Another Reason Why It’s Got To Be 2


To circle back around that inscribed circle problem, about what the radius of the circle that just fits inside a right triangle with sides of length 5, 12, and 13: I’d had an approach for solving it different from HowardAt58′s geometric answer. This isn’t to imply that his answer’s wrong, I should point out: problems can often be solved by several different yet equally valid approaches. (It might almost be the definition of cutting-edge research if it’s a problem there’s only one approach for.)

A triangle with sides a, b, and c, with an inscribed circle, and three radial lines, one reaching to each side.

Figure 1. A triangle (meant to be a right triangle) with an inscribed circle of radius r. Three radial lines, perpendicular to the bases they touch, are included.

So here’s another geometry-based approach to finding what the radius of the circle that just fits inside the triangle has to be. We started off with the right triangle, and sides a and b and c; and there’s a circle inscribed in it. This is the biggest circle that’ll fit within the triangle. The circle has some radius, and we’ll just be a little daring and original and use the symbol “r” to stand for that radius. We can draw a line from the center of the circle to the point where the circle touches each of the legs, and that line is going to be of length r, because that’s the way circles work. My drawing, Figure 1, looks a little bit off because I was sketching this out on my iPad and being more exact about all this was just so, so much work.

The next step is to add three more lines to the figure, and this is going to make it easier to see what we want. What we’re adding are liens that go from the center of the circle to each of the corners of the original triangle. This divides the original triangle into three smaller ones, which I’ve lightly colored in as amber (on the upper left), green (on the upper right), and blue (on the bottom). The coloring is just to highlight the new triangles. I know the figure is looking even sketchier; take it up with how there’s no good mathematics-diagram sketching programs for a first-generation iPad, okay?

A triangle with sides a, b, and c, and an inscribed circle. From the center of the circle are lines going to the vertices of the triangle, dividing the circle into three smaller triangles, with bases of lengths, a, b, and c respectively and all with the same height, r, the radius of the inscribed circle.

Figure 2. A triangle (meant to be a right triangle) with an inscribed circle of radius r. The triangle is divided into three smaller triangles meeting at the center of the inscribed circle.

If we can accept my drawings for what they are already, then, there’s the question of why I did all this subdividing, anyway? The good answer is: looking at this Figure 2, do you see what the areas of the amber, green, and blue triangles have to be? Well, the area of a triangle generally is half its base times its height. A base is the line connecting two of the vertices, and the height is the perpendicular distane between the third vertex and that base. So, for the amber triangle, “a” is obviously a base, and … say, now, isn’t “r” the height?

It is: the radius line is perpendicular to the triangle leg. That’s how inscribed circles work. You can prove this, although you might convince yourself of it more quickly by taking the lid of, say, a mayonnaise jar and a couple of straws. Try laying down the straws so they just touch the jar at one point, and so they cross one another (forming a triangle), and try to form a triangle where the straw isn’t perpendicular to the lid’s radius. That’s not proof, but, it’ll probably leave you confident it could be proven.

So coming back to this: the area of the amber triangle has to be one-half times a times r. And the area of the green triangle has to be one-half times b times r. The area of the blue triangle, yeah, one-half times c times r. This is great except that we have no idea what r is.

But we do know this: the amber triangle, green triangle, and blue triangle together make up the original triangle we started with. So the areas of the amber, green, and blue triangles added together have to equal the area of the original triangle, and we know that. Well, we can calculate that anyway. Call that area “A”. So we have this equation:

\frac12 ar + \frac12 br + \frac12 cr = A

Where a, b, and c we know because those are the legs of the triangle, and A we may not have offhand but we can calculate it right away. The radius has to be twice the area of the original triangle divided by the sum of a, b, and c. If it strikes you that this is twice the area of the circle divided by its perimeter, yeah, that it is.

Incidentally, we haven’t actually used the fact that this is a right triangle. All the reasoning done would work if the original triangle were anything — equilateral, isosceles, scalene, whatever you like. If the triangle is a right angle, the area is easy to work out — it’s one-half times a times b — but Heron’s Formula tells us the area of a triangle knowing nothing but the lengths of its three legs. So we have this:

(Right triangle)

r = \frac{1}{a + b + c} \cdot \left(a\cdot b\right)

(Arbitrary triangle)

r = \frac{1}{a + b + c} \cdot 2 \sqrt{p\cdot(p - a)\cdot(p - b)\cdot(p - c)} \mbox{ where }  p = \frac12\left(a + b + c\right) .

Since we started out with a Pythagorean right triangle, with sides 5, 12, and 13, then: a = 5, b = 12, c = 13; a times b is 60; a plus b plus c is 30; and therefore the radius of the inscribed circle is 60 divided by 30, or, 2.

Reading the Comics, November 20, 2014: Ancient Events Edition


I’ve got enough mathematics comics for another roundup, and this time, the subjects give me reason to dip into ancient days: one to the most famous, among mathematicians and astronomers anyway, of Greek shipwrecks, and another to some point in the midst of winter nearly seven thousand years ago.

Eric the Circle (November 15) returns “Griffinetsabine” to the writer’s role and gives another “Shape Single’s Bar” scene. I’m amused by Eric appearing with his ex: x is practically the icon denoting “this is an algebraic expression”, while geometry … well, circles are good for denoting that, although I suspect that triangles or maybe parallelograms are the ways to denote “this is a geometric expression”. Maybe it’s the little symbol for a right angle.

Jim Meddick’s Monty (November 17) presents Monty trying to work out just how many days there are to Christmas. This is a problem fraught with difficulties, starting with the obvious: does “today” count as a shopping day until Christmas? That is, if it were the 24th, would you say there are zero or one shopping days left? Also, is there even a difference between a “shopping day” and a “day” anymore now that nobody shops downtown so it’s only the stores nobody cares about that close on Sundays? Sort all that out and there’s the perpetual problem in working out intervals between dates on the Gregorian calendar, which is that you have to be daft to try working out intervals between dates on the Gregorian calendar. The only worse thing is trying to work out the intervals between Easters on it. My own habit for this kind of problem is to use the United States Navy’s Julian Date conversion page. The Julian date is a straight serial number, counting the number of days that have elapsed since noon Universal Time at what’s called the 1st of January, 4713 BCE, on the proleptic Julian calendar (“proleptic” because nobody around at the time was using, or even imagined, the calendar, but we can project back to what date that would have been), a year picked because it’s the start of several astronomical cycles, and it’s way before any specific recordable dates in human history, so any day you might have to particularly deal with has a positive number. Of course, to do this, we’re transforming the problem of “counting the number of days between two dates” to “counting the number of days between a date and January 1, 4713 BCE, twice”, but the advantage of that is, the United States Navy (and other people) have worked out how to do that and we can use their work.

Bill Hind’s kids-sports comic Cleats (November 19, rerun) presents Michael offering basketball advice that verges into logic and set theory problems: making the ball not go to a place outside the net is equivalent to making the ball go inside the net (if we decide that the edge of the net counts as either inside or outside the net, at least), and depending on the problem we want to solve, it might be more convenient to think about putting the ball into the net, or not putting the ball outside the net. We see this, in logic, in a set of relations called De Morgan’s Laws (named for Augustus De Morgan, who put these ideas in modern mathematical form), which describe what kinds of descriptions — “something is outside both sets A and B at one” or “something is not inside set A or set B”, or so on — represent the same relationship between the thing and the sets.

Tom Thaves’s Frank and Ernest (November 19) is set in the classic caveman era, with prehistoric Frank and Ernest and someone else discovering mathematics and working out whether a negative number times a negative number might be positive. It’s not obvious right away that they should, as you realize when you try teaching someone the multiplication rules including negative numbers, and it’s worth pointing out, a negative times a negative equals a positive because that’s the way we, the users of mathematics, have chosen to define negative numbers and multiplication. We could, in principle, have decided that a negative times a negative should give us a negative number. This would be a different “multiplication” (or a different “negative”) than we use, but as long as we had logically self-consistent rules we could do that. We don’t, because it turns out negative-times-negative-is-positive is convenient for problems we like to do. Mathematics may be universal — something following the same rules we do has to get the same results we do — but it’s also something of a construct, and the multiplication of negative numbers is a signal of that.

Goofy sees the message 'buried treasure in back yard' in his alphabet soup; what are the odds of that?

The Mickey Mouse comic rerun the 20th of November, 2014.

Mickey Mouse (November 20, rerun) — I don’t know who wrote or draw this, but Walt Disney’s name was plastered onto it — sees messages appearing in alphabet soup. In one sense, such messages are inevitable: jumble and swirl letters around and eventually, surely, any message there are enough letters for will appear. This is very similar to the problem of infinite monkeys at typewriters, although with the special constraint that if, say, the bowl has only two letters “L”, it’s impossible to get the word “parallel”, unless one of the I’s is doing an impersonation. Here, Goofy has the message “buried treasure in back yard” appear in his soup; assuming those are all the letters in his soup then there’s something like 44,881,973,505,008,615,424 different arrangements of letters that could come up. There are several legitimate messages you could make out of that (“treasure buried in back yard”, “in back yard buried treasure”), not to mention shorter messages that don’t use all those letters (“run back”), but I think it’s safe to say the number of possible sentences that make sense are pretty few and it’s remarkable to get something like that. Maybe the cook was trying to tell Goofy something after all.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons (November 20) is a cute gag about the dangers of having too many axes on your plot.

Gary Delainey and Gerry Rasmussen’s Betty (November 20) mentions the Antikythera Mechanism, one of the most famous analog computers out there, and that’s close enough to pure mathematics for me to feel comfortable including it here. The machine was found in April 1900, in ancient shipwreck, and at first seemed to be just a strange lump of bronze and wood. By 1902 the archeologist Valerios Stais noticed a gear in the mechanism, but since it was believed the wreck far, far predated any gear mechanisms, the machine languished in that strange obscurity that a thing which can’t be explained sometimes suffers. The mechanism appears to be designed to be an astronomical computer, tracking the positions of the Sun and the Moon — tracking the actual moon rather than an approximate mean lunar motion — the rising and etting of some constellations, solar eclipses, several astronomical cycles, and even the Olympic Games. It’s an astounding mechanism, it’s mysterious: who made it? How? Are there others? What happened to them? How was the mechanical engineering needed for this developed, and what other projects did the people who created this also do? Any answers to these questions, if we ever know them, seem sure to be at least as amazing as the questions are.

Radius of the inscribed circle of a right angled triangle


Joseph Nebus:

For that “About An Inscribed Circle” problem I posted the other day: HowardAt58 worked out one way of proving what the radius of the circle that just fits within the 5-12-13 right triangle has to be, and in a pretty neat geometric fashion. Worth the read. I recommend following his steps along by hand, writing each out, but that reflects that I’m much more likely to follow mathematical reasoning if I write it out, even if I don’t do something past what the original author does. HowardAt58 also includes a little conjecture, inspired by playing around with a couple of Pythagorean triangles (playing around with a couple of examples is a great way to find conjectures), which I at least believe to be true.

Interestingly, his proof isn’t the same geometric proof that I’d realized we could do, so, I’m thinking to include that as another follow-up around here when I can make a couple diagrams that explain it.

Originally posted on Saving school math:

incircle radius with text

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Reading The Comics, November 14, 2014: Rectangular States Edition


I have no idea why Comic Strip Master Command decided this week should see everybody do some mathematics-themed comic strips, but, so they did, and here’s my collection of the, I estimate, six hundred comic strips that touched on something recently. Good luck reading it all.

Samsons Dark Side of the Horse (November 10) is another entry on the theme of not answering the word problem.

Scott Adams’s Dilbert Classics (November 10) started a sequence in which Dilbert gets told the big boss was a geometry major, so, what can he say about rectangles? Further rumors indicate he’s more a geography fan, shifting Dilbert’s topic to the “many” rectangular states of the United States. Of course, there’s only two literally rectangular states, but — and Mark Stein’s How The States Got Their Shapes contains a lot of good explanations of this — many of the states are approximately rectangular. After all, when many of the state boundaries were laid out, the federal government had only vague if any idea what the landscapes looked like in detail, and there weren’t many existing indigenous boundaries the white governments cared about. So setting a proposed territory’s bounds to be within particular lines of latitude and longitude, with some modification for rivers or shorelines or mountain ranges known to exist, is easy, and can be done with rather little of the ambiguity or contradictory nonsense that plagued the eastern states (where, say, a colony’s boundary might be defined as where a river intersects a line of latitude that in fact it never touches). And while perfect rectangularity may be achieved only by Colorado and Wyoming, quite a few states — the Dakotas, Washington, Oregon, Missisippi, Alabama, Iowa — are rectangular enough.

Mikael Wulff and Anders Morgenthaler’s WuMo (November 10) shows that their interest in pi isn’t just a casual thing. They think about what those neglected and non-famous numbers get up to.

Sherman does poorly with mathematic problems that look more like short stories. And don't have pictures.

Jim Toomey’s Sherman’s Lagoon for the 11th of November, 2014. He’s got a point about pictures helping with this kind of problem.

Jim Toomey’s Sherman’s Lagoon starts a “struggling with mathematics homework” story on the 11th, with Sherman himself stumped by a problem that “looks more like a short story” than a math problem. By the 14th Megan points out that it’s a problem that really doesn’t make sense when applied to sharks. Such is the natural hazard in writing a perfectly good word problem without considering the audience.

Homework: Megan points out that a problem about walking in the rain with umbrellas doesn't make much sense for sharks or other underwater creatures.

Jim Toomey’s Sherman’s Lagoon for the 14th of November, 2014.

Mike Peters’s Mother Goose and Grimm (November 12) takes one of its (frequent) breaks from the title characters for a panel-strip-style gag about Roman numerals.

A Roman medic calls for an IV; the nurse asks if he means this numeral 4.

Mike Peters’s Mother Goose and Grimm for the 12th of November, 2014.

Darrin Bell’s Candorville (November 12) starts talking about Zeno’s paradox — not the first time this month that a comic strip’s gotten to the apparent problem of covering any distance when distance is infinitely divisible. On November 13th it’s extended to covering stretches of time, which has exactly the same problem. Now it’s worth reminding people, because a stunning number of them don’t seem to understand this, that Zeno was not suggesting that there’s no such thing as motion (or that he couldn’t imagine an infinite convergent sequence; it’s easy to think of a geometric construction that would satisfy any ancient geometer); he was pointing out that there’s things that don’t make perfect sense about it. Either distance (and time) are infinitely divisible into indistinguishable units, or they are not; and either way has implications that seem contrary to the way motion works. Perhaps they can be rationalized; perhaps they can’t; but when you can find a question that’s easy to pose and hard to answer, you’re probably looking at something really worth thinking hard about.

Bill Amend’s FoxTrot Classics (November 12, a rerun) puns on the various meanings of “irrational”. A fun little fact you might want to try proving sometime, though I wouldn’t fault you if you only tried it out for a couple specific numbers and decided the general case too much to do: any whole number — like 2, 3, 4, or so on — has a square root that’s either another whole number, or else has a square root that’s irrational. There’s not a case where, say, the square root is exactly 45.144 or something like that, though it might be close.

Susan tries to figure out either what year she was in Grade Ten or what her age was back then. She admits she was never any good at math, although the real trouble might be she hasn't got a clear idea what she wants to calculate.

Sandra Bell-Lundy’s Between Friends for the 13th of November, 2014.

Sandra Bell-Lundy’sBetween Friends (November 13) shows one of those cases where mental arithmetic really is useful, as Susan tries to work out — actually, staring at it, I’m not precisely sure what she is trying to work out. Her and her coffee partner’s ages in Grade Ten, probably, or else just when Grade Ten was. That’s most likely her real problem: if you don’t know what you’re looking for it’s very difficult to find it. Don’t start calculating before you know what you’re trying to work out.

If I wanted to work out what year was 35 years ago I’d probably just use a hack: 35 years before 2014 is one year before “35 years before 2015”, which is a much easier problem to do. 35 years before 2015 is also 20 years before 2000, which is 1980, so subtract one and you get 1979. (Alternatively, I might remember it was 35 years ago that the Buggles’ “Video Killed The Radio Star” first appeared, which I admit is not a method that would work for everyone, or for all years.) If I wanted to work out my (and my partner’s) age in Grade Ten … well, I’d use a slightly different hack: I remember very well that I was ten years old in Grade Five (seriously, the fact that twice my grade was my age overwhelmed my thinking on my tenth birthday, which is probably why I had to stay in mathematics), so, add five to that and I’d be 15 in Grade Ten.

Bill Whitehead’s Free Range (November 13) brings up one of the most-quoted equations in the world in order to show off how kids will insult each other, which is fair enough.

Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy (November 13), this one a rerun from a couple years ago because that’s how his strip works on Gocomics, goes to one of its regular bits of the kid Ruthie teaching anyone she can get in range, and while there’s a bit more to arithmetic than just adding two numbers to get a bigger number, she is showing off an understanding of a useful sanity check: if you add together two (positive) numbers, you have to get a result that’s bigger than either of the ones you started with. As for the 14th, and counting higher, well, there’s not much she could do about that.

Steve McGarry’s Badlands (November 14) talks about the kind of problem people wish to have: how to win a lottery where nobody else picks the same numbers, so that the prize goes undivided? The answer, of course, is to have a set of numbers that nobody else picked, but is there any way to guarantee that? And this gets into the curious psychology of random numbers: there is absolutely no reason that 1-2-3-4-5-6, or for that matter 7-8-9-10-11-12, would not come up just as often as, say, 11-37-39-51-52-55, but the latter set looks more random. But we see some strings of numbers as obviously a pattern, while others we don’t see, and we tend to confuse “we don’t know the pattern” with “there is no pattern”. I have heard the lore that actually a disproportionate number of people pick such obvious patterns like 1-2-3-4-5-6, or numbers that form neat pictures on a lottery card, no doubt cackling at how much more clever they are than the average person, and guaranteeing that if such a string ever does come out there’ll a large number of very surprised lottery winners. All silliness, really; the thing to do, obviously, is buy two tickets with the exact same set of numbers, so that if you do win, you get twice the share of anyone else, unless they’ve figured out the same trick.

About An Inscribed Circle


I’m not precisely sure how to embed this, so, let me just point over to the Five Triangles blog (on blogspot) where there’s a neat little puzzle. It starts with Pythagorean triplets, the sets of numbers (a, b, c) so that a2 plus b2 equals c2. Pretty much anyone who knows the term “Pythagorean triplet” knows the set (3, 4, 5), and knows the set (5, 12, 13), and after that knows that there’s more if you really have to dig them up but who can be bothered?

Anyway, the problem at Five Triangle’s “Inscribed Circle” here draws that second Pythagorean triplet triangle, the one with sides of length 5, 12, and 13, and inscribes a circle within it. The problem: find the radius of the circle?

I’m embarrassed to say how much time I took to work it out, but that’s because I was looking for purely geometric approaches, when casting it over to algebra turns this into a pretty quick problem. I do feel like there should be an obvious geometric solution, though, and I’m sure I’ll wake in the middle of the night feeling like an idiot for not having that before I talked about this.

Reading The Comics, November 9, 2014: Finally, A Picture Edition


I knew if I kept going long enough some cartoonist not on Gocomics.com would have to mention mathematics. That finally happened with one from Comics Kingdom, and then one from the slightly freak case of Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy. Detorie’s strip is on Gocomics.com, but a rerun from several years ago. He has a different one that runs on the normal daily pages. This is for sound economic reasons: actual newspapers pay much better than the online groupings of them (considering how cheap Comics Kingdom and Gocomics are for subscribers I’m not surprised) so he doesn’t want his current strips run on Gocomics.com. As for why his current strips do appear on, for example, the fairly good online comics page of AZcentral.com, that’s a good question, and one that deserves a full answer.

The psychiatric patient is looking for something in the middle of curved space-time.

Vic Lee’s Pardon My Planet for the 6th of November, 2014.

Vic Lee’s Pardon My Planet (November 9), which broke the streak of Comics Kingdom not making it into these pages, builds around a quote from Einstein I never heard of before but which sounds like the sort of vaguely inspirational message that naturally attaches to famous names. The patient talks about the difficulty of finding something in “the middle of four-dimensional curved space-time”, although properly speaking it could be tricky finding anything within a bounded space, whether it’s curved or not. The generic mathematics problem you’d build from this would be to have some function whose maximum in a region you want to find (if you want the minimum, just multiply your function by minus one and then find the maximum of that), and there’s multiple ways to do that. One obvious way is the mathematical equivalent of getting to the top of a hill by starting from wherever you are and walking the steepest way uphill. Another way is to just amble around, picking your next direction at random, always taking directions that get you higher and usually but not always refusing directions that bring you lower. You can probably see some of the obvious problems with either approach, and this is why finding the spot you want can be harder than it sounds, even if it’s easy to get started looking.

Reuben Bolling’s Super Fun-Pak Comix (November 6), which is technically a rerun since the Super Fun-Pak Comix have been a longrunning feature in his Tom The Dancing Bug pages, is primarily a joke about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, that there is a limit to what information one can know about the universe. This limit can be understood mathematically, though. The wave formulation of quantum mechanics describes everything there is to know about a system in terms of a function, called the state function and normally designated Ψ, the value of which can vary with location and time. Determining the location or the momentum or anything about the system is done by a process called “applying an operator to the state function”. An operator is a function that turns one function into another, which sounds like pretty sophisticated stuff until you learn that, like, “multiply this function by minus one” counts.

In quantum mechanics anything that can be observed has its own operator, normally a bit tricker than just “multiply this function by minus one” (although some are not very much harder!), and applying that operator to the state function is the mathematical representation of making that observation. If you want to observe two distinct things, such as location and momentum, that’s a matter of applying the operator for the first thing to your state function, and then taking the result of that and applying the operator for the second thing to it. And here’s where it gets really interesting: it doesn’t have to, but it can depend what order you do this in, so that you get different results applying the first operator and then the second from what you get applying the second operator and then the first. The operators for location and momentum are such a pair, and the result is that we can’t know to arbitrary precision both at once. But there are pairs of operators for which it doesn’t make a difference. You could, for example, know both the momentum and the electrical charge of Scott Baio simultaneously to as great a precision as your Scott-Baio-momentum-and-electrical-charge-determination needs are, and the mathematics will back you up on that.

Ruben Bolling’s Tom The Dancing Bug (November 6), meanwhile, was a rerun from a few years back when it looked like the Large Hadron Collider might never get to working and the glitches started seeming absurd, as if an enormous project involving thousands of people and millions of parts could ever suffer annoying setbacks because not everything was perfectly right the first time around. There was an amusing notion going around, illustrated by Bolling nicely enough, that perhaps the results of the Large Hadron Collider would be so disastrous somehow that the universe would in a fit of teleological outrage prevent its successful completion. It’s still a funny idea, and a good one for science fiction stories: Isaac Asimov used the idea in a short story dubbed “Thiotimoline and the Space Age”, published 1959, which resulted in the attempts to manipulate a compound which dissolves before it adds water might have accidentally sent hurricanes Carol, Edna, and Diane into New England in 1954 and 1955.

Chip Sansom’s The Born Loser (November 7) gives me a bit of a writing break by just being a pun strip that you can save for next March 14.

Dan Thompson’s Brevity (November 7), out of reruns, is another pun strip, though with giant monsters.

Francesco Marciuliano’s Medium Large (November 7) is about two of the fads of the early 80s, those of turning everything into a breakfast cereal somehow and that of playing with Rubik’s Cubes. Rubik’s Cubes have long been loved by a certain streak of mathematicians because they are a nice tangible representation of group theory — the study of things that can do things that look like addition without necessarily being numbers — that’s more interesting than just picking up a square and rotating it one, two, three, or four quarter-turns. I still think it’s easier to just peel the stickers off (and yet, the die-hard Rubik’s Cube Popularizer can point out there’s good questions about polarity you can represent by working out the rules of how to peel off only some stickers and put them back on without being detected).

Ruthie questions whether she'd be friends with people taking carrot sticks from her plate, or whether anyone would take them in the first place. Word problems can be tricky things.

Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy for the 9th of November, 2014.

Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy (November 9), and I’m sorry, readers about a month in the future from now, because that link’s almost certainly expired, is another entry in the subject of word problems resisted because the thing used to make the problem seem less abstract has connotations that the student doesn’t like.

Fred Wagner’s Animal Crackers (November 9) is your rare comic that could be used to teach positional notation, although when you actually pay attention you realize it doesn’t actually require that.

Mac and Bill King’s Magic In A Minute (November 9) shows off a mathematically-based slight-of-hand trick, describing a way to make it look like you’re reading your partner-monkey’s mind. This is probably a nice prealgebra problem to work out just why it works. You could also consider this a toe-step into the problem of encoding messages, finding a way to send information about something in a way that the original information can be recovered, although obviously this particular method isn’t terribly secure for more than a quick bit of stage magic.

Some Stuff About Edmond Halley


When I saw the Maths History tweet about Edmond Halley’s birthday I wondered if the November 8th date given was the relevant one since, after all, in 1656 England was still on the Julian calendar. The MacTutor biography of him makes clear that the 8th of November is his Gregorian-date birthday, and he was born on the 29th of October by the calendar his parents were using, although it’s apparently not clear he was actually born in 1656. Halley claimed it was 1656, at least, and he probably heard from people who knew.

Halley is famous for working out the orbit of the comet that’s gotten his name attached, and correctly so: working out the orbits of comets was one of the first great accomplishments of Newtonian mechanics, and Halley’s work took into account how Jupiter’s gravitation distorts the orbit of a comet. It’s great work. And he’s also famous within mathematical and physics circles because it’s fair to wonder whether, without his nagging and his financial support, Isaac Newton would have published his Principia Mathematica. Astronomers note him as the first Western European astronomer to set up shop in the southern hemisphere and produce a map of that part of the sky, as well.

That hardly exhausts what’s interesting about him: for example, he joined in the late-17th-century fad for diving bell companies (for a while, you couldn’t lose money excavating wrecked ships, until finally everyone did) and even explored the bed of the English Channel in a diving bell of his own design. This is to me the most terrifying thing he did, and that’s even with my awareness he led two scientific sailing expeditions, one of which was cut short after among other things irreconcilable differences with the ship’s other commissioned officer, Lieutenant Edward Harrison (who blamed Halley for the oblivion which Harrison’s book on longitude received), and the second of which included a pause in Recife when Halley was put under guard by a man claiming to be the English consul, and who was actually an agent of the Royal African Company considering whether to seize Halley’s ship[1] as a prize.

After his second expedition Halley published charts showing the magnetic declination, how far a magnetic compass’s “north” is from true north, and introduced one of those great conceptual breakthroughs that charts can give us: he connected the lines showing the points where the declination was equal. These isolines are a magnificent way to diagram three-dimensional information on a two-dimensional chart; we see them in topographic maps, as the contour curves showing where a hill rises or a valley sinks. We see them in weather maps, the lines where the temperature is 70 or 80 Fahrenheit (or 20 or 25 Celsius, if you rather) or where the wind speed is some sufficiently alarming figure. We see them (in three-dimensional form) in medical imaging, where a region of constant density gets the same color and this is used to understand a complicated shape within. Not all these uses derive directly from Halley; as with all really good, widely usable concepts many people discovered the concept, but Halley was among the first to put them to obvious, prominent use.

And something that might serve as comfort to anyone who’s taking a birthday hard: at age 65, Halley began a study of the moon’s saros, the cycle patterns of different relative positions the Sun and Moon have in the sky which describe when eclipses happen. One cycle takes a bit over eighteen years to complete. Halley lived long enough to complete this work.

[1] The Paramore, which — I note because this is just the kind of world it was back then — was constructed in 1694 at the Royal Dockyard at Deptford on the River Thames for a scientific circumnavigation of the globe, and first sailed in April 1698 under Tsar Peter the Great, then busy travelling western Europe under ineffective cover to learn things which might modernize Russia. Halley had hoped to sail in 1696, but he was waylaid by his appointment to the Mint at Chester, courtesy of Newton.

Echoing “Fourier Echoes Euler”


The above tweet is from the Analysis Fact of The Day feed, which for the 5th had a neat little bit taken from Joseph Fourier’s The Analytic Theory Of Heat, published 1822. Fourier was trying to at least describe the way heat moves through objects, and along the way he developed thing called Fourier series and a field called Fourier Analysis. In this we treat functions — even ones we don’t yet know — as sinusoidal waves, overlapping and interfering with and reinforcing one another.

If we have infinitely many of these waves we can approximate … well, not every function, but surprisingly close to all the functions that might represent real-world affairs, and surprisingly near all the functions we’re interested in anyway. The advantage of representing functions as sums of sinusoidal waves is that sinusoidal waves are very easy to differentiate and integrate, and to add together those differentials and integrals, and that means we can turn problems that are extremely hard into problems that may be longer, but are made up of much easier parts. Since usually it’s better to do something that’s got many easy steps than it is to do something with a few hard ones, Fourier series and Fourier analysis are some of the things you get to know well as you become a mathematician.

The “Fourier Echoes Euler” page linked here shows simply one nice, sweet result that Fourier proved in that major work. It demonstrates what you get if, for absolutely any real number x, you add together \cos\left(x\right) - \frac12 \cos\left(2x\right) + \frac13 \cos\left(3x\right) - \frac14 \cos\left(4x\right) + \frac15 \cos\left(5x\right) - \cdots et cetera. There’s one step in it — “integration by parts” — that you’ll have to remember from freshman calculus, or maybe I’ll get around to explaining that someday, but I would expect most folks reading this far could follow this neat result.

Reading The Comics, November 4, 2014: Will Pictures Ever Reappear Edition


I had assumed that at some point the good folks at Comics Kingdom would let any of their cartoonists do a panel that’s got mathematical content relevant enough for me to chat about, but apparently that’s just not happening. So for a third time in a row here’s a set of Gocomics-only comic strips, with reasonably stable links and images I don’t feel the need to include. Enjoy, please.

Fred Wagner’s Animal Crackers (October 26) presents an old joke — counting the number of animals by counting the number of legs and dividing by four — although it’s only silly because it’s hard to imagine a case where it’s easier to count the legs on a bunch of animals than it is to count the animals themselves. But if it’s the case that every animal has exactly four legs, then, there’s what’s called a one-to-one relationship between the set of animals and the set of animal legs: if you have some number of animals you have exactly four times that number of animal legs, and if you have some number of animal legs you have exactly one-fourth that number of animals, and you can count whatever’s the more convenient for you and use that to get what you’re really interested in. Showing such a one-to-one relationship exists between two interesting things can often be a start to doing more interesting problems, especially if you can show that the relationship also preserves some interesting interactions; if you have two ways to work out a problem, you can do the easier one.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons (October 27) riffs on the place value for numbers written in the familiar Arabic style. As befitting a really great innovation, place value becomes invisible when you’re familiar with it; it takes a little sympathy and imagination to remember the alienness of the idea that a “2” means different things based on how many digits are to the right (or, if it’s a decimal, to the left) of it.

Anthony Blades’s charming Bewley (October 27) has one of the kids insisting that instinct alone is enough to do maths problems. The work comes out disastrously bad, of course, or there’d not be a comic strip. However, my understanding is that people do have some instinctive understanding even of problems that would seem to have little survival application. One test I’ve seen demonstrating this asks people to give, without thinking, their answer to whether a multiplication problem might be right or wrong. It’s pretty quick for most people to say that “7 times 9 equals 12” has to be wrong; to say that “7 times 9 equals 59” is wrong takes longer, and that seems to reflect an idea that 59 is, if not the right answer, at least pretty close to it. There’s an instinctive plausibility at work there and it’s amazing to think people should have that. Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for October 31 circles around this idea, with one person having little idea what 1,892,491,287 times 7,798,721,415 divided by 82,493,726,631 might be, but being pretty sure that “4” isn’t it.

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (October 30) also contains a mention of “cross products”, which are an interesting thing people learning vectors trip over. A cross product is defined for a pair of three-dimensional vectors, and the interesting thing is it’s a new vector that’s perpendicular to the two vectors multiplied together. The length of the cross product vector depends on the lengths of the two vectors multiplied together and the angle they make; the closer the two vectors multiplied together are, the smaller the cross product is, to the point that the cross product of two parallel vectors has length zero. The closer the two vectors multiplied together are to perpendicular the longer the cross product vector is.

More mysterious: if you swap the first vector and the second vector being cross-multiplied together, you get a cross product that’s the same size but pointing the opposite direction, pointing (say) down instead of up. Cross products have some areas where they’re particularly useful, especially in describing the movement of charged particles in magnetic fields.

(There’s something that looks a lot like the cross product which exists for seven-dimensional vectors, but I’ve never even heard of anyone who had a use for it, so, you don’t need to do anything about it.)

Eric the Circle (November 2), this one by “dDave”, presents the idea that that the points on a line might themselves be miniature Erics the Circle. What a line is made of is again one of those problems that straddles the lines between mathematics and philosophy. It seems to be one of the problems of infinity that Zeno’s Paradoxes outlined so perfectly thousands of years ago. To shorten it to the point it becomes misleading, is a line made up of things that have some width? If they’re infinitesimals, things with no width, then, how can an aggregate of things with no width come to have some width? But if they’re made up of things which have some width, how can there be infinitely many of them fitting into a finite space?

We can form good logical arguments about the convergence of infinite series — lining up, essentially, circles of ever-dwindling but ever-positive sizes so that the pile has a finite length — but that seems to suggest that space has to be made up of intervals of different widths, which seems silly; why couldn’t all the miniature circles be the same? In short, space is either infinitely divisible into identical things, or it is not, and neither one is completely satisfying.

Guy Gilchrist’s Nancy (November 2) uses math homework appearing in the clouds, although that’s surely because it’s easier to draw a division problem than it is to depict an assignment for social studies or English.

Todd Clark’s Lola (November 4) uses an insult-the-minor-characters variant of what seems to be the standard way of explaining fractions to kids, that of dividing a whole thing into smaller pieces and counting the number of smaller pieces. As physical interpretations of mathematical concepts goes I suppose that’s hard to beat.

My Math Blog Statistics, October 2014


So now let me go over the mathematics blog statistics for October. I’ll get to listing countries; people like that.

It was a good month in terms of getting people to read: total number of pages viewed was 625, up from 558, and this is the fourth-highest month on record. The number of unique visitors was up too, from 286 in September to 323 in October, and that’s the third-highest since WordPress started giving me those statistics. The views per visitor barely changed, going from 1.95 to 1.93, which I’m comfortable supposing is a statistical tie. I reached 18,507 total page views by the end of October, and maybe I’ll reach that nice round-ish 19,000 by the end of November.

The countries sending me the most visitors were the usual set: the United States with 393, the United Kingdom with 35, and Austria with 23. Curiously, Argentina sent me 20 readers, while Canada plummeted down to a mere nine. Did I say something wrong, up there? On the bright side my Indian readership has grown to nine, which is the kind of trend I like. Sending just a single reader this past month were Albania, Brazil, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Indonesia, Japan, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, Norway, Poland, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. Brazil, Estonia, Finland, the Netherlands, and Sweden were single-reader countries last month, and Finland and Sweden also the month before. I feel embarrassed by the poor growth in my Scandinavian readership, but at least it isn’t dwindling.

The most popular posts in October got a little bit away from the comics posts; the ones most often read were:

There weren’t any really great bits of search term poetry this month, but there were still some evocative queries that brought people to me, among them:

  • where did negative numbers come from
  • show me how to make a comic stip for rationalnumbers
  • desert island logarithm
  • herb jamaal math ludwig
  • in the figure shown below, Δabc and Δdec are right triangles. if de = 6, ab = 20, and be = 21, what is the area of Δdec?
  • origin is the gateway to your entire gaming universe.

That “origin is the gateway” thing has come up before. I stil don’t know what it means. I’m a little scared by it.