Is space continuous or discrete? Is it smooth, without gaps or discontinuities, or granular with a limit on how small a distance can be? What about time? Can time be repeatedly divided into smaller periods without any limit, or is there a shortest interval of time? We don’t know the answers. There is much we do not know about physical reality: is the universe finite or infinite? Are space and time arbitrarily divisible? Does our number system represent physical space and time? [TM215 or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com]. Continue reading ‘All Numbers Great and Small’

## Posts Tagged 'Physics'

### All Numbers Great and Small

Published July 15, 2021 Irish Times Leave a CommentTags: Number Theory, Physics

### Entropy and the Relentless Drift from Order to Chaos

Published April 15, 2021 Irish Times Leave a CommentTags: History, Physics

In a famous lecture in 1959, scientist and author C P Snow spoke of a gulf of comprehension between science and the humanities, which had become split into “two cultures”. Many people in each group had a lack of appreciation of the concerns of the other group, causing grave misunderstandings and making the world’s problems more difficult to solve. Snow compared ignorance of the Second Law of Thermodynamics to ignorance of Shakespeare [TM209 or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

Continue reading ‘Entropy and the Relentless Drift from Order to Chaos’

### A New Mathematical Discovery from Neutrino Physics

Published December 5, 2019 Irish Times Leave a CommentTags: Physics

Although abstract in character, mathematics has concrete origins: the greatest advances have been inspired by the natural world. Recently, a new result in linear algebra was discovered by three physicists trying to understand the behaviour of neutrinos [TM176 or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

Continue reading ‘A New Mathematical Discovery from Neutrino Physics’

### The curious behaviour of the Wilberforce Spring.

Published August 22, 2019 Occasional Leave a CommentTags: Mechanics, Physics

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.

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.’

### Stokes’s 200th Birthday Anniversary

Published August 8, 2019 Irish Times Leave a CommentTags: Fluid Dynamics, History, Physics

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.

For 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:

### Plateau’s Problem and Double Bubbles

Published January 22, 2015 Occasional Leave a CommentTags: Algorithms, Fluid Dynamics, Physics, Topology

Bubbles floating in the air strive to achieve a spherical form. Large bubbles may oscillate widely about this ideal whereas small bubbles quickly achieve their equilibrium shape. The sphere is optimal: it encloses maximum volume for any surface of a given area. This was stated by Archimedes, but he did not have the mathematical techniques required to prove it. It was only in the late 1800s that a formal proof of optimality was completed by Hermann Schwarz [Schwarz, 1884].

### El Niño likely this Winter

Published November 6, 2014 Irish Times Leave a CommentTags: Fluid Dynamics, Geophysics, modelling, Physics

This week’s *That’s Maths* column in *The Irish Times* (**TM056** or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com) is about El Niño and the ENSO phenomenon.

In 1997-98, abnormally high ocean temperatures off South America caused a collapse of the anchovy fisheries. Anchovies are a vital link in the food-chain and shortages can bring great hardship. Weather extremes associated with the event caused 2000 deaths and 33 million dollars in damage to property. One commentator wrote that the warming event had “more energy than a million Hiroshima bombs”.

### Light Weight (*)

Published October 30, 2014 Occasional Leave a CommentTags: Applied Maths, Astronomy, Mechanics, Physics

Does light have weight? Newton thought that light was influenced by gravity and, using his laws of motion, we can calculate how gravity bends a light beam. The effect is observable during a total eclipse of the sun: photographs of the sky are compared with the same region when the sun is elsewhere and a radial displacement of the star images is found. But the amount predicted by Newton’s laws is only half the observed value.

### How Big was the Bomb?

Published September 18, 2014 Irish Times 2 CommentsTags: Applied Maths, Fluid Dynamics, Physics, Wave Motion

By a brilliant application of dimensional analysis, G.I.Taylor estimated the explosive energy of the first atomic blast, the Trinity Test (see this week’s *That’s Maths* column in *The Irish Times, *TM053, or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com).

### “Come See the Spinning Globe”

Published August 7, 2014 Irish Times Leave a CommentTags: Mechanics, Physics

*That’s Maths* in *The Irish Times* this week (TM050, or Search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com) is about how a simple pendulum can demonstrate the rotation of the Earth.

### Rollercoaster Loops

Published April 10, 2014 Occasional 1 CommentTags: Applied Maths, Mechanics, Physics

We all know the feeling when a car takes a corner too fast and we are thrown outward by the centrifugal force. This effect is deliberately exploited, and accentuated, in designing rollercoasters: rapid twists and turns, surges and plunges thrill the willing riders.

Many modern rollercoasters have vertical loops that take the trains through 360 degree turns with the riders upside-down at the apex. These loops are never circular, for reasons we will explain.

Continue reading ‘Rollercoaster Loops’

### White Holes in the Kitchen Sink

Published January 9, 2014 Occasional Leave a CommentTags: Applied Maths, Fluid Dynamics, Mechanics, Physics, Wave Motion

A tidal bore is a wall of water about a metre high travelling rapidly upstream as the tide floods in. It occurs where the tidal range is large and the estuary is funnel-shaped (see previous post on this blog). The nearest river to Ireland where bores can be regularly seen is the Severn, where favourable conditions for these hydraulic jumps occur a few times each year.

But you do not have to leave home to observe hydraulic jumps. Continue reading ‘White Holes in the Kitchen Sink’

### New Estimate of the Speed of Light

Published September 12, 2013 Occasional Leave a CommentTags: Mechanics, Physics, Recreational Maths

A team of German scientists have recently discovered a new method of measuring the speed of light using Einstein’s famous equation

*E* = *m c*^{2}

### The Pitch Drop Experiment

Published March 21, 2013 Irish Times Leave a CommentTags: Fluid Dynamics, Physics

Later this year a big black blob of sticky pitch will plummet from a funnel and plop into a beaker. The story is recounted in this week’s *That’s Maths* ( TM017 ) column in the *Irish Times*.

In one of the longest-running physics experiments, the slow-flowing pitch, under a bell-jar in the University of Queensland in Brisbane, will ultimately lose its battle with gravity …

### Packing & Stacking

Published September 6, 2012 Irish Times Leave a CommentTags: Algorithms, Physics

**In That’s Maths this week (TM004), we look at the problem of packing goods of fixed size and shape in the most efficient way. Packing problems, concerned with storing objects as densely as possible in a container, have a long history, and have broad applications in engineering and industry. **

**Johannes Kepler conjectured that the standard method used by grocers to pile oranges and gunners to stack cannon balls is the most efficient, but this conjecture was proved only recently by Thomas Hales. The mathematics involved in packing problems includes computational techniques, differential geometry and optimization algorithms. **

**The Foams and Complex Systems Group in Trinity College Dublin have recently discovered some new dense packings of spheres in cylindrical columns. An International Workshop on Packing Problems took place in TCD on 2-5 Sept. 2012. For more information, look here.**

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