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Algorithms: Recipes for Success

The impact of computing on society is ever-increasing. Web-based commerce continues to grow and artificial intelligence now pervades our lives. To make wise choices, we need to understand how computers operate and how we can deploy them most constructively. Listen to any computer scientist and soon you will hear the word “algorithm” [TM168 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

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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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Learning Maths without even Trying

Children have an almost limitless capacity to absorb knowledge if it is presented in an appealing and entertaining manner. Mathematics can be daunting, but it is possible to convey key ideas visually so that they are instantly accessible. Visiting Explorium recently, I saw such a visual display demonstrating the theorem of Pythagoras, which, according to Jacob Bronowski, “remains the most important single theorem in the whole of mathematics” [TM167 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


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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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What did the Romans ever do for Maths?

The ancient Romans developed many new techniques for engineering and architecture. The citizens of Rome enjoyed fountains, public baths, central heating, underground sewage systems and public toilets. All right, but apart from sanitation, medicine, education, irrigation, roads and aqueducts, what did the Romans ever do for maths? [TM166 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Roman aqueduct at Segovia, Spain.

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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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Simple Curves that Perplex Mathematicians and Inspire Artists

The preoccupations of mathematicians can seem curious and strange to normal people. They sometimes expend great energy proving results that appear glaringly obvious. One such result is called the Jordan Curve Theorem. We all know that a circle has an inside and an outside, and that this property also holds for a much larger collection of closed curves [TM165 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Detail from Michaelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, and a Jordan Curve representation [image courtesy of Prof Robert Bosch, Oberlin College. Downloaded from here].

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