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Our Dearest Problems

A Colloquium on Recreational Mathematics took place in Lisbon this week. The meeting, RMC-VI (G4GEurope), a great success, was organised by the Ludus Association, with support from several other agencies: MUHNAC, ULisboa, CMAF-IO, CIUHCT, CEMAPRE, and FCT. It was the third meeting integrated in the Gathering for Gardner movement, which celebrates the great populariser of maths, Martin Gardner. For more information about the meeting, see .

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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.

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Discoveries by Amateurs and Distractions by Cranks

Do amateurs ever solve outstanding mathematical problems? Professional mathematicians are aware that almost every new idea they have about a mathematical problem has already occurred to others. Any really new idea must have some feature that explains why no one has thought of it before  [TM155 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Pierre de Fermat and Srinivasa Ramanujan, two brilliant “amateur” mathematicians.

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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]

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Trappist-1 & the Age of Aquarius

The Pythagoreans believed that the planets generate sounds as they move through the cosmos. The idea of the harmony of the spheres was brought to a high level by Johannes Kepler in his book Harmonices Mundi, where he identified many simple relationships between the orbital periods of the planets [TM154 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

Artist’s impressions of the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system

Artist’s impression of the Trappist-1 planetary system. Image from

Kepler’s idea was not much supported by his contemporaries, but in recent times astronomers have come to realize that resonances amongst the orbits has a crucial dynamical function. Continue reading ‘Trappist-1 & the Age of Aquarius’

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.

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Consider a Spherical Christmas Tree


A minor seasonal challenge is how to distribute the fairy lights evenly around the tree, with no large gaps or local clusters. Since the lights are strung on a wire, we are not free to place them individually but must weave them around the branches, attempting to achieve a pleasing arrangement. Optimization problems like this occur throughout applied mathematics [TM153 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

Trees are approximately conical in shape and we may assume that the lights are confined to the surface of a cone. The peak, where the Christmas star is placed, is a mathematical singularity: all the straight lines that can be drawn on the cone, the so-called generators, pass through this point. Cones are developable surfaces: they can be flattened out into a plane without being stretched or shrunk.

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