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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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The Rise and Rise of Women in Mathematics


Sonya Kovalevskya (1850-1891)

The influential collection of biographical essays by Eric Temple Bell, Men of Mathematics, was published in 1937. It covered the lives of about forty mathematicians, from ancient times to the beginning of the twentieth century. The book inspired many boys to become mathematicians. However, it seems unlikely that it inspired many girls: the only woman to get more than a passing mention was Sofia Kovalevskaya, a brilliant Russian mathematician and the first woman to obtain a doctorate in mathematics [TM163 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

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Bouncing Billiard Balls Produce Pi

There are many ways of evaluating {\pi}, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. We review several historical methods and describe a recently-discovered and completely original and ingenious method.


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Kepler’s Vanishing Circles Hidden in Hamilton’s Hodograph

The Greeks regarded the heavens as the epitome of perfection. All flaws and blemishes were confined to the terrestrial domain. Since the circle is perfect in its infinite symmetry, it was concluded by Aristotle that the Sun and planets move in circles around the Earth. Later, the astronomer Ptolemy accounted for deviations by means of additional circles, or epicycles. He stuck with the circular model [TM162 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Left: Elliptic orbit with velocity vectors. Right: Hodograph, with all velocity vectors plotted from a single point.

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K3 implies the Inverse Square Law.


Johannes Kepler. Stamp issued by the German Democratic Republic in 1971, the 400th anniversary of Kepler’s birth.

Kepler formulated three remarkable laws of planetary motion. He deduced them directly from observations of the planets, most particularly of the motion of Mars. The first two laws appeared in 1609 in Kepler’s Astronomia Nova. The first law (K1) describes the orbit of a planet as an ellipse with the Sun at one focus. The second law (K2) states that the radial line from Sun to planet sweeps out equal areas in equal times; we now describe this in terms of conservation of angular momentum.

The third law (K3), which appeared in 1619 in Kepler’s Harmonices Mundi, is of a different character. It does not relate to a single planet, but connects the motions of different planets. It states that the squares of the orbital periods vary in proportion to the cubes of the semi-major axes. For circular orbits, the period squared is proportional to the radius cubed.

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Closing the Gap between Prime Numbers

Occasionally, a major mathematical discovery comes from an individual working in isolation, and this gives rise to great surprise. Such an advance was announced by Yitang Zhang six years ago. [TM161 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Yitang Zhang

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Massive Collaboration in Maths: the Polymath Project

Sometimes proofs of long-outstanding problems emerge without prior warning. In the 1990s, Andrew Wiles proved Fermat’s Last Theorem. More recently, Yitang Zhang announced a key result on bounded gaps in the prime numbers. Both Wiles and Zhang had worked for years in isolation, keeping abreast of developments but carrying out intensive research programs unaided by others. This ensured that they did not have to share the glory of discovery, but it may not be an optimal way of making progress in mathematics.



Timothy Gowers in 2012 [image Wikimedia Commons].

Is massively collaborative mathematics possible? This was the question posed in a 2009 blog post by Timothy Gowers, a Cambridge mathematician and Fields Medal winner. Gowers suggested completely new ways in which mathematicians might work together to accelerate progress in solving some really difficult problems in maths. He envisaged a forum for the online discussion of problems. Anybody interested could contribute to the discussion. Contributions would be short, and could include false routes and failures; these are normally hidden from view so that different workers repeat the same mistakes.

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