Archive for the 'Occasional' Category

The curious behaviour of the Wilberforce Spring.

The Wilberforce Spring (often called the Wilberforce pendulum) is a simple mechanical device that illustrates the conversion of energy between two forms. It comprises a weight attached to a spring that is free to stretch up and down and to twist about its axis.


Wilberforce spring [image from Wikipedia Commons].}

In equilibrium, the spring hangs down with the pull of gravity balanced by the elastic restoring force. When the weight is pulled down and released, it immediately oscillates up and down.

However, due to a mechanical coupling between the stretching and torsion, there is a link between stretching and twisting motions, and the energy is gradually converted from vertical oscillations to axial motion about the vertical. This motion is, in turn, converted back to vertical oscillations, and the cycle continues indefinitely, in the absence of damping.

The conversion is dependent upon a resonance condition being satisfied: the frequencies of the stretching and twisting modes must be very close in value. This is usually achieved by having small adjustable weights mounted on the pendulum.

There are several videos of a Wilberforce springs in action on YouTube. For example, see here.

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Billiards & Ballyards

In (mathematical) billiards, the ball travels in a straight line between impacts with the boundary, when it changes suddenly and discontinuously We can approximate the hard-edged, flat-bedded billiard by a smooth sloping surface, that we call a “ballyard”. Then the continuous dynamics of the ballyard approach the motions on a billiard.


Elliptical tray in the form of a Ballyard.

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Boxes and Loops

We will describe some generic behaviour patterns of dynamical systems. In many systems, the orbits exhibit characteristic patterns called boxes and loops. We first describe orbits for a simple pendulum, and then look at some systems in higher dimensions.


Phase portrait for a simple pendulum. Each line represents a different orbit.

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Cumbersome Calculations in Ancient Rome

Arithmetica-WoodcutTypus Arithmeticae” is a woodcut from the book Margarita Philosophica by Gregor Reisch of Freiburg, published in 1503. In the centre of the figure stands Arithmetica, the muse of mathematics. She is watching a competition between the Roman mathematician Boethius and the great Pythagoras. Boethius is crunching out a calculation using Hindu-Arabic numerals, while Pythagoras uses a counting board or abacus (tabula) and – presumably – a less convenient number system. Arithmetica is looking with favour towards Boethius. He smiles smugly while Pythagoras is looking decidedly glum.

The figure aims to show the superiority of the Hindu-Arabic number system over the older Greek and Roman number systems. Of course, it is completely anachronistic: Pythagoras flourished around 500 BC and Boethius around AD 500, while the Hindu-Arabic numbers did not arrive in Europe until after AD 1200.

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Bernard Bolzano, a Voice Crying in the Wilderness


Bernard Bolzano (1781-1848)

Bernard Bolzano, born in Prague in 1781, was a Bohemian mathematician with Italian origins. Bolzano made several profound advances in mathematics that were not well publicized. As a result, his mathematical work was overlooked, often for many decades after his death. For example, his construction of a function that is continuous on an interval but nowhere differentiable, did not become known. Thus, the credit still goes to Karl Weierstrass, who found such a function about 30 years later. Boyer and Merzbach described Bolzano as “a voice crying in the wilderness,” since so many of his results had to be rediscovered by other workers.

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Symplectic Geometry

Albert-EinsteinFor many decades, a search has been under way to find a theory of everything, that accounts for all the fundamental physical forces, including gravity. The dictum “physics is geometry” is a guiding principle of modern theoretical physics. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, which emerged just one hundred years ago, is a crowning example of this synergy. He showed how matter distorts the geometry of space and this geometry determines the motion of matter. The central idea is encapsulated in an epigram of John A Wheeler:

\displaystyle \mbox{Matter tells space how to curve. Space tells matter how to move.}

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Chase and Escape: Pursuit Problems

Jolly-RogerFrom cheetahs chasing gazelles, through coastguards saving shipwrecked sailors, to missiles launched at enemy aircraft, strategies of pursuit and evasion play a role in many areas of life (and death). From pre-historic times we have been solving such pursuit problems. The survival of our early ancestors depended on their ability to acquire food. This involved chasing and killing animals, and success depended on an understanding of relative speeds and optimal pursuit paths.

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