Archive Page 2

The Wonders of Complex Analysis

AugustinLouis-Cauchy

Augustin-Louis Cauchy (1789–1857)

If you love mathematics and have never studied complex function theory, then you are missing something wonderful. It is one of the most beautiful branches of maths, with many amazing results. Don’t be put off by the name: complex does not mean complicated. With elementary calculus and a basic knowledge of imaginary numbers, a whole world of wonder is within your grasp.

In the early nineteenth century, Augustin-Louis Cauchy (1789–1857) constructed the foundations of what became a major new branch of mathematics, the theory of functions of a complex variable.

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Emergence of Complex Behaviour from Simple Roots

It is exhilarating to watch a large flock of birds swarming in ever-changing patterns. Swarming is an emergent behaviour, resulting from a set of simple rules followed by each individual animal, bird or fish, without any centralized control or leadership.

Flocking-Starlings-CyrilByrne

A murmuration of starlings at dusk near Ballywilliam, Co Wexford. Photograph: Cyril Byrne.

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Zeroing in on Zeros

Given a function {f(x)} of a real variable, we often have to find the values of {x} for which the function is zero. A simple iterative method was devised by Isaac Newton and refined by Joseph Raphson. It is known either as Newton’s method or as the Newton-Raphson method. It usually produces highly accurate approximations to the roots of the equation {f(x) = 0}.

Newton-Raphson-00

A rational function with five real zeros and a pole at x = 1.

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George Salmon, Mathematician & Theologian

George-Salmon

George Salmon (1819-1904) [Image: MacTutor]

As you pass through the main entrance of Trinity College, the iconic campanile stands before you, flanked, in pleasing symmetry, by two life-size statues. On the right, on a granite plinth is the historian and essayist William Lecky. On the left, George Salmon (18191904) sits on a limestone platform.

Salmon was a distinguished mathematician and theologian and Provost of Trinity College. For decades, the two scholars have gazed down upon multitudes of students crossing Front Square. The life-size statue of Salmon, carved from Galway marble by the celebrated Irish sculptor John Hughes, was erected in 1911. Next Wednesday will be the 200th anniversary of Salmon’s birth [TM171 or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

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Spiralling Primes

SacksSpiral100k

The Sacks Spiral.

The prime numbers have presented mathematicians with some of their most challenging problems. They continue to play a central role in number theory, and many key questions remain unsolved.

Order and Chaos

The primes have many intriguing properties. In his article “The first 50 million prime numbers”, Don Zagier noted two contradictory characteristics of the distribution of prime numbers. The first is the erratic and seemingly chaotic way in which the primes “grow like weeds among the natural numbers”. The second is that, when they are viewed in the large, they exhibit “stunning regularity”.

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An English Lady with a Certain Taste

Ronald-Fisher-1913

Ronald Fisher in 1913

One hundred years ago, an English lady, Dr Muriel Bristol, amazed some leading statisticians by proving that she could determine by taste the order in which the constituents are poured in a cup of tea. One of the statisticians was Ronald Fisher. The other was William Roach, who was to marry Dr Bristol shortly afterwards.

Many decisions in medicine, economics and other fields depend on carefully designed experiments. For example, before a new treatment is proposed, its efficacy must be established by a series of rigorous tests. Everyone is different, and no one course of treatment is necessarily best in all cases. Statistical evaluation of data is an essential part of the evaluation of new drugs [TM170 or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

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ToplDice is Markovian

Many problems in probability are solved by assuming independence of separate experiments. When we toss a coin, it is assumed that the outcome does not depend on the results of previous tosses. Similarly, each cast of a die is assumed to be independent of previous casts.

However, this assumption is frequently invalid. Draw a card from a shuffled deck and reveal it. Then place it on the bottom and draw another card. The odds have changed: if the first card was an ace, the chances that the second is also an ace have diminished.

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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

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.

Continue reading ‘The curious behaviour of the Wilberforce Spring.’

The Brief and Tragic Life of Évariste Galois

On the morning of 30 May 1832 a young man stood twenty-five paces from his friend. Both men fired, but only one pistol was loaded. Évariste Galois, a twenty year old mathematical genius, fell to the ground. The cause of Galois’s death is veiled in mystery and speculation. Whether both men loved the same woman or had irreconcilable political differences is unclear. But Galois was abandoned, mortally wounded, on the duelling ground at Gentilly, just south of Paris. By noon the next day he was dead [TM169 or search for “Galois” at irishtimes.com].

Galois-Stamp

French postage stamp issued in 1984.

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Stokes’s 200th Birthday Anniversary

Next Tuesday, the 30th of August, is the 200th anniversary of the birth of George Gabriel Stokes. This extended blog post is to mark that occasion. See also an article in The Irish Times.

Navier-Stokes-Equations

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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 irishtimes.com].

Continue reading ‘Algorithms: Recipes for Success’

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.

SAMSUNG

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 irishtimes.com].

Explorium-Banner

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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.

SimplePendulum-PhasePortrait-Colour

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 irishtimes.com].

Roman-Aquaduct-Segovia

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.

Continue reading ‘Cumbersome Calculations in Ancient Rome’

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 irishtimes.com].

Michaelangelo-RobertBosch-Hands

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

Continue reading ‘Simple Curves that Perplex Mathematicians and Inspire Artists’

Bernard Bolzano, a Voice Crying in the Wilderness

Bernard-Bolzano

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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Spin-off Effects of the Turning Earth

G-G-Coriolis

Gaspard-Gustave de Coriolis (1792-1843).

On the rotating Earth, a moving object deviates from a straight line, being deflected to the right in the northern hemisphere and to the left in the southern hemisphere. The deflecting force is named after a nineteenth century French engineer, Gaspard-Gustave de Coriolis [TM164 or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

Coriolis was interested in the dynamics of machines, such as water mills, with rotating elements. He was not concerned with the turning Earth or the oceans and atmosphere surrounding it. But it is these fluid envelopes of the planet that are most profoundly affected by the Coriolis force.

Continue reading ‘Spin-off Effects of the Turning Earth’

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.}

Continue reading ‘Symplectic Geometry’

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.

Continue reading ‘Chase and Escape: Pursuit Problems’

The Rise and Rise of Women in Mathematics

Sonya-Kovalevskaya

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 irishtimes.com].

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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.

Archimedes-Polygons

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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 irishtimes.com].

Hodograph-AB

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.

Kepler-DDR-Stamp-1971

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.

Continue reading ‘K3 implies the Inverse Square Law.’

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 irishtimes.com].

Yitang-Zhang-Colour

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.

Polymath

Timothy-Gowers-2012-Half

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.

Continue reading ‘Massive Collaboration in Maths: the Polymath Project’

A Pioneer of Climate Modelling and Prediction

Norman-Phillips

Norman Phillips (1923-2019)

Today we benefit greatly from accurate weather forecasts. These are the outcome of a long struggle to advance the science of meteorology. One of the major contributors to that advancement was Norman A. Phillips, who died in mid-March, aged 95. Phillips was the first person to show, using a simple computer model, that mathematical simulation of the Earth’s climate was practicable [TM160 or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

Continue reading ‘A Pioneer of Climate Modelling and Prediction’

A Chirping Elliptic Rocker

Sitting at the breakfast table, I noticed that a small cereal bowl placed within another larger one was rocking, and that the period became shorter as the amplitude died down. What was going on? 

Rocking-Bowl

A small bowl with its handles resting on the rim of a larger bowl. The handles are approximately elliptical in cross-section.

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Joseph Fourier and the Greenhouse Effect

Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier, French mathematician and physicist, was born in Auxerre 251 years ago today. He is best known for the mathematical techniques that he developed in his analytical theory of heat transfer. Over the past two centuries, his methods have evolved into a major subject, harmonic analysis, with widespread applications in number theory, signal processing, quantum mechanics, weather prediction and a broad range of other fields [TM159 or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

GreenhouseEffect

Greenhouse Effect [Image Wikimedia Commons]

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The Kill-zone: How to Dodge a Sniper’s Bullet

Under mild simplifying assumptions, a projectile follows a parabolic trajectory. This results from Newton’s law of motion. Thus, for a fixed energy, there is an accessible region around the firing point comprising all the points that can be reached. We will derive a mathematical description for this kill-zone (the term kill-zone, used for dramatic effect, is the region embracing all the points that can be reached by a sniper’s bullet, given a fixed muzzle velocity).

Sniper-Killzone-1 Family of trajectories with fixed initial speed and varying launch angles. Two particular trajectories are shown in black. Continue reading ‘The Kill-zone: How to Dodge a Sniper’s Bullet’

Hokusai’s Great Wave and Roguish Behaviour

Hokusai’s woodcut “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”.

“The Great Wave off Kanagawa”, one of the most iconic works of Japanese art, shows a huge breaking wave with foam thrusting forward at its crest, towering over three fishing boats, with Mt Fuji in the background [TM158 or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

Continue reading ‘Hokusai’s Great Wave and Roguish Behaviour’

Don’t be Phased by Waveform Distortions

For many years there has been an ongoing debate about the importance of phase changes in music. Some people claim that we cannot hear the effects of phase errors, others claim that we can. Who is right? The figure below shows a waveform of a perfect fifth, with components in the ratio {3 : 2} for various values of the phase-shift. Despite the different appearances, all sound pretty much the same.

Continue reading ‘Don’t be Phased by Waveform Distortions’

Multiple Discoveries of the Thue-Morse Sequence

It is common practice in science to name important advances after the first discoverer or inventor. However, this process often goes awry. A humorous principle called Stigler’s Law holds that no scientific result is named after its original discoverer. This law was formulated by Professor Stephen Stigler of the University of Chicago in his publication “Stigler’s law of eponymy”. He pointed out that his “law” had been proposed by others before him so it was, in a sense, self-verifying. [TM157 or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

Axel Thue (1863-1922) and Marston Morse (1892-1977)
Continue reading ‘Multiple Discoveries of the Thue-Morse Sequence’

Folding Maps: A Simple but Unsolved Problem

Paper-folding is a recurring theme in mathematics. The art of origami is much-loved by many who also enjoy recreational maths. One particular folding problem is remarkably easy to state, but the solution remains elusive:

Given a map with M × N panels, how many different ways can it be folded?

Each panel is considered to be distinct, so two foldings are equivalent only when they have the same vertical sequence of the L = M × N layers.

Continue reading ‘Folding Maps: A Simple but Unsolved Problem’

Rambling and Reckoning

A walk on the beach, in the hills or along a river bank provides great opportunities for mathematical reflection. How high is the mountain? How many grains of sand are on the beach? How much water is flowing in the river?  [TM156 or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].


Daily average flow (cubic metres per second) at Ardnacrusha, on the Shannon near Limerick. Data from the Electricity Supply Board (ESB).

While the exact answers may be elusive, we can make reasonable guesstimates using basic knowledge and simple mathematical reasoning. And we will be walking in the footsteps of some of the world’s greatest thinkers.

Continue reading ‘Rambling and Reckoning’

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 http://ludicum.org/ev/rm/19 .

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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 irishtimes.com].

fermat-ramanujan

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.

999999

[Image Wikimedia Commons]

Continue reading ‘Really, 0.999999… is equal to 1. Surreally, this is not so!’

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 irishtimes.com].

Artist’s impressions of the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system

Artist’s impression of the Trappist-1 planetary system. Image from https://www.eso.org/public/images/eso1805b/

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

ShapeOfUniverse

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.

Continue reading ‘Gaussian Curvature: the Theorema Egregium

Consider a Spherical Christmas Tree

ChristmasTreeLights

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 irishtimes.com].

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.

Continue reading ‘Consider a Spherical Christmas Tree’

The 3 : 2 Resonance between Neptune and Pluto

For every two orbits of Pluto around the Sun, Neptune completes three orbits. This 3 : 2 resonance has profound consequences for the stability of the orbit of Pluto.

Nep-Plu-Orbits-AB

Unstable (left) and stable (right) orbital configurations.

Continue reading ‘The 3 : 2 Resonance between Neptune and Pluto’

Random Numbers Plucked from the Atmosphere

Randomness is a slippery concept, defying precise definition. A simple example of a random series is provided by repeatedly tossing a coin. Assigning “1” for heads and “0” for tails, we generate a random sequence of binary digits or bits. Ten tosses might produce a sequence such as 1001110100. Continuing thus, we can generate a sequence of any length having no discernible pattern [TM152 or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

Lightning-01

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The Two Envelopes Fallacy

During his Hamilton lecture in Dublin recently, Fields medalist Martin Hairer made a passing mention of the “Two Envelopes Paradox”. This is a well-known problem in probability theory that has led to much misunderstanding. It was originally developed in 1912 by the leading German number theorist Edmund Landau (see Gorroochurn, 2012). It is frequently discussed on the web, with much misunderstanding and confusion. I will try to avoid adding to that.

Two-Envelopes

Continue reading ‘The Two Envelopes Fallacy’

Gravitational Waves & Ringing Teacups

Newton’s law of gravitation describes how two celestial bodies orbit one another, each tracing out an elliptical path. But this is imprecise: the theory of general relativity shows that two such bodies radiate energy away in the form of gravitational waves (GWs), and spiral inwards until they eventually collide.

GW-Warning-Sign

Warning sign, described by Thomas Moore as a “geeky insider GR joke” [image from Moore, 2013].

Continue reading ‘Gravitational Waves & Ringing Teacups’

The “Napoleon of Crime” and The Laws of Thought

NewLightOnGBooleA fascinating parallel between a brilliant mathematician and an arch-villain of crime fiction is drawn in a forthcoming book – New Light on George Boole – by Des MacHale and Yvonne Cohen. Professor James Moriarty, master criminal and nemesis of Sherlock Holmes, was described by the detective as “the Napoleon of crime”. The book presents convincing evidence that Moriarty was inspired by Professor George Boole [TM151, or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

Continue reading ‘The “Napoleon of Crime” and The Laws of Thought’

Listing the Rational Numbers III: The Calkin-Wilf Tree

Calkin-Wilf-TreeThe rational numbers are countable: they can be put into one-to-one correspondence with the natural numbers. In previous articles we showed how the rationals can be presented as a list that includes each rational precisely once. One approach leads to the Farey Sequences. A second, related, approach gives us the Stern-Brocot Tree. Here, we introduce another tree structure, The Calkin-Wilf Tree.

Continue reading ‘Listing the Rational Numbers III: The Calkin-Wilf Tree’

Johannes Kepler and the Song of the Earth

Johannes Kepler, German mathematician and astronomer, sought to explain the solar system in terms of divine harmony. His goal was to find a system of the world that was mathematically correct and harmonically pleasing. His methodology was scientific in that his hypotheses were inspired by and confirmed by observations. However, his theological training and astrological interests influenced his thinking [TM150, or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

Solar-System-Inner

The six planets known to Kepler [Image NASA].

Continue reading ‘Johannes Kepler and the Song of the Earth’


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