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Tom Lehrer: Comical Musical Mathematical Genius


Tom Lehrer, mathematician, singer, songwriter and satirist, was born in New York ninety years ago. He was active in public performance for about 25 years from 1945 to 1970. He is most renowned for his hilarious satirical songs, many of which he recorded and which are available today on YouTube [see TM147, or search for “thatsmaths” at].

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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

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Face Recognition

As you pass through an airport, you are photographed several times by security systems. Face recognition systems can identify you by comparing your digital image to faces stored in a database. This form of identification is gaining popularity, allowing you to access online banking without a PIN or password.  [see TM146, or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, answering a question. Face detection indicated by squares.

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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.

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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?


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The Miraculous Spiral on Booterstown Strand

We all know what a spiral looks like. Or do we? Ask your friends to describe one and they will probably trace out the form of a winding staircase. But that is actually a helix, a curve in three-dimensional space. A spiral is confined to a plane – it is a flat curve. In general terms, a spiral is formed by a point moving around a fixed centre while its distance increases or decreases as it revolves [see TM145, or search for “thatsmaths” at].


The spiral sandbank on Booterstown strand (satellite image digitally enhanced by Andrew Lynch).

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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.

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