## From my Third A-to-Z: Osculating Circle

With the third A-to-Z choice for the letter O, I finally set ortho-ness down. I had thought the letter might become a reference for everything described as ortho-. It has to be acknowledged that two or three examples gets you the general idea of what’s got at when something is named ortho-, though.

Must admit, I haven’t that I remember ever solved a differential equation using osculating circles instead of, you know, polynomials or sine functions (Fourier series). But references I trust say that would be a way to go.

I’m happy to say it’s another request today. This one’s from HowardAt58, author of the Saving School Math blog. He’s given me some great inspiration in the past.

## Osculating Circle.

It’s right there in the name. Osculating. You know what that is from that one Daffy Duck cartoon where he cries out “Greetings, Gate, let’s osculate” while wearing a moustache. Daffy’s imitating somebody there, but goodness knows who. Someday the mystery drives the young you to a dictionary web site. Osculate means kiss. This doesn’t seem to explain the scene. Daffy was imitating Jerry Colonna. That meant something in 1943. You can find him on old-time radio recordings. I think he’s funny, in that 40s style.

Make the substitution. A kissing circle. Suppose it’s not some playground antic one level up from the Kissing Bandit that plagues recess yet one or two levels down what we imagine we’d do in high school. It suggests a circle that comes really close to something, that touches it a moment, and then goes off its own way.

But then touching. We know another word for that. It’s the root behind “tangent”. Tangent is a trigonometry term. But it appears in calculus too. The tangent line is a line that touches a curve at one specific point and is going in the same direction as the original curve is at that point. We like this because … well, we do. The tangent line is a good approximation of the original curve, at least at the tangent point and for some region local to that. The tangent touches the original curve, and maybe it does something else later on. What could kissing be?

The osculating circle is about approximating an interesting thing with a well-behaved thing. So are similar things with names like “osculating curve” or “osculating sphere”. We need that a lot. Interesting things are complicated. Well-behaved things are understood. We move from what we understand to what we would like to know, often, by an approximation. This is why we have tangent lines. This is why we build polynomials that approximate an interesting function. They share the original function’s value, and its derivative’s value. A polynomial approximation can share many derivatives. If the function is nice enough, and the polynomial big enough, it can be impossible to tell the difference between the polynomial and the original function.

The osculating circle, or sphere, isn’t so concerned with matching derivatives. I know, I’m as shocked as you are. Well, it matches the first and the second derivatives of the original curve. Anything past that, though, it matches only by luck. The osculating circle is instead about matching the curvature of the original curve. The curvature is what you think it would be: it’s how much a function curves. If you imagine looking closely at the original curve and an osculating circle they appear to be two arcs that come together. They must touch at one point. They might touch at others, but that’s incidental.

Osculating circles, and osculating spheres, sneak out of mathematics and into practical work. This is because we often want to work with things that are almost circles. The surface of the Earth, for example, is not a sphere. But it’s only a tiny bit off. It’s off in ways that you only notice if you are doing high-precision mapping. Or taking close measurements of things in the sky. Sometimes we do this. So we map the Earth locally as if it were a perfect sphere, with curvature exactly what its curvature is at our observation post.

Or we might be observing something moving in orbit. If the universe had only two things in it, and they were the correct two things, all orbits would be simple: they would be ellipses. They would have to be “point masses”, things that have mass without any volume. They never are. They’re always shapes. Spheres would be fine, but they’re never perfect spheres even. The slight difference between a perfect sphere and whatever the things really are affects the orbit. Or the other things in the universe tug on the orbiting things. Or the thing orbiting makes a course correction. All these things make little changes in the orbiting thing’s orbit. The actual orbit of the thing is a complicated curve. The orbit we could calculate is an osculating — well, an osculating ellipse, rather than an osculating circle. Similar idea, though. Call it an osculating orbit if you’d rather.

That osculating circles have practical uses doesn’t mean they aren’t respectable mathematics. I’ll concede they’re not used as much as polynomials or sine curves are. I suppose that’s because polynomials and sine curves have nicer derivatives than circles do. But osculating circles do turn up as ways to try solving nonlinear differential equations. We need the help. Linear differential equations anyone can solve. Nonlinear differential equations are pretty much impossible. They also turn up in signal processing, as ways to find the frequencies of a signal from a sampling of data. This, too, we would like to know.

We get the name “osculating circle” from Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. This might not surprise. Finding easy-to-understand shapes that approximate interesting shapes is why we have calculus. Isaac Newton described a way of making them in the Principia Mathematica. This also might not surprise. Of course they would on this subject come so close together without kissing.

## My Little 2021 Mathematics A-to-Z: Hyperbola

John Golden, author of the Math Hombre blog, had several great ideas for the letter H in this little A-to-Z for the year. Here’s one of them.

# Hyperbola.

The hyperbola is where advanced mathematics begins. It’s a family of shapes, some of the pieces you get by slicing a cone. You can make an approximate one shining a flashlight on a wall. Other conic sections are familiar, everyday things, though. Circles we see everywhere. Ellipses we see everywhere we look at a circle in perspective. Parabolas we learn, in approximation, watching something tossed, or squirting water into the air. The hyperbola should be as accessible. Hold your flashlight parallel to the wall and look at the outline of light it casts. But the difference between this and a parabola isn’t obvious. And it’s harder to see parabolas in nature. It’s the path a space probe swinging past a planet makes? Great guide for all us who’ve launched space probes past Jupiter.

When we learn of hyperbolas, somewhere in high school algebra or in precalculus, they seem designed to break the rules we had inferred. We’ve learned functions like lines and quadradics (parabolas) and cubics. They’re nice, simple, connected shapes. The hyperbola comes in two pieces. We’ve learned that the graph of a function crosses any given vertical line at most once. Now, we can expect to see it twice. We learn to sketch functions by finding a few interesting points — roots, y-intercepts, things like that. Hyperbolas, we’re taught to draw this little central box and then two asymptotes. Also, we have asymptotes, a simpler curve that the actual curve almost equals.

We’re trained to see functions having the couple odd points where they’re not defined. Nobody expects $y = 1 \div x$ to mean anything when $x$ is zero. But we learn these as weird, isolated points. Now there’s this interval of x-values that don’t fit anything on the graph. Half the time, anyway, because we see two classes of hyperbolas. There’s ones that open like cups, pointing up and down. Those have definitions for every value of x. There’s ones that open like ears, pointing left and right. Those have a box in the center where no y satisfies the x’s. They seem like they’re taught just to be mean.

They’re not, of course. The only mathematical thing we teach just to be mean is integration by trigonometric substitution. The things which seem weird or new in hyperbolas are, largely, things we didn’t notice before. A vertical line put across a circle or ellipse crosses the curve twice, most points. There are two huge intervals, to the left and to the right of the circle, where no value of y makes the equation true. Circles are familiar, though. Ellipses don’t seem intimidating. We know we can’t turn $x^2 + y^2 = 4$ (a typical circle) into a function without some work. We have to write either $f(x) = \sqrt{4 - x^2}$ or $f(x) = -\sqrt{4 - x^2}$, breaking the circle into two halves. The same happens for hyperbolas, though, with $x^2 - y^2 = 4$ (a typical hyperbola) turning into $f(x) = \sqrt{x^2 - 4}$ or $f(x) = -\sqrt{x^2 - 4}$.

Even the definitions seem weird. The ellipse we can draw by taking a set distance and two focus points. If the distance from the first focus to a point plus the distance from the point to the second focus is that set distance, the point’s on the ellipse. We can use two thumbtacks and a piece of string to draw the ellipse. The hyperbola has a simliar rule, but weirder. You have your two focus points, yes. And a set distance. But the locus of points of the hyperbola is everything where the distance from the point to one focus minus the distance from the point to the other focus is that set distance. Good luck doing that with thumbtacks and string.

Yet hyperbolas are ready for us. Consider playing with a decent calculator, hitting the reciprocal button for different numbers. 1 turns to 1, yes. 2 turns into 0.5. -0.125 turns into -8. It’s the simplest iterative game to do on the calculator. If you sketch this, though, all the points (x, y) where one coordinate is the reciprocal of the other? It’s two curves. They approach without ever touching the x- and y-axes. Get far enough from the origin and there’s no telling this curve from the axes. It’s a hyperbola, one that obeys that vertical-line rule again. It has only the one value of x that can’t be allowed. We write it as $y = \frac{1}{x}$ or even $xy = 1$. But it’s the shape we see when we draw $x^2 - y^2 = 2$, rotated. Or a rotation of one we see when we draw $y^2 - x^2 = 2$. The equations of rotated shapes are annoying. We do enough of them for ellipses and parabolas and hyperbolas to meet the course requirement. But they point out how the hyperbola is a more normal construct than we fear.

And let me look at that construct again. An equation describing a hyperbola that opens horizontally or vertically looks like $ax^2 - by^2 = c$ for some constant numbers a, b, and c. (If a, b, and c are all positive, this is a hyperbola opening horizontally. If a and b are positive and c negative, this is a hyperbola opening vertically.) An equation describing an ellipse, similarly with its axes horizontal or vertical looks like $ax^2 + by^2 = c$. (These are shapes centered on the origin. They can have other centers, which make the equations harder but not more enlightening.) The equations have very similar shapes. Mathematics trains us to suspect things with similar shapes have similar properties. That change from a plus to a minus seems too important to ignore, and yet …

I bet you assumed x and y are real numbers. This is convention, the safe bet. If someone wants complex-valued numbers they usually say so. If they don’t want to be explicit, they use z and w as variables instead of x and y. But what if y is an imaginary number? Suppose $y = \imath t$, for some real number t, where $\imath^2 = -1$. You haven’t missed a step; I’m summoning this from nowhere. (Let’s not think about how to draw a point with an imaginary coordinate.) Then $ax^2 - by^2 = c$ is $ax^2 - b(\imath t)^2 = c$ which is $ax^2 + bt^2 = c$. And despite the weird letters, that’s a circle. By the same supposition we could go from $ax^2 + by^2 = c$, which we’d taken to be a circle, and get $ax^2 - bt^2 = c$, a hyperbola.

Fine stuff inspiring the question “so?” I made up a case and showed how that made two dissimilar things look alike. All right. But consider trigonometry, built on the cosine and sine functions. One good way to see the cosine and sine of an angle is as the x- and y-coordinates of a point on the unit circle, where $x^2 + y^2 = 1$. (The angle $\theta$ is the one from the point $(\cos(\theta), \sin(\theta))$ to the origin to the point (1, 0).)

There exists, in parallel to the familiar trig functions, the “hyperbolic trigonometric functions”. These have imaginative names like the hyperbolic sine and hyperbolic cosine. (And onward. We can speak of the “inverse hyperbolic cosecant”, if we wish no one to speak to us again.) Usually these get introduced in calculus, to give the instructor a tiny break. Their derivatives, and integrals, look much like those of the normal trigonometric functions, but aren’t the exact same problems over and over. And these functions, too, have a compelling meaning. The hyperbolic cosine of an angle and hyperbolic sine of an angle have something to do with points on a unit hyperbola, $x^2 - y^2 = 1$.

Thinking back on the flashlight. We get a circle by holding the light perpendicular to the wall. We get a hyperbola holding the light parallel. We get a circle by drawing $x^2 + y^2 = 1$ with x and y real numbers. We get a hyperbola by (somehow) drawing $x^2 + y^2 = 1$ with x real and y imaginary. We remember something about representing complex-valued numbers with a real axis and an orthogonal imaginary axis.

One almost feels the connection. I can’t promise that pondering this will make hyperbolas be as familiar as circles or at least ellipses. But often a problem that brings us to hyperbolas has an alternate phrasing that’s ellipses, a nd vice-versa. But the common traits of these conic slices can guide you into a new understanding of mathematics.

Thank you for reading. I hope to have another piece next week at this time. This and all of this year’s Little Mathematics A to Z essays should be at this link. And the A-to-Z essays for every year should be at this link.

## The End 2016 Mathematics A To Z: Osculating Circle

I’m happy to say it’s another request today. This one’s from HowardAt58, author of the Saving School Math blog. He’s given me some great inspiration in the past.

## Osculating Circle.

It’s right there in the name. Osculating. You know what that is from that one Daffy Duck cartoon where he cries out “Greetings, Gate, let’s osculate” while wearing a moustache. Daffy’s imitating somebody there, but goodness knows who. Someday the mystery drives the young you to a dictionary web site. Osculate means kiss. This doesn’t seem to explain the scene. Daffy was imitating Jerry Colonna. That meant something in 1943. You can find him on old-time radio recordings. I think he’s funny, in that 40s style.

Make the substitution. A kissing circle. Suppose it’s not some playground antic one level up from the Kissing Bandit that plagues recess yet one or two levels down what we imagine we’d do in high school. It suggests a circle that comes really close to something, that touches it a moment, and then goes off its own way.

But then touching. We know another word for that. It’s the root behind “tangent”. Tangent is a trigonometry term. But it appears in calculus too. The tangent line is a line that touches a curve at one specific point and is going in the same direction as the original curve is at that point. We like this because … well, we do. The tangent line is a good approximation of the original curve, at least at the tangent point and for some region local to that. The tangent touches the original curve, and maybe it does something else later on. What could kissing be?

The osculating circle is about approximating an interesting thing with a well-behaved thing. So are similar things with names like “osculating curve” or “osculating sphere”. We need that a lot. Interesting things are complicated. Well-behaved things are understood. We move from what we understand to what we would like to know, often, by an approximation. This is why we have tangent lines. This is why we build polynomials that approximate an interesting function. They share the original function’s value, and its derivative’s value. A polynomial approximation can share many derivatives. If the function is nice enough, and the polynomial big enough, it can be impossible to tell the difference between the polynomial and the original function.

The osculating circle, or sphere, isn’t so concerned with matching derivatives. I know, I’m as shocked as you are. Well, it matches the first and the second derivatives of the original curve. Anything past that, though, it matches only by luck. The osculating circle is instead about matching the curvature of the original curve. The curvature is what you think it would be: it’s how much a function curves. If you imagine looking closely at the original curve and an osculating circle they appear to be two arcs that come together. They must touch at one point. They might touch at others, but that’s incidental.

Osculating circles, and osculating spheres, sneak out of mathematics and into practical work. This is because we often want to work with things that are almost circles. The surface of the Earth, for example, is not a sphere. But it’s only a tiny bit off. It’s off in ways that you only notice if you are doing high-precision mapping. Or taking close measurements of things in the sky. Sometimes we do this. So we map the Earth locally as if it were a perfect sphere, with curvature exactly what its curvature is at our observation post.

Or we might be observing something moving in orbit. If the universe had only two things in it, and they were the correct two things, all orbits would be simple: they would be ellipses. They would have to be “point masses”, things that have mass without any volume. They never are. They’re always shapes. Spheres would be fine, but they’re never perfect spheres even. The slight difference between a perfect sphere and whatever the things really are affects the orbit. Or the other things in the universe tug on the orbiting things. Or the thing orbiting makes a course correction. All these things make little changes in the orbiting thing’s orbit. The actual orbit of the thing is a complicated curve. The orbit we could calculate is an osculating — well, an osculating ellipse, rather than an osculating circle. Similar idea, though. Call it an osculating orbit if you’d rather.

That osculating circles have practical uses doesn’t mean they aren’t respectable mathematics. I’ll concede they’re not used as much as polynomials or sine curves are. I suppose that’s because polynomials and sine curves have nicer derivatives than circles do. But osculating circles do turn up as ways to try solving nonlinear differential equations. We need the help. Linear differential equations anyone can solve. Nonlinear differential equations are pretty much impossible. They also turn up in signal processing, as ways to find the frequencies of a signal from a sampling of data. This, too, we would like to know.

We get the name “osculating circle” from Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. This might not surprise. Finding easy-to-understand shapes that approximate interesting shapes is why we have calculus. Isaac Newton described a way of making them in the Principia Mathematica. This also might not surprise. Of course they would on this subject come so close together without kissing.

## Counting Things

I’ve been working on my little thread of posts about sports mathematics. But I’ve also had a rather busy week and I just didn’t have time to finish the next bit of pondering I had regarding baseball scores. Among other things I had the local pinball league’s post-season Split-Flipper Tournament to play in last night. I played lousy, too.

So I hope I may bring your attention to some interesting posts from Baking And Math. Yenergy started, last week, with a post about the Gauss Circle Problem. Carl Friedrich Gauss you may know as the mathematical genius who proved the Fundamental Theorem of Whatever Subfield Of Mathematics You’re Talking About. Circles are those same old things. The problem is quite old, and easy to understand, and not answered yet. Start with a grid of regularly spaced dots. Draw a circle centered on one of the dots. How many dots are inside the circle?

Obviously you can count. What we would like is a formula, though: if this is the radius then that function of the radius is the number of points. We don’t have that, remarkably. Yenergy describes some of that, and some ways to estimate the number of points. This is for the circle and for some other shapes.

Yesterday, Yenergy continued the discussion and got into partitions. Partitions sound boring; they’re about identifying ways to split something up into components. Yet they turn up everywhere. I’m most used to them in statistical mechanics, the study of physics problems where there’s too many things moving to keep track of them all. But it isn’t surprising they turn up in this sort of point-counting problem.

As a bonus Yenergy links to an article examining a famous story about Gauss. This is specifically the famous story about him, as a child, doing a quite long arithmetic problem at a glance. It’s a story that’s passed into legend and I had not known how much of it was legend.

## Reading the Comics, April 10, 2016: Four-Digit Prime Number Edition

In today’s installment of Reading The Comics, mathematics gets name-dropped a bunch in strips that aren’t really about my favorite subject other than my love. Also, I reveal the big lie we’ve been fed about who drew the Henry comic strip attributed to Carl Anderson. Finally, I get a question from Queen Victoria. I feel like this should be the start of a podcast.

Patrick Roberts’ Todd the Dinosaur for the 6th of April just name-drops mathematics. The flash cards suggest it. They’re almost iconic for learning arithmetic. I’ve seen flash cards for other subjects. But apart from learning the words of other languages I’ve never been able to make myself believe they’d work. On the other hand, I haven’t used flash cards to learn (or teach) things myself.

Joe Martin’s Boffo for the 7th of April is a solid giggle. (I have a pretty watery giggle myself.) There are unknowable, or at least unprovable, things in mathematics. Any logic system with enough rules to be interesting has ideas which would make sense, and which might be true, but which can’t be proven. Arithmetic is such a system. But just fractions and long division by itself? No, I think we need something more abstract for that.

Carl Anderson’s Henry for the 7th of April is, of course, a rerun. It’s also a rerun that gives away that the “Carl Anderson” credit is a lie. Anderson turned over drawing the comic strip in 1942 to John Liney, for weekday strips, and Don Trachte for Sundays. There is no possible way the phrase “New Math” appeared on the cover of a textbook Carl Anderson drew. Liney retired in 1979, and Jack Tippit took over until 1983. Then Dick Hodgins, Jr, drew the strip until 1990. So depending on how quickly word of the New Math penetrated Comic Strip Master Command, this was drawn by either Liney, Tippit, or possibly Hodgins. (Peanuts made New Math jokes in the 60s, but it does seem the older the comic strip the longer it takes to mention new stuff.) I don’t know when these reruns date from. I also don’t know why Comics Kingdom is fibbing about the artist. But then they went and cancelled The Katzenjammer Kids without telling anyone either.

Eric the Circle for the 8th, this one by “lolz”, declares that Eric doesn’t like being graphed. This is your traditional sort of graph, one in which points with coordinates x and y are on the plot if their values make some equation true. For a circle, that equation’s something like (x – a)2 + (y – b)2 = r2. Here (a, b) are the coordinates for the point that’s the center of the circle, and r is the radius of the circle. This looks a lot like Eric is centered on the origin, the point with coordinates (0, 0). It’s a popular choice. Any center is as good. Another would just have equations that take longer to work with.

Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac rerun for the 10th is so much fun to look at that I’m including it even though it just name-drops mathematics. The joke would be the same if it were something besides fractions. Although see Boffo.

Norm Feuti’s Gil rerun for the 10th takes on mathematics’ favorite group theory application, the Rubik’s Cube. It’s the way I solved them best. This approach falls outside the bounds of normal group theory, though.

Mac King and Bill King’s Magic in a Minute for the 10th shows off a magic trick. It’s also a non-Rubik’s-cube problem in group theory. One of the groups that a mathematics major learns, after integers-mod-four and the like, is the permutation group. In this, the act of swapping two (or more) things is a thing. This puzzle restricts the allowed permutations down to swapping one item with the thing next to it. And thanks to that, an astounding result emerges. It’s worth figuring out why the trick would work. If you can figure out the reason the first set of switches have to leave a penny on the far right then you’ve got the gimmick solved.

Pab Sungenis’s New Adventures of Queen Victoria for the 10th made me wonder just how many four-digit prime numbers there are. If I haven’t worked this out wrong, there’s 1,061 of them.

## The Set Tour, Part 9: Balls, Only The Insides

Last week in the tour of often-used domains I talked about Sn, the surfaces of spheres. These correspond naturally to stuff like the surfaces of planets, or the edges of surfaces. They are also natural fits if you have a quantity that’s made up of a couple of components, and some total amount of the quantity is fixed. More physical systems do that than you might have guessed.

But this is all the surfaces. The great interior of a planet is by definition left out of Sn. This gives away the heart of what this week’s entry in the set tour is.

## Bn

Bn is the domain that’s the interior of a sphere. That is, B3 would be all the points in a three-dimensional space that are less than a particular radius from the origin, from the center of space. If we don’t say what the particular radius is, then we mean “1”. That’s just as with the Sn we meant the radius to be “1” unless someone specifically says otherwise. In practice, I don’t remember anyone ever saying otherwise when I was in grad school. I suppose they might if we were doing a numerical simulation of something like the interior of a planet. You know, something where it could make a difference what the radius is.

It may have struck you that B3 is just the points that are inside S2. Alternatively, it might have struck you that S2 is the points that are on the edge of B3. Either way is right. Bn and Sn-1, for any positive whole number n, are tied together, one the edge and the other the interior.

Bn we tend to call the “ball” or the “n-ball”. Probably we hope that suggests bouncing balls and baseballs and other objects that are solid throughout. Sn we tend to call the “sphere” or the “n-sphere”, though I admit that doesn’t make a strong case for ruling out the inside of the sphere. Maybe we should think of it as the surface. We don’t even have to change the letter representing it.

As the “n” suggests, there are balls for as many dimensions of space as you like. B2 is a circle, filled in. B1 is just a line segment, stretching out from -1 to 1. B3 is what’s inside a planet or an orange or an amusement park’s glass light fixture. B4 is more work than I want to do today.

So here’s a natural question: does Bn include Sn-1? That is, when we talk about a ball in three dimensions, do we mean the surface and everything inside it? Or do we just mean the interior, stopping ever so short of the surface? This is a division very much like dividing the real numbers into negative and positive; do you include zero among other set?

Typically, I think, mathematicians don’t. If a mathematician speaks of B3 without saying otherwise, she probably means the interior of a three-dimensional ball. She’s not saying anything one way or the other about the surface. This we name the “open ball”, and if she wants to avoid any ambiguity she will say “the open ball Bn”.

“Open” here means the same thing it does when speaking of an “open set”. That may not communicate well to people who don’t remember their set theory. It means that the edges aren’t included. (Warning! Not actual set theory! Do not attempt to use that at your thesis defense. That description was only a reference to what’s important about this property in this particular context.)

If a mathematician wants to talk about the ball and the surface, she might say “the closed ball Bn”. This means to take the surface and the interior together. “Closed”, again, here means what it does in set theory. It pretty much means “include the edges”. (Warning! See above warning.)

Balls work well as domains for functions that have to describe the interiors of things. They also work if we want to talk about a constraint that’s made up of a couple of components, and that can be up to some size but not larger. For example, suppose you may put up to a certain budget cap into (say) six different projects, but you aren’t required to use the entire budget. We could model your budgeting as finding the point in B6 that gets the best result. How you measure the best is a problem for your operations research people. All I’m telling you is how we might represent the study of the thing you’re doing.

## The Set Tour, Part 8: Balls, Only Made Harder

I haven’t forgotten or given up on the Set Tour, don’t worry or celebrate. I just expected there to be more mathematically-themed comic strips the last couple days. Really, three days in a row without anything at ComicsKingdom or GoComics to talk about? That’s unsettling stuff. Ah well.

## Sn

We are also starting to get into often-used domains that are a bit stranger. We are going to start seeing domains that strain the imagination more. But this isn’t strange quite yet. We’re looking at the surface of a sphere.

The surface of a sphere we call S2. The “S” suggests a sphere. The “2” means that we have a two-dimensional surface, which matches what we see with the surface of the Earth, or a beach ball, or a soap bubble. All these are sphere enough for our needs. If we want to say where we are on the surface of the Earth, it’s most convenient to do this with two numbers. These are a latitude and a longitude. The latitude is the angle made between the point we’re interested in and the equator. The longitude is the angle made between the point we’re interested in and a reference prime longitude.

There are some variations. We can replace the latitude, for example, with the colatitude. That’s the angle between our point and the north pole. Or we might replace the latitude with the cosine of the colatitude. That has some nice analytic properties that you have to be well into grad school to care about. It doesn’t matter. The details may vary but it’s all the same. We put in a number for the east-west distance and another for the north-south distance.

It may seem pompous to use the same system to say where a point is on the surface of a beach ball. But can you think of a better one? Pointing to the ball and saying “there”, I suppose. But that requires we go around with the beach ball pointing out spots. Giving two numbers saves us having to go around pointing.

(Some weenie may wish to point out that if we were clever we could describe a point exactly using only a single number. This is true. Nobody does that unless they’re weenies trying to make a point. This essay is long enough without describing what mathematicians really mean by “dimension”. “How many numbers normal people use to identify a point in it” is good enough.)

S2 is a common domain. If we talk about something that varies with your position on the surface of the earth, we’re probably using S2 as the domain. If we talk about the temperature as it varies with position, or the height above sea level, or the population density, we have functions with a domain of S2 and a range in R. If we talk about the wind speed and direction we have a function with domain of S2 and a range in R3, because the wind might be moving in any direction.

Of course, I wrote down Sn rather than just S2. As with Rn and with Rm x n, there is really a family of similar domains. They are common enough to share a basic symbol, and the superscript is enough to differentiate them.

What we mean by Sn is “the collection of points in Rn+1 that are all the same distance from the origin”. Let me unpack that a little. The “origin” is some point in space that we pick to measure stuff from. On the number line we just call that “zero”. On your normal two-dimensional plot that’s where the x- and y-axes intersect. On your normal three-dimensional plot that’s where the x- and y- and z-axes intersect.

And by “the same distance” we mean some set, fixed distance. Usually we call that the radius. If we don’t specify some distance then we mean “1”. In fact, this is so regularly the radius I’m not sure how we would specify a different one. Maybe we would write Snr for a radius of “r”. Anyway, Sn, the surface of the sphere with radius 1, is commonly called the “unit sphere”. “Unit” gets used a fair bit for shapes. You’ll see references to a “unit cube” or “unit disc” or so on. A unit cube has sides length 1. A unit disc has radius 1. If you see “unit” in a mathematical setting it usually means “this thing measures out at 1”. (The other thing it may mean is “a unit of measure, but we’re not saying which one”. For example, “a unit of distance” doesn’t commit us to saying whether the distance is one inch, one meter, one million light-years, or one angstrom. We use that when we don’t care how big the unit is, and only wonder how many of them we have.)

S1 is an exotic name for a familiar thing. It’s all the points in two-dimensional space that are a distance 1 from the origin. Real people call this a “circle”. So do mathematicians unless they’re comparing it to other spheres or hyperspheres.

This is a one-dimensional figure. We can identify a single point on it easily with just one number, the angle made with respect to some reference direction. The reference direction is almost always that of the positive x-axis. That’s the line that starts at the center of the circle and points off to the right.

S3 is the first hypersphere we encounter. It’s a surface that’s three-dimensional, and it takes a four-dimensional space to see it. You might be able to picture this in your head. When I try I imagine something that looks like the regular old surface of the sphere, only it has fancier shading and maybe some extra lines to suggest depth. That’s all right. We can describe the thing even if we can’t imagine it perfectly. S4, well, that’s something taking five dimensions of space to fit in. I don’t blame you if you don’t bother trying to imagine what that looks like exactly.

The need for S4 itself tends to be rare. If we want to prove something about a function on a hypersphere we usually make do with Sn. This doesn’t tell us how many dimensions we’re working with. But we can imagine that as a regular old sphere only with a most fancy job of drawing lines on it.

If we want to talk about Sn aloud, or if we just want some variation in our prose, we might call it an n-sphere instead. So the 2-sphere is the surface of the regular old sphere that’s good enough for everybody but mathematicians. The 1-sphere is the circle. The 3-sphere and so on are harder to imagine. Wikipedia asserts that 3-spheres and higher-dimension hyperspheres are sometimes called “glomes”. I have not heard this word before, and I would expect it to start a fight if I tried to play it in Scrabble. However, I do not do mathematics that often requires discussion of hyperspheres. I leave this space open to people who do and who can say whether “glome” is a thing.

Something that all these Sn sets have in common are that they are the surfaces of spheres. They are just the boundary, and omit the interior. If we want a function that’s defined on the interior of the Earth we need to find a different domain.

## Hypersphere.

If you asked someone to say what mathematicians do, there are, I think, three answers you’d get. One would be “they write out lots of decimal places”. That’s fair enough; that’s what numerical mathematics is about. One would be “they write out complicated problems in calculus”. That’s also fair enough; say “analysis” instead of “calculus” and you’re not far off. The other answer I’d expect is “they draw really complicated shapes”. And that’s geometry. All fair enough; this is stuff real mathematicians do.

Geometry has always been with us. You may hear jokes about never using algebra or calculus or such in real life. You never hear that about geometry, though. The study of shapes and how they fill space is so obviously useful that you sound like a fool saying you never use it. That would be like claiming you never use floors.

There are different kinds of geometry, though. The geometry we learn in school first is usually plane geometry, that is, how shapes on a two-dimensional surface like a sheet of paper or a computer screen work. Here we see squares and triangles and trapezoids and theorems with names like “side-angle-side congruence”. The geometry we learn as infants, and perhaps again in high school, is solid geometry, how shapes in three-dimensional spaces work. Here we see spheres and cubes and cones and something called “ellipsoids”. And there’s spherical geometry, the way shapes on the surface of a sphere work. This gives us great circle routes and loxodromes and tales of land surveyors trying to work out what Vermont’s northern border should be.

## Reading the Comics, December 27, 2014: Last of the Year Edition?

I’m curious whether this is going to be the final bunch of mathematics-themed comics for the year 2014. Given the feast-or-famine nature of the strips it’s plausible we might not have anything good through to mid-January, but, who knows? Of the comics in this set I think the first Peanuts the most interesting to me, since it’s funny and gets at something big and important, although the Ollie and Quentin is a better laugh.

Mark Leiknes’s Cow and Boy (December 23, rerun) talks about chaos theory, the notion that incredibly small differences in a state can produce enormous differences in a system’s behavior. Chaos theory became a pop-cultural thing in the 1980s, when Edward Lorentz’s work (of twenty years earlier) broke out into public consciousness. In chaos theory the chaos isn’t that the system is unpredictable — if you have perfect knowledge of the system, and the rules by which it interacts, you could make perfect predictions of its future. What matters is that, in non-chaotic systems, a small error will grow only slightly: if you predict the path of a thrown ball, and you have the ball’s mass slightly wrong, you’ll make a proportionately small error on what the path is like. If you predict the orbit of a satellite around a planet, and have the satellite’s starting speed a little wrong, your prediction is proportionately wrong. But in a chaotic system there are at least some starting points where tiny errors in your understanding of the system produce huge differences between your prediction and the actual outcome. Weather looks like it’s such a system, and that’s why it’s plausible that all of us change the weather just by existing, although of course we don’t know whether we’ve made it better or worse, or for whom.

Charles Schulz’s Peanuts (December 23, rerun from December 26, 1967) features Sally trying to divide 25 by 50 and Charlie Brown insisting she can’t do it. Sally’s practical response: “You can if you push it!” I am a bit curious why Sally, who’s normally around six years old, is doing division in school (and over Christmas break), but then the kids are always being assigned Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles for a book report and that is hilariously wrong for kids their age to read, so, let’s give that a pass.

## The Short, Unhappy Life Of A Doomed Conjecture

So last month amongst the talk about the radius of a circle inscribed in a Pythagorean right triangle I mentioned that I had, briefly, floated a conjecture that might have spun off it. It didn’t, though I promised to describe the chain of thought I had while exploring it, on the grounds that the process of coming up with mathematical ideas doesn’t get described much, and certainly doesn’t get described for the sorts of fiddling little things that make up a trifle like this.

The point from which I started was a question about the radius of a circle inscribed in the right triangle with legs of length 5, 12, and 13. This turns out to have a radius of 2, which is interesting because it’s a whole number. It turns out to be simple to show that for a Pythagorean right triangle, that is, a right triangle whose legs are a Pythagorean triple — like (3, 4, 5), or (5, 12, 13), any where the square of the biggest number is the same as what you get adding together the squares of the two smaller numbers — the inscribed circle has a radius that’s a whole number. For example, the circle you could inscribe in a triangle of sides 3, 4, and 5 would have radius 1. The circle inscribed in a triangle of sides 8, 15, and 17 would have radius 3; so does the circle inscribed in a triangle of sides 7, 24, and 25.

Since I now knew that (and in multiple ways: HowardAt58 had his own geometric solution, and you can also do this algebraically) I started to wonder about the converse. If a Pythagorean right triangle’s inscribed circle has a whole number for a radius, can does knowing a circle has a whole number for a radius tell us anything about the triangle it’s inscribed in? This is an easy way to build new conjectures: given that “if A is true, then B must be true”, can it also be that “if B is true, then A must be true”? Only rarely will that be so — it’s neat when it is — but we might be able to patch something up, like, “if B, C, and D are all simultaneously true, then A must be true”, or perhaps, “if B is true, then at least E must be true”, where E resembles A but maybe doesn’t make such a strong claim. Thus are tiny little advances in mathematics created.

## My Math Blog Statistics, November 2014

October 2014 was my fourth-best month in the mathematics blog here, if by “best” we mean “has a number of page views”, and second-best if by “best” we mean “has a number of unique visitors”. And now November 2014 has taken October’s place on both counts, by having bigger numbers for both page views and visitors, as WordPress reveals such things to me. Don’t tell October; that’d just hurt its feelings. Plus, I got to the 19,000th page view, and as of right now I’m sitting at 19,181; it’s conceivable I might reach my 20,000th viewer this month, though that would be a slight stretch.

But the total number of page views grew from 625 up to 674, and the total number of visitors from 323 to 366. The number of page views is the highest since May 2014 (751), although this is the greatest number of visitors since January 2014 (473), the second month when WordPress started revealing those numbers to us mere bloggers. I like the trends, though; since June the number of visitors has been growing at a pretty steady rate, although steadily enough I can’t say whether it’s an arithmetic or geometric progression. (In an arithmetic progression, the difference between two successive numbers is about constant, for example: 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 35, 40. In a geometric progression, the ratio between two successive numbers is about constant, for example: 10, 15, 23, 35, 53, 80, 120.) Views per visitor dropped from 1.93 to 1.84, although I’m not sure even that is a really significant difference.

The countries sending me the most readers were just about the same set as last month: the United States at 458; Canada recovering from a weak October with 27 viewers; Argentina at 20; Austria and the United Kingdom tied at 19; Australia at 17; Germany at 16 and Puerto Rico at 14.

Sending only one reader this month were: Belgium, Bermuda, Croatia, Estonia, Guatemala, Hong Kong, Italy, Lebanon, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Norway, Oman, the Philippines, Romania, Singapore, South Korea, and Sweden. (Really, Singapore? I’m a little hurt. I used to live there.) The countries repeating that from October were Estonia, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden; Sweden’s going on three months with just a single reader each. I don’t know what’s got me only slightly read in Scandinavia and the Balkans.

My most-read articles for November were pretty heavily biased towards the comics, with a side interest in that Pythagorean triangle problem with an inscribed circle. Elke Stangl had wondered about the longevity of my most popular posts, and I was curious too, so I’m including in brackets a note about the number of days between the first and the last view which WordPress has on record. This isn’t a perfect measure of longevity, especially for the most recent posts, but it’s a start.

As ever there’s no good search term poetry, but among the things that brought people here were:

• trapezoid
• how many grooves are on one side of an lp record?
• origin is the gateway to your entire gaming universe.
• cauchy funny things done
• trapezoid funny
• yet another day with no plans to use algebra

Won’t lie; that last one feels a little personal. But the “origin is the gateway” thing keeps turning up and I don’t know why. I’d try to search for it but that’d just bring me back here, leaving me no more knowledgeable, wouldn’t it?

## 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.)

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?

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.

## 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.