I intend to post something inspired by the comics. I’m not ready just yet. Until then, though, I’d like to share a neat article published in Nature. It’s about paper.

The skeptical reader might say this is obvious. They’re invited to write a simulation that takes a set of fold lines and predicts which sides of the paper are angled out and which are angled in. The skeptical reader may also ask who cares about paper. It’s paper because many mathematics problems start from the kinds of things one sets one’s hands on. Anyone who’s seen a crack growing across their sidewalk, though — or across their countertop, or their grandfather’s desk — realizes there are things we don’t understand about how things break. And why they break that way. And, more generally, there’s a lot we don’t understand about how complicated “natural” shapes form. The big interest in this is how long molecules crumple up. The shapes of these govern how they behave, and it’d be nice to understand that more.

I liked that episode. I’ve got happy memories of the time when I first saw it. I thought the sketch in which Crow T Robot got so volume-obsessed was goofy and dumb in the fun-nerd way.

I accept Mr Kassinger’s challenge only I’m going to take it seriously.

Volume.

How big is a thing?

There is a legend about Thomas Edison. He was unimpressed with a new hire. So he hazed the college-trained engineer who deeply knew calculus. He demanded the engineer tell him the volume within a light bulb. The engineer went to work, making measurements of the shape of the bulb’s outside. And then started the calculations. This involves a calculus technique called “volumes of rotation”. This can tell the volume within a rotationally symmetric shape. It’s tedious, especially if the outer edge isn’t some special nice shape. Edison, fed up, took the bulb, filled it with water, poured that out into a graduated cylinder and said that was the answer.

I’m skeptical of legends. I’m skeptical of stories about the foolish intellectual upstaged by the practical man-of-action. And I’m skeptical of Edison because, jeez, I’ve read biographies of the man. Even the fawning ones make him out to be yeesh.

But the legend’s Edison had a point. If the volume of a shape is not how much stuff fits inside the shape, what is it? And maybe some object has too complicated a shape to find its volume. Can we think of a way to produce something with the same volume, but that is easier? Sometimes we can. When we do this with straightedge and compass, the way the Ancient Greeks found so classy, we call this “quadrature”. It’s called quadrature from its application in two dimensions. It finds, for a shape, a square with the same area. For a three-dimensional object, we find a cube with the same volume. Cubes are easy to understand.

Straightedge and compass can’t do everything. Indeed, there’s so much they can’t do. Some of it is stuff you’d think it should be able to, like, find a cube with the same volume as a sphere. Integration gives us a mathematical tool for describing how much stuff is inside a shape. It’s even got a beautiful shorthand expression. Suppose that D is the shape. Then its volume V is:

Here “dV” is the “volume form”, a description of how the coordinates we describe a space in relate to the volume. The is jargon, meaning, “integrate over the whole volume”. The subscript “D” modifies that phrase by adding “of D” to it. Writing “D” is shorthand for “these are all the points inside this shape, in whatever coordinate system you use”. If we didn’t do that we’d have to say, on each sign, what points are inside the shape, coordinate by coordinate. At this level the equation doesn’t offer much help. It says the volume is the sum of infinitely many, infinitely tiny pieces of volume. True, but that doesn’t give much guidance about whether it’s more or less than two cups of water. We need to get more specific formulas, usually. We need to pick coordinates, for example, and say what coordinates are inside the shape. A lot of the resulting formulas can’t be integrated exactly. Like, an ellipsoid? Maybe you can integrate that. Don’t try without getting hazard pay.

We can approximate this integral. Pick a tiny shape whose volume is easy to know. Fill your shape with duplicates of it. Count the duplicates. Multiply that count by the volume of this tiny shape. Done. This is numerical integration, sometimes called “numerical quadrature”. If we’re being generous, we can say the legendary Edison did this, using water molecules as the tiny shape. And working so that he didn’t need to know the exact count or the volume of individual molecules. Good computational technique.

It’s hard not to feel we’re begging the question, though. We want the volume of something. So we need the volume of something else. Where does that volume come from?

Well, where does an inch come from? Or a centimeter? Whatever unit you use? You pick something to use as reference. Any old thing will do. Which is why you get fascinating stories about choosing what to use. And bitter arguments about which of several alternatives to use. And we express the length of something as some multiple of this reference length.

Volume works the same way. Pick a reference volume, something that can be one unit-of-volume. Other volumes are some multiple of that unit-of-volume. Possibly a fraction of that unit-of-volume.

Usually we use a reference volume that’s based on the reference length. Typically, we imagine a cube that’s one unit of length on each side. The volume of this cube with sides of length 1 unit-of-length is then 1 unit-of-volume. This seems all nice and orderly and it’s surely not because mathematicians have paid off by six-sided-dice manufacturers.

Does it have to be?

That we need some reference volume seems inevitable. We can’t very well say the area of something is ten times nothing-in-particular. Does that reference volume have to be a cube? Or even a rectangle or something else? It seems obvious that we need some reference shape that tiles, that can fill up space by itself … right?

What if we don’t?

I’m going to drop out of three dimensions a moment. Not because it changes the fundamentals, but because it makes something easier. Specifically, it makes it easier if you decide you want to get some construction paper, cut out shapes, and try this on your own. What this will tell us about area is just as true for volume. Area, for a two-dimensional sapce, and volume, for a three-dimensional, describe the same thing. If you’ll let me continue, then, I will.

So draw a figure on a clean sheet of paper. What’s its area? Now imagine you have a whole bunch of shapes with reference areas. A bunch that have an area of 1. That’s by definition. That’s our reference area. A bunch of smaller shapes with an area of one-half. By definition, too. A bunch of smaller shapes still with an area of one-third. Or one-fourth. Whatever. Shapes with areas you know because they’re marked on them.

Here’s one way to find the area. Drop your reference shapes, the ones with area 1, on your figure. How many do you need to completely cover the figure? It’s all right to cover more than the figure. It’s all right to have some of the reference shapes overlap. All you need is to cover the figure completely. … Well, you know how many pieces you needed for that. You can count them up. You can add up the areas of all these pieces needed to cover the figure. So the figure’s area can’t be any bigger than that sum.

Can’t be exact, though, right? Because you might get a different number if you covered the figure differently. If you used smaller pieces. If you arranged them better. This is true. But imagine all the possible reference shapes you had, and all the possible ways to arrange them. There’s some smallest area of those reference shapes that would cover your figure. Is there a more sensible idea for what the area of this figure would be?

And put this into three dimensions. If we start from some reference shapes of volume 1 and maybe 1/2 and 1/3 and whatever other useful fractions there are? Doesn’t this covering make sense as a way to describe the volume? Cubes or rectangles are easy to imagine. Tetrahedrons too. But why not any old thing? Why not, as the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode had it, turkeys?

This is a nice, flexible, convenient way to define area. So now let’s see where it goes all bizarre. We know this thanks to Giuseppe Peano. He’s among the late-19th/early-20th century mathematicians who shaped modern mathematics. They did this by showing how much of our mathematics broke intuition. Peano was (here) exploring what we now call fractals. And noted a family of shapes that curl back on themselves, over and over. They’re beautiful.

And they fill area. Fill volume, if done in three dimensions. It seems impossible. If we use this covering scheme, and try to find the volume of a straight line, we get zero. Well, we find that any positive number is too big, and from that conclude that it has to be zero. Since a straight line has length, but not volume, this seems fine. But a Peano curve won’t go along with this. A Peano curve winds back on itself so much that there is some minimum volume to cover it.

This unsettles. But this idea of volume (or area) by covering works so well. To throw it away seems to hobble us. So it seems worth the trade. We allow ourselves to imagine a line so long and so curled up that it has a volume. Amazing.

And now I get to relax and unwind and enjoy a long weekend before coming to the letter ‘W’. That’ll be about some topic I figure I can whip out a nice tight 500 words about, and instead, produce some 1541-word monstrosity while I wonder why I’ve had no free time at all since August. Tuesday, give or take, it’ll be available at this link, as are the rest of these glossary posts. Thanks for reading.

Today’s term is a request, the first of this series. It comes from HowardAt58, head of the Saving School Math blog. There are many letters not yet claimed; if you have a term you’d like to see my write about please head over to the “Any Requests?” page and pick a letter. Please not one I figure to get to in the next day or two.

Cantor’s Middle Third.

I think one could make a defensible history of mathematics by describing it as a series of ridiculous things that get discovered. And then, by thinking about these ridiculous things long enough, mathematicians come to accept them. Even rely on them. Sometime later the public even comes to accept them. I don’t mean to say getting people to accept ridiculous things is the point of mathematics. But there is a pattern which happens.

Consider. People doing mathematics came to see how a number could be detached from a count or a measure of things. That we can do work on, say, “three” whether it’s three people, three kilograms, or three square meters. We’re so used to this it’s only when we try teaching mathematics to the young we realize it isn’t obvious.

Or consider that we can have, rather than a whole number of things, a fraction. Some part of a thing, as if you could have one-half pieces of chalk or two-thirds a fruit. Counting is relatively obvious; fractions are something novel but important.

We have “zero”; somehow, the lack of something is still a number, the way two or five or one-half might be. For that matter, “one” is a number. How can something that isn’t numerous be a number? We’re used to it anyway. We can have not just fraction and one and zero but irrational numbers, ones that can’t be represented as a fraction. We have negative numbers, somehow a lack of whatever we were counting so great that we might add some of what we were counting to the pile and still have nothing.

That takes us up to about eight hundred years ago or something like that. The public’s gotten to accept all this as recently as maybe three hundred years ago. They’ve still got doubts. I don’t blame folks. Complex numbers mathematicians like; the public’s still getting used to the idea, but at least they’ve heard of them.

Cantor’s Middle Third is part of the current edge. It’s something mathematicians are aware of and that defies sense at least. But we’ve come to accept it. The public, well, they don’t know about it. Maybe some do; it turns up in pop mathematics books that like sharing the strangeness of infinities. Few people read them. Sometimes it feels like all those who do go online to tell mathematicians they’re crazy. It comes to us, as you might guess from the name, from Georg Cantor. Cantor established the modern mathematical concept of how to study infinitely large sets in the late 19th century. And he was repeatedly hospitalized for depression. It’s cruel to write all that off as “and he was crazy”. His work’s withstood a hundred and thirty-five years of extremely smart people looking at it skeptically.

The Middle Third starts out easily enough. Take a line segment. Then chop it into three equal pieces and throw away the middle third. You see where the name comes from. What do you have left? Some of the original line. Two-thirds of the original line length. A big gap in the middle.

Now take the two line segments. Chop each of them into three equal pieces. Throw away the middle thirds of the two pieces. Now we’re left with four chunks of line and four-ninths of the original length. One big and two little gaps in the middle.

Now take the four little line segments. Chop each of them into three equal pieces. Throw away the middle thirds of the four pieces. We’re left with eight chunks of line, about eight-twenty-sevenths of the original length. Lots of little gaps. Keep doing this, chopping up line segments and throwing away middle pieces. Never stop. Well, pretend you never stop and imagine what’s left.

What’s left is deeply weird. What’s left has no length, no measure. That’s easy enough to prove. But we haven’t thrown everything away. There are bits of the original line segment left over. The left endpoint of the original line is left behind. So is the right endpoint of the original line. The endpoints of the line segments after the first time we chopped out a third? Those are left behind. The endpoints of the line segments after chopping out a third the second time, the third time? Those have to be in the set. We have a dust, isolated little spots of the original line, none of them combining together to cover any length. And there are infinitely many of these isolated dots.

We’ve seen that before. At least we have if we’ve read anything about the Cantor Diagonal Argument. You can find that among the first ten posts of every mathematics blog. (Not this one. I was saving the subject until I had something good to say about it. Then I realized many bloggers have covered it better than I could.) Part of it is pondering how there can be a set of infinitely many things that don’t cover any length. The whole numbers are such a set and it seems reasonable they don’t cover any length. The rational numbers, though, are also an infinitely-large set that doesn’t cover any length. And there’s exactly as many rational numbers as there are whole numbers. This is unsettling but if you’re the sort of person who reads about infinities you come to accept it. Or you get into arguments with mathematicians online and never know you’ve lost.

Here’s where things get weird. How many bits of dust are there in this middle third set? It seems like it should be countable, the same size as the whole numbers. After all, we pick up some of these points every time we throw away a middle third. So we double the number of points left behind every time we throw away a middle third. That’s countable, right?

It’s not. We can prove it. The proof looks uncannily like that of the Cantor Diagonal Argument. That’s the one that proves there are more real numbers than there are whole numbers. There are points in this leftover set that were not endpoints of any of these middle-third excerpts. This dust has more points in it than there are rational numbers, but it covers no length.

(I don’t know if the dust has the same size as the real numbers. I suspect it’s unproved whether it has or hasn’t, because otherwise I’d surely be able to find the answer easily.)

It’s got other neat properties. It’s a fractal, which is why someone might have heard of it, back in the Great Fractal Land Rush of the 80s and 90s. Look closely at part of this set and it looks like the original set, with bits of dust edging gaps of bigger and smaller sizes. It’s got a fractal dimension, or “Hausdorff dimension” in the lingo, that’s the logarithm of two divided by the logarithm of three. That’s a number actually known to be transcendental, which is reassuring. Nearly all numbers are transcendental, but we only know a few examples of them.

HowardAt58 asked me about the Middle Third set, and that’s how I’ve referred to it here. It’s more often called the “Cantor set” or “Cantor comb”. The “comb” makes sense because if you draw successive middle-thirds-thrown-away, one after the other, you get something that looks kind of like a hair comb, if you squint.

You can build sets like this that aren’t based around thirds. You can, for example, develop one by cutting lines into five chunks and throw away the second and fourth. You get results that are similar, and similarly heady, but different. They’re all astounding. They’re all hard to believe in yet. They may get to be stuff we just accept as part of how mathematics works.

I’ve found a good way to procrastinate on the next essay in the Why Stuff Can Orbit series. (I’m considering explaining all of differential calculus, or as much as anyone really needs, to save myself a little work later on.) In the meanwhile, though, here’s some interesting reading that’s come to my attention the last few weeks and that you might procrastinate your own projects with. (Remember Benchley’s Principle!)

First is Jeremy Kun’s essay Habits of highly mathematical people. I think it’s right in describing some of the worldview mathematics training instills, or that encourage people to become mathematicians. It does seem to me, though, that most everything Kun describes is also true of philosophers. I’m less certain, but I strongly suspect, that it’s also true of lawyers. These concentrations all tend to encourage thinking about we mean by things, and to test those definitions by thought experiments. If we suppose this to be true, then what implications would it have? What would we have to conclude is also true? Does it include anything that would be absurd to say? And is are the results useful enough we can accept a bit of apparent absurdity?

New York magazine had an essay: Jesse Singal’s How Researchers Discovered the Basketball “Hot Hand”. The “Hot Hand” phenomenon is one every sports enthusiast, and most casual fans, know: sometimes someone is just playing really, really well. The problem has always been figuring out whether it exists. Do anything that isn’t a sure bet long enough and there will be streaks. There’ll be a stretch where it always happens; there’ll be a stretch where it never does. That’s how randomness works.

But it’s hard to show that. The messiness of the real world interferes. A chance of making a basketball shot is not some fixed thing over the course of a career, or over a season, or even over a game. Sometimes players do seem to be hot. Certainly anyone who plays anything competitively experiences a feeling of being in the zone, during which stuff seems to just keep going right. It’s hard to disbelieve something that you witness, even experience.

So the essay describes some of the challenges of this: coming up with a definition of a “hot hand”, for one. Coming up with a way to test whether a player has a hot hand. Seeing whether they’re observed in the historical record. Singal’s essay writes about some of the history of studying hot hands. There is a lot of probability, and of psychology, and of experimental design in it.

And then there’s this intriguing question Analysis Fact Of The Day linked to: did Gaston Julia ever see a computer-generated image of a Julia Set? There are many Julia Sets; they and their relative, the Mandelbrot Set, became trendy in the fractals boom of the 1980s. If you knew a mathematics major back then, there was at least one on her wall. It typically looks like a craggly, lightning-rimmed cloud. Its shapes are not easy to imagine. It’s almost designed for the computer to render. Gaston Julia died in March of 1978. Could he have seen a depiction?

It’s not clear. The linked discussion digs up early computer renderings. It also brings up an example of a late-19th-century hand-drawn depiction of a Julia-like set, and compares it to a modern digital rendition of the thing. Numerical simulation saves a lot of tedious work; but it’s always breathtaking to see how much can be done by reason.