Archive Page 4

Building Moebius Bands

We are all familiar with the Möbius strip or Möbius band. This topologically intriguing object with one side and one edge has fascinated children of all ages since it was discovered independently by August Möbius and Johann Listing in the same year, 1858.


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Andrey Markov’s Brilliant Ideas are still a Driving Force


A A Markov (1856-1922)

Imagine examining the first 20,000 letters of a book, counting frequencies and studying patterns. This is precisely what Andrey Markov did when he analyzed the text of Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin. This work comprises almost 400 stanzas of iambic tetrameter and is a classic of Russian literature. Markov studied the way vowels and consonants alternate and deduced the probabilities of a vowel being followed by a another vowel, by a consonant, and so on. He was applying a statistical model that he had developed in 1906 and that we now call a Markov Process or Markov chain. [TM123 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

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Moessner’s Magical Method

Amongst the many joys of mathematics are the beautiful patterns that appear unexpectedly from time to time. In 1951, Alfred Moessner discovered a delightful and ingenious way of generating sequences of powers of natural numbers. It is surprisingly simple and offers great opportunities for development and generalization.


It is well-known that the sum of odd numbers yields a perfect square:

1 + 3 + 5 + … + (2n – 1) = n 2

This is easily demonstrated in a geometric way. We start with a unit square, and repeatedly add an additional row and column on the “east” and “north” sides and a unit square at the “north-east” corner. This amounts to adding the next odd number and, at each stage, a new square is produced.

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Euler and the Fountains of Sanssouci

When Frederick the Great was crowned King of Prussia in 1740 he immediately revived the Berlin Academy of Sciences and invited scholars from throughout Europe to Berlin. The most luminous of these was Leonhard Euler, who arrived at the academy in 1741. Euler was an outstanding genius, brilliant in both mathematics and physics. Yet, a myth persists that he failed spectacularly to solve a problem posed by Frederick. Euler is reputed to have bungled his mathematical analysis. In truth, there was much bungling, but the responsibility lay elsewhere. [TM122 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Sanssouci Palace, the summer home of Frederick the Great in Potsdam.

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Drawing Multi-focal Ellipses: The Gardener’s Method

Common-or-Garden Ellipses

In an earlier post we saw how a gardener may set out oval flower-beds using a well-known property of ellipses: the sum of the distances from any point on the ellipse to the two foci is always the same value, {2a}, the length of the major axis. The gardener puts down two stakes and loops a piece of rope around them. Using a stick, he pulls the loop taut, marking the points around a curve. This is illustrated here.


Gardener’s method of drawing an ellipse [Image Wikimedia].

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Locating the HQ with Multi-focal Ellipses


IrelandProvincialCapitalsMapIreland has four provinces, the principal city in each being the provincial capital: Belfast, Cork, Dublin and Galway. The map here shows the location of these cities. Now imagine a company that needs to visit and to deliver goods frequently to all four cities. Where might they locate their HQ to minimize transport costs and travel times?

One possibility is to find the location with the smallest distance sum:

\displaystyle d(\mathbf{r}_0) = \sum_{j=1}^{4} |\mathbf{r}_0-\mathbf{p}_j|

where {\mathbf{r}_0} is the position of the HQ and {\mathbf{p}_j, j\in\{1,2,3,4\}} are the positions of the cities.

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Saros 145/22: The Great American Eclipse

Next Monday, the shadow of the Moon will bring a two-minute spell of darkness as it sweeps across the United States along a path from Oregon to South Carolina. The eclipse is one of a series known as Saros 145. [TM121 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Saros series 145 recurring every 18 years, 10 days and 8 hours.
[Image from ]

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Fractions of Fractions of Fractions

Numbers can be expressed in several different ways. We are familiar with whole numbers, fractions and decimals. But there is a wide range of other forms, and we examine one of them in this article. Every rational number {x} can be expanded as a continued fraction:

\displaystyle x = a_0 + \cfrac{1}{ a_1 + \cfrac{1}{ a_2 + \cfrac{1}{ a_3 + \dotsb + \cfrac{1}{a_n} } }} = [ a_0 ; a_1 , a_2 , a_3 , \dots , a_n ]

where all {a_n} are integers, all positive except perhaps {a_0}. If {a_n=1} we add it to {a_{n-1}}; then the expansion is unique.

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It’s as Easy as Pi

Pi-SymbolEvery circle has the property that the distance around it is just over three times the distance across. This has been known since the earliest times  [see TM120 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

The constant ratio of the circumference to the diameter, denoted by the Greek letter pi, is familiar to every school-child. You might expect to find a proof in Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, he could not prove it, and he made no mention of the ratio (see last week’s post).

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Who First Proved that C / D is Constant?

Every circle has the property that the distance around it is just over three times the distance across. This has been “common knowledge” since the earliest times. But mathematicians do not trust common knowledge; they demand proof. Who was first to prove that all circles are similar, in the sense that the ratio of circumference C to diameter D has the same value for all?


Slicing a disk to estimate pi (Image Wikimedia).

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Quadrivium: The Noble Fourfold Way

According to Plato, a core of mathematical knowledge – later known as the Quadrivium – was essential for an understanding of the Universe. The curriculum was outlined in Plato’s Republic. The name Quadrivium means four ways, but this term was not used until the time of Boethius in the 6th century AD [see TM119 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Image from here.

It is said that an inscription over the entrance to Plato’s Academy read “Let None But Geometers Enter Here”. This indicated that the Quadrivium was a prerequisite for the study of philosophy in ancient Greece.

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Inertial Oscillations and Phugoid Flight

The English aviation pioneer Frederick Lanchester (1868–1946) introduced many important contributions to aerodynamics. He analysed the motion of an aircraft under various consitions of lift and drag. He introduced the term “phugoid” to describe aircraft motion in which the aircraft alternately climbs and descends, varying about straight and level flight. This is one of the basic modes of aircraft dynamics, and is clearly illustrated by the flight of gliders.


Glider in phugoid loop [photograph by Dave Jones on website of Dave Harrison]

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Robert Murphy, a “Brilliant Meteor”

A brilliant meteor that flared intensely but all too briefly”; this was how Des MacHale described the Cork-born mathematician Robert Murphy in his biography of George Boole, first professor of mathematics in Cork. Murphy was a strong influence on Boole, who quoted liberally from his publications [see TM118 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

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Patterns in Poetry, Music and Morse Code

Suppose we have to ascent a flight of stairs and can take only one or two steps at a time. How many different patterns of ascent are there? We start with the simplest cases. With one step there is only one way; with two, there are two: take two single steps or one double step. With three steps, there are three possibilities. We can now proceed in an inductive manner.


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The Beer Mat Game

Alice and Bob, are enjoying a drink together. Sitting in a bar-room, they take turns placing beer mats on the table. The only rules of the game are that the mats must not overlap or overhang the edge of the table. The winner is the player who puts down the final mat. Is there a winning strategy for Alice or for Bob?


Image from Flickr. 

We start with the simple case of a circular table and circular mats. In this case, there is a winning strategy for the first player. Before reading on, can you see what it is?

* * *

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Fractal Complexity of Finnegans Wake

Tomorrow we celebrate Bloomsday, the day of action in Ulysses. Most of us regard Joyce’s singular book as a masterpiece, even if we have not read it. In contrast, Finnegans Wake is considered by some as a work of exceptional genius, by others as impenetrable bafflegab [See TM117 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Wavelet transform of sentence length sequence in Ulysses. Note the structural change around sentence number 13,000. Image from Drozdz, et al (2016).

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A Remarkable Pair of Sequences

The terms of the two integer sequences below are equal for all {n} such that {1<n<777{,}451{,}915{,}729{,}368},  but equality is violated for this enormous value and, intermittently, for larger values of {n}.


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Beautiful Patterns in Maths and Music

The numerous connections between mathematics and music have long intrigued practitioners of both. For centuries scholars and musicians have used maths to analyze music and also to create it. Many of the great composers had a deep understanding of the mathematical principles underlying music. Johann Sebastian Bach was the grand master of structural innovation and invention in music. While his compositions are the free creations of a genius, they have a fundamentally mathematical basis [See TM116 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Johann Sebastian Bach, the grand master of structural innovation and invention in music.

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Wavelets: Mathematical Microscopes

In the last post, we saw how Yves Meyer won the Abel Prize for his work with wavelets. Wavelets make it easy to analyse, compress and transmit information of all sorts, to eliminate noise and to perform numerical calculations. Let us take a look at how they came to be invented.


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Yves Meyer wins 2017 Abel Prize

On 23 May King Harald V of Norway will present the Abel Prize to French mathematician Yves Meyer. Each year, the prize is awarded to a laureate for “outstanding work in the field of mathematics”. Comparable to a Nobel Prize, the award is named after the exceptional Norwegian, Niels Henrik Abel who, in a short life from 1802 to 1829, made dramatic advances in mathematics. Meyer was chosen for his development of the mathematical theory of wavelets. [See TM115 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


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Hearing Harmony, Seeing Symmetry

Musical notes that are simply related to each other have a pleasing effect when sounded together. Each tone has a characteristic rate of oscillation, or frequency. For example, Middle C on the piano oscillates 264 times per second or has a frequency of 264 Hz (Hertz). If the frequencies of two notes have a ratio of two small whole numbers, the notes are harmonically related and sound pleasant when played together.


Beats from two notes close in pitch.

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When Roughly Right is Good Enough


How high is Liberty Hall? How fast does human hair grow? How many A4 sheets of paper would cover Ireland? How many people in the world are talking on their mobile phones right now? These questions seem impossible to answer but, using basic knowledge and simple logic, we can make a good guess at the answers. For example, Liberty Hall has about 16 floors. With 4 metres per floor we get a height of 64 metres, close enough to the actual height. Problems of this nature are known as Fermi problems. [TM114 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

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A Geometric Sieve for the Prime Numbers

In the time before computers (BC) various ingenious devices were invented for aiding the extensive calculations required in astronomy, navigation and commerce. In addition to calculators and logarithms, several nomograms were devised for specific applications, for example in meteorology and surveying.


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The Water is Rising Fast

Seventy percent of the Earth is covered by water and three quarters of the world’s great cities are on the coast. Ever-rising sea levels pose a real threat to more than a billion people living beside the sea. As the climate warms, this is becoming a greater threat every year [TM113 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Mean Sea level in Seattle from 1900 to 2013

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Torricelli’s Trumpet & the Painter’s Paradox



Torricelli’s Trumpet


Evangelista Torricelli, a student of Galileo, is remembered as the inventor of the barometer. He was also a talented mathematician and he discovered the remarkable properties of a simple geometric surface, now often called Torricelli’s Trumpet. It is the surface generated when the curve {y=1/x} for {x\ge1} is rotated in 3-space about the x-axis.

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The Improbability Principle

Extremely improbable events are commonplace.

It’s an unusual day if nothing unusual happens”. This aphorism encapsulates a characteristic pattern of events called the Improbability Principle. Popularised by statistician Sir David Hand, emeritus professor at Imperial College London, it codifies the paradoxical idea that extremely improbable events happen frequently.  [TM112 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


From front cover of  The Improbability Principle

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Treize: A Card-Matching Puzzle

Probability theory is full of surprises. Possibly the best-known paradoxical results are the Monty Hall Problem and the two-envelope problem, but there are many others. Here we consider a simple problem using playing cards, first analysed by Pierre Raymond de Montmort (1678–1719).


Shuffle spades in one pile, hearts in another. Place both piles face downwards. Turn over a card from each pile. Do the two cards match?

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Numerical Coincidences

A numerical coincidence is an equality or near-equality between different mathematical quantities which has no known theoretical explanation. Sometimes such equalities remain mysterious and intriguing, and sometimes theory advances to the point where they can be explained and are no longer regarded as surprising.

Cosine of 355 radians is almost exactly equal to -1. Is this a coincidence? Read on!

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A Life-saving Whirligig

Modern science is big: the gravitational wave detector (LIGO) cost over a billion dollars, and the large hadron collider (LHC) in Geneva took decades to build and cost almost five billion euros. It may seem that scientific advances require enormous financial investment. So, it is refreshing to read in Nature Biomedical Engineering (Vol 1, Article 9) about the development of an ultra-cheap centrifuge that costs only a few cents to manufacture [TM111 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Whirligig, made from a plastic disk and handles and some string

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Brun’s Constant and the Pentium Bug

Euclid showed by a deliciously simple argument that the number of primes is infinite. In a completely different manner, Euler confirmed the same result. Euler’s conclusion followed from his demonstration that the sum of the reciprocals of the primes diverges:

\displaystyle \sum_{p\in\mathbb{P}} \frac{1}{p} = \infty

Obviously, this could not happen if there were only finitely many primes.

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Enigmas of Infinity

Children sometimes amuse themselves searching for the biggest number. After trying millions, billions and trillions, they realize that there is no end to the game: however big a number may be, we can always add 1 to produce a bigger number: the set of counting numbers is infinite. The concept of infinity has intrigued philosophers since antiquity, and it leads to many surprises and paradoxical results [TM110 or search for “thatsmaths” at]. 


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Topology in the Oval Office

Imagine a room – the Oval Office for example – that has three electrical appliances:

•  An air-conditioner ( a ) with an American plug socket ( A ),

•  A boiler ( b ) with a British plug socket ( B ),

•  A coffee-maker ( c ) with a Continental plug socket ( C ).

The problem is to connect each appliance to the correct socket, avoiding any crossings of the connecting wires.


Fig. 1: Positions of appliances and sockets for Problem 1.

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The Spire of Light


Towering over O’Connell Street in Dublin, the Spire of Light, at 120 metres, is about three times the height of its predecessor [TM109 or search for “thatsmaths” at]. The Spire was erected in 2003, filling the void left by the destruction in 1966 of Nelson’s Pillar. The needle-like structure is a slender cone of stainless steel, the diameter tapering from 3 metres at the base to 15 cm at its apex. The illumination from the top section shines like a beacon throughout the city.


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Metallic Means


The golden mean occurs repeatedly in the pentagram [image Wikimedia Commons]

Everyone knows about the golden mean. It must be one of the most written-about numbers, certainly in recreational mathematics. It is usually denoted by {\phi} and is the positive root of the quadratic equation

\displaystyle x^2 - x - 1 = 0 \ \ \ \ \ (1)

with the value

{\phi = (1+\sqrt{5})/2 \approx 1.618}.

There is no doubt that {\phi} is significant in many biological contexts and has also been an inspiration for artists. Called the Divine Proportion, it  was described in a book of that name by Luca Pacioli, a contemporary and friend of Leonardo da Vinci.

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Voronoi Diagrams: Simple but Powerful

We frequently need to find the nearest hospital, surgery or supermarket. A map divided into cells, each cell covering the region closest to a particular centre, can assist us in our quest. Such a map is called a Voronoi diagram, named for Georgy Voronoi, a mathematician born in Ukraine in 1868. He is remembered today mostly for his diagram, also known as a Voronoi tessellation, decomposition, or partition. [TM108 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Voronoi diagram drawn using the applet of Paul Chew (see Sources below).

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The Beginning of Modern Mathematics

The late fifteenth century was an exciting time in Europe. Western civilization woke with a start after the slumbers of the medieval age. Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press arrived in 1450 and changed everything. Universities in Bologna, Oxford, Salamanca, Paris and elsewhere began to flourish. Leonardo da Vinci was in his prime and Christopher Columbus was discovering a new world.


Illustrations by Leonardo da Vinci in Pacioli’s De Divina Proportione.

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The Library of Babel and the Information Explosion


The world has been transformed by the Internet. Google, founded just 20 years ago, is a major force in online information. The company name is a misspelt version of “googol”, the number one followed by one hundred zeros. This name echoes the vast quantities of information available through the search engines of the company [TM107 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Artist’s impression of the Library of Babel [Image from Here].

Long before the Internet, the renowned Argentine writer, poet, translator and literary critic Jorge Luis Borges (1889 – 1986) envisaged the Universe as a vast information bank in the form of a library. The Library of Babel was imagined to contain every book that ever was or ever could be written.

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On Knots and Links

The picture below is of a sculpture piece called Intuition, which stands in front of the Isaac Newton Institute (INI) in Cambridge. It is in the form of the Borromean Rings, a set of three interlocked rings, no two of which encircle each other.


“Intuition”. A sculpture piece in front of the Isaac Newton Institute [Photograph courtesy of S J Wilkinson].

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The Citizens’ Assembly: Why do 10 Counties have no Members?

Recently, the Irish Government established the Citizens’ Assembly, a body of 99 citizens that will consider a number of constitutional issues. The Assembly meets on Saturday to continue its deliberations on the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which concerns the ban on abortion. It will report to the Oireachtas (Parliament) on this issue in June [TM106 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


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Unsolved: the Square Peg Problem

The idiom “square peg in a round hole” expresses a mismatch or misfit, often referring to somebody in the wrong profession. It may also indicate a difficult or impossible task but, of course, it is quite simple to fit a square peg in a round hole, hammering it in until the corners are tight against the circular boundary of the hole. Since the peg may be oriented at any angle, there are an infinite number of ways to fit a square within a circle. In contract, for a boomerang-shaped hole, there is just one way to draw a square with its vertices on the curve.


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Twenty Heads in Succession: How Long will we Wait?

If three flips of a coin produce three heads, there is no surprise. But if 20 successive heads show up, you should be suspicious: the chances of this are less than one in a a million, so it is more likely than not that the coin is unbalanced.


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The Edward Worth Library: a Treasure Trove of Maths

Infinite Riches in a Little Room.  Christopher Marlowe.

The Edward Worth Library may be unknown to many readers. Housed in Dr Steevens’ Hospital, Dublin, now an administrative centre for the Health Service Executive, the library was collected by hospital Trustee Edward Worth, and bequeathed to the hospital after his death in 1733. The original book shelves and cases remain as they were in the 1730s. The collection is catalogued online. [TM105 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


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Raphael Bombelli’s Psychedelic Leap

The story of how Italian Renaissance mathematicians solved cubic equations has elements of skullduggery and intrigue. The method originally found by Scipione del Ferro and independently by Tartaglia, was published by Girolamo Cardano in 1545 in his book Ars Magna. The method, often called Cardano’s method, gives the solution of a depressed cubic equation t3 + p t + q = 0. The general cubic equation can be reduced to this form by a simple linear transformation of the dependent variable. The solution is given by


Cardano assumed that the discriminant Δ = ( q / 2 )2 + ( p / 3 )3, the quantity appearing under the square-root sign, was positive.

Raphael Bombelli made the psychedelic leap that Cardano could not make. He realised that Cardano’s formula would still give a solution when the discriminant was negative, provided that the square roots of negative quantities were manipulated in the correct manner. He was thus the first to properly handle complex numbers and apply them with effect.

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The Shaky Foundations of Mathematics

The claim is often made that mathematical results are immutable. Once proven, they remain forever valid. But things are not so simple. There are problems at the very core of mathematics that cast a shadow of uncertainty. We can never be absolutely sure that the foundations of our subject are rock-solid [TM104 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Left: Plato and Aristotle. Centre: Pythagoras. Right: Euclid [Raphael, The School of Athens]

The ancient Greeks put geometry on a firm footing. Euclid set down a list of axioms, or basic intuitive assumptions. Upon these, the entire edifice of Euclidean geometry is constructed. This axiomatic approach has been the model for mathematics ever since.

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Taylor Expansions from India


NPG 1920; Brook Taylor probably by Louis Goupy

FIg. 1: Brook Taylor (1685-1731). Image from NPG.

The English mathematician Brook Taylor (1685-1731) introduced the calculus of finite differences in his Methodus Incrementorum Directa et Inversa, published in 1715. This work contained the famous formula known today as Taylor’s formula. In 1772, Lagrange described it as “the main foundation of differential calculus” (Wikipedia: Brook Taylor). Taylor also wrote a treatise on linear perspective (see Fig. 1).

It is noteworthy that the series for {\sin x}, {\cos x} and {\arctan x} were known to mathematicians in India about 400 years before Taylor’s time.
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Marvellous Merchiston’s Logarithms

Log tables, invaluable in science, industry and commerce for 350 years, have been consigned to the scrap heap. But logarithms remain at the core of science, as a wide range of physical phenomena follow logarithmic laws  [TM103 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Android app RealCalc with natural and common log buttons indicated.

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Which is larger, e^pi or pi^e?

Which is greater, {x^y} or {y^x}? Of course, it depends on the values of x and y. We might consider a particular case: Is {e^\pi > \pi^e} or {\pi^e > e^\pi}?


Contour plot of x^y – y^x, positive in the yellow regions, negative in the blue ones.

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A New Window on the World

The motto of the Pythagoreans was “All is Number” and Pythagoras may have been the first person to imagine that the workings of the world might be understood in mathematical terms. This idea has now brought us to the point where, at a fundamental level, mathematics is the primary means of describing the physical world. Galileo put it this way: the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics [TM102, or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Visualization of gravitational waves. Image credit MPI/Gravitational Physics/ITP Frankfurt/ZI Berlin.

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That’s Maths Book Published

A book of mathematical articles, That’s Maths, has just been published. The collection of 100 articles includes pieces that have appeared in The Irish Times over the past few years, blog posts from this website and a number of articles that have not appeared before.


The book has been published by Gill Books and copies are available through all good booksellers in Ireland, and from major online booksellers. An E-Book is also available online.

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Thank Heaven for Turbulence

The chaotic flow of water cascading down a mountainside is known as turbulence. It is complex, irregular and unpredictable, but we should count our blessings that it exists. Without turbulence, we would gasp for breath, struggling to absorb oxygen or be asphyxiated by the noxious fumes belching from motorcars, since pollutants would not be dispersed through the atmosphere [TM101, or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Turbulent flow behind a cylindrical obstacle [image from “An Album of Fluid Motion”, Milton Van Dyke, 1982].

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