between the blue and red points is not the shortest path.

Continue reading ‘Geodesics on the Spheroidal Earth – I’

Fourier’s Wonderful Idea – I

Breaking Complex Objects into Simple Pieces

“In a memorable session of the French Academy on the
21st of December 1807, the mathematician and engineer
Joseph Fourier announced a thesis which inaugurated a
new chapter in the history of mathematics. The claim of
Fourier appeared to the older members of the Academy,
including the great analyst Lagrange, entirely incredible.”



Joseph Fourier (1768-1830)

The above words open the Discourse on Fourier Series, written by Cornelius Lanczos. What greatly surprised and shocked Lagrange and the other academicians was the claim of Fourier that an arbitrary function, defined by an arbitrarily capricious graph, can always be resolved into a sum of pure sine and cosine functions. There was good reason to question Fourier’s theorem. Since sine functions are continuous and infinitely differentiable, it was assumed that any superposition of such functions would have the same properties. How could this assumption be reconciled with Fourier’s claim?

Continue reading ‘Fourier’s Wonderful Idea – I’

Sophus Lie

It is difficult to imagine modern mathematics without the concept of a Lie group.” (Ioan James, 2002).


Sophus Lie (1842-1899)

Sophus Lie grew up in the town of Moss, south of Oslo. He was a powerful man, tall and strong with a booming voice and imposing presence. He was an accomplished sportsman, most notably in gymnastics. It was no hardship for Lie to walk the 60 km from Oslo to Moss at the weekend to visit his parents. At school, Lie was a good all-rounder, though his mathematics teacher, Ludvig Sylow, a pioneer of group theory, did not suspect his great potential or anticipate his remarkable achievements in that field.

Continue reading ‘Sophus Lie’

Subtract 0 and divide by 1

We all know that division by zero is a prohibited operation, and that ratios that reduce to “zero divided by zero” are indeterminate. We probably also recall proving in elementary calculus class that

\displaystyle \lim_{x\rightarrow 0} \frac{\sin x}{x} = 1

This is an essential step in deriving an expression for the derivative of {\sin x}.


Continue reading ‘Subtract 0 and divide by 1’

The Evolute: Envelope of Normals

Every curve in the plane has several other curves associated with it. One of the most interesting and important of these is the evolute.


Sin t (blue) and its evolute (red).

Continue reading ‘The Evolute: Envelope of Normals’

Hardy’s Apology

Godfrey Harold Hardy’s memoir, A Mathematician’s Apology, was published when he was 63 years old. It is a slight volume at just 90 pages, but is replete with interesting observations and not a few controversial opinions. After 78 years, it is still in print and is available in virtually every mathematics library. Though many of Hardy’s opinions are difficult to support and some of his predictions have turned out to be utterly wrong, the book is still well worth reading.


Continue reading ‘Hardy’s Apology’

Kaprekar’s Number 6174

The Indian mathematician D. R. Kaprekar spent many happy hours during his youth solving mathematical puzzles. He graduated from Fergusson College in Pune in 1929 and became a mathematical teacher at a school in Devlali, north-east of Mumbai.


Kaprekar process for three digit numbers converging to 495 [Wikimedia Commons].

Continue reading ‘Kaprekar’s Number 6174′

Moebiquity: Ubiquity and Versitility of the Möbius Band

The Möbius strip or Möbius band, with one side and one edge, has been a source of fascination since its discovery in 1858, independently by August Möbius and Johann Listing. It is easily formed from a strip of paper by giving it a half-twist before joining the ends.


Möbius band in 3-space and a flat representation in 2-space.

Continue reading ‘Moebiquity: Ubiquity and Versitility of the Möbius Band’

Doughnuts and Tonnetze

The circle of fifths is a remarkably useful diagram for the analysis of music. It shows the twelve notes of the chromatic scale arranged in a circle, with notes that are harmonically related (like C and G) being close together and notes that are discordant (like C and C) more distant from each other.


The Tonnetz diagram (note that the arrangement here is inverted relative to that used in the text.  It appears that there is no rigid standard, and several arrangements are in use) [Image from WikimediaCommons].

Continue reading ‘Doughnuts and Tonnetze’

Vanishing Hyperballs


Spherical ball contained within a cubic region
[Image from ].

We all know that the area of a disk — the interior of a circle — is {\pi r^2} where {r} is the radius. Some of us may also remember that the volume of a ball — the interior of a sphere — is {\frac{4}{3}\pi r^3}.

Continue reading ‘Vanishing Hyperballs’

Disentangling Loops with an Ambient Isotopy


Can one of these shapes be continuously distorted to produce the other?

The surface in the left panel above has two linked loops. In the right hand panel, the loops are unlinked. Is it possible to continuously distort the left-hand surface so as to unlink the loops and produce the right-hand figure? This seems impossible, but intuition is not always reliable. 

Continue reading ‘Disentangling Loops with an Ambient Isotopy’

A Symbol for Global Circulation

The recycling symbol consisting of three bent arrows is found on bottles, cartons and packaging of all kinds. It originated in 1970 when the Chicago-based Container Corporation of America (CCA) held a competition for the design of a symbol suitable for printing on cartons, to encourage recycling and re-use of packaging materials.


Original (Moebius) and a variation (3-twist) of the universal recycling symbol.

Continue reading ‘A Symbol for Global Circulation’

More on Moduli

We wrote last week on modular arithmetic, the arithmetic of remainders. Here we will examine a few other aspects of this huge subject. Modular arithmetic was advanced by Gauss in his Disquisitiones Arithmeticae. In this system, number wrap around when they reach a point known as the modulus. Numbers that differ by a multiple of the modulus are called congruent. Thus 4, 11 and 18 are all congruent modulo 7.


Addition table for numbers modulo 12.

Continue reading ‘More on Moduli’

Malfatti’s Circles

Sometimes the “obvious” answer to a mathematical problem is not the correct one. The case of Malfatti’s circles is an example of this. In an equilateral triangle of unit side length, we must draw three non-overlapping circles such that the total area of the circles is maximal.


The solution seems obvious: draw three identical circles, each one tangent to two sides and to the other two circles (above figure, left). This is certainly the most symmetric arrangement possible. However, it turns out not to be the optimal solution. There is another arrangement (above figure, right) for which the three circles have greater total area.

Continue reading ‘Malfatti’s Circles’

Pedro Nunes and Solar Retrogression

In northern latitudes we are used to the Sun rising in the East, following a smooth and even course through the southern sky and setting in the West. The idea that the compass bearing of the Sun might reverse seems fanciful. But in 1537 Portuguese mathematician Pedro Nunes showed that the shadow cast by the gnomon of a sun dial can move backwards.


Pedro Nunes (1502–1578). Portuguese postage stamp issued in 1978.

Nunes’ prediction was counter-intuitive. It came long before Newton, Galileo and Kepler, and Copernicus’ heliocentric theory had not yet been published. The retrogression was a remarkable example of the power of mathematics to predict physical behaviour.

Continue reading ‘Pedro Nunes and Solar Retrogression’

Building Moebius Bands

We are all familiar with the Möbius strip or Möbius band. This topologically intriguing object with one side and one edge has fascinated children of all ages since it was discovered independently by August Möbius and Johann Listing in the same year, 1858.


Continue reading ‘Building Moebius Bands’

Moessner’s Magical Method

Amongst the many joys of mathematics are the beautiful patterns that appear unexpectedly from time to time. In 1951, Alfred Moessner discovered a delightful and ingenious way of generating sequences of powers of natural numbers. It is surprisingly simple and offers great opportunities for development and generalization.


It is well-known that the sum of odd numbers yields a perfect square:

1 + 3 + 5 + … + (2n – 1) = n 2

This is easily demonstrated in a geometric way. We start with a unit square, and repeatedly add an additional row and column on the “east” and “north” sides and a unit square at the “north-east” corner. This amounts to adding the next odd number and, at each stage, a new square is produced.

Continue reading ‘Moessner’s Magical Method’

Drawing Multi-focal Ellipses: The Gardener’s Method

Common-or-Garden Ellipses

In an earlier post we saw how a gardener may set out oval flower-beds using a well-known property of ellipses: the sum of the distances from any point on the ellipse to the two foci is always the same value, {2a}, the length of the major axis. The gardener puts down two stakes and loops a piece of rope around them. Using a stick, he pulls the loop taut, marking the points around a curve. This is illustrated here.


Gardener’s method of drawing an ellipse [Image Wikimedia].

Continue reading ‘Drawing Multi-focal Ellipses: The Gardener’s Method’

Locating the HQ with Multi-focal Ellipses


IrelandProvincialCapitalsMapIreland has four provinces, the principal city in each being the provincial capital: Belfast, Cork, Dublin and Galway. The map here shows the location of these cities. Now imagine a company that needs to visit and to deliver goods frequently to all four cities. Where might they locate their HQ to minimize transport costs and travel times?

One possibility is to find the location with the smallest distance sum:

\displaystyle d(\mathbf{r}_0) = \sum_{j=1}^{4} |\mathbf{r}_0-\mathbf{p}_j|

where {\mathbf{r}_0} is the position of the HQ and {\mathbf{p}_j, j\in\{1,2,3,4\}} are the positions of the cities.

Continue reading ‘Locating the HQ with Multi-focal Ellipses’

Fractions of Fractions of Fractions

Numbers can be expressed in several different ways. We are familiar with whole numbers, fractions and decimals. But there is a wide range of other forms, and we examine one of them in this article. Every rational number {x} can be expanded as a continued fraction:

\displaystyle x = a_0 + \cfrac{1}{ a_1 + \cfrac{1}{ a_2 + \cfrac{1}{ a_3 + \dotsb + \cfrac{1}{a_n} } }} = [ a_0 ; a_1 , a_2 , a_3 , \dots , a_n ]

where all {a_n} are integers, all positive except perhaps {a_0}. If {a_n=1} we add it to {a_{n-1}}; then the expansion is unique.

Continue reading ‘Fractions of Fractions of Fractions’

Who First Proved that C / D is Constant?

Every circle has the property that the distance around it is just over three times the distance across. This has been “common knowledge” since the earliest times. But mathematicians do not trust common knowledge; they demand proof. Who was first to prove that all circles are similar, in the sense that the ratio of circumference C to diameter D has the same value for all?


Slicing a disk to estimate pi (Image Wikimedia).

Continue reading ‘Who First Proved that C / D is Constant?’

Inertial Oscillations and Phugoid Flight

The English aviation pioneer Frederick Lanchester (1868–1946) introduced many important contributions to aerodynamics. He analysed the motion of an aircraft under various consitions of lift and drag. He introduced the term “phugoid” to describe aircraft motion in which the aircraft alternately climbs and descends, varying about straight and level flight. This is one of the basic modes of aircraft dynamics, and is clearly illustrated by the flight of gliders.


Glider in phugoid loop [photograph by Dave Jones on website of Dave Harrison]

Continue reading ‘Inertial Oscillations and Phugoid Flight’

Patterns in Poetry, Music and Morse Code

Suppose we have to ascent a flight of stairs and can take only one or two steps at a time. How many different patterns of ascent are there? We start with the simplest cases. With one step there is only one way; with two, there are two: take two single steps or one double step. With three steps, there are three possibilities. We can now proceed in an inductive manner.


Continue reading ‘Patterns in Poetry, Music and Morse Code’

The Beer Mat Game

Alice and Bob, are enjoying a drink together. Sitting in a bar-room, they take turns placing beer mats on the table. The only rules of the game are that the mats must not overlap or overhang the edge of the table. The winner is the player who puts down the final mat. Is there a winning strategy for Alice or for Bob?


Image from Flickr. 

We start with the simple case of a circular table and circular mats. In this case, there is a winning strategy for the first player. Before reading on, can you see what it is?

* * *

Continue reading ‘The Beer Mat Game’

A Remarkable Pair of Sequences

The terms of the two integer sequences below are equal for all {n} such that {1<n<777{,}451{,}915{,}729{,}368},  but equality is violated for this enormous value and, intermittently, for larger values of {n}.


Continue reading ‘A Remarkable Pair of Sequences’

Wavelets: Mathematical Microscopes

In the last post, we saw how Yves Meyer won the Abel Prize for his work with wavelets. Wavelets make it easy to analyse, compress and transmit information of all sorts, to eliminate noise and to perform numerical calculations. Let us take a look at how they came to be invented.


Continue reading ‘Wavelets: Mathematical Microscopes’

Hearing Harmony, Seeing Symmetry

Musical notes that are simply related to each other have a pleasing effect when sounded together. Each tone has a characteristic rate of oscillation, or frequency. For example, Middle C on the piano oscillates 264 times per second or has a frequency of 264 Hz (Hertz). If the frequencies of two notes have a ratio of two small whole numbers, the notes are harmonically related and sound pleasant when played together.


Beats from two notes close in pitch.

Continue reading ‘Hearing Harmony, Seeing Symmetry’

A Geometric Sieve for the Prime Numbers

In the time before computers (BC) various ingenious devices were invented for aiding the extensive calculations required in astronomy, navigation and commerce. In addition to calculators and logarithms, several nomograms were devised for specific applications, for example in meteorology and surveying.


Continue reading ‘A Geometric Sieve for the Prime Numbers’

Last 50 Posts