Why Shouldn’t We Talk About Mathematics In The Deli Line?


You maybe saw this picture going around your social media a couple days ago. I did, but I’m connected to a lot of mathematics people who were naturally interested. Everyone who did see it was speculating about what the story behind it was. Thanks to the CBC, now we know.

So it’s the most obvious if least excitingly gossip-worthy explanation: this Middletown, Connecticut deli is close to the Wesleyan mathematics department’s office and at least one mathematician was too engrossed talking about the subject to actually place an order. We’ve all been stuck behind people like that. It’s enough to make you wonder whether the Cole slaw there is actually that good. (Don’t know, I haven’t been there, not sure I can dispatch my agent in Groton to check just for this.) The sign’s basically a loving joke, which is a relief. Could be any group of people who won’t stop talking about a thing they enjoy, really. And who have a good joking relationship with the deli-owner.

The CBC’s interview gets into whether mathematicians have a sense of humor. I certainly think we do. I think the habit of forming proofs builds a habit of making a wild assumption and seeing where that gets you, often to a contradiction. And it’s hard not to see that the same skills that will let you go from, say, “suppose every angle can be trisected” to a nonsensical conclusion will also let you suppose something whimsical and get to a silly result.

Dr Anna Haensch, who made the sign kind-of famous-ish, gave as an example of a quick little mathematician’s joke going to the board and declaring “let L be a group”. I should say that’s not a riotously funny mathematician’s joke, not the say (like) talking about things purple and commutative are. It’s just a little passing quip, like if you showed a map of New Jersey and labelled the big city just across the Hudson River as “East Hoboken” or something.

But L would be a slightly disjoint name for a group. Not wrong, just odd, unless the context of the problem gave us good reason for the name. Names of stuff are labels, and so are arbitrary and may be anything. But we use them to carry information. If we know something is a group then we know something about the way it behaves. So if in a dense mass of symbols we see that something is given one of the standard names for groups — G, H, maybe G or H with a subscript or a ‘ or * on top of it — we know that, however lost we might be, we know this thing is a group and we know it should have these properties.

It’s a bit of doing what science fiction fans term “incluing”. That’s giving someone the necessary backstory without drawing attention to the fact we’re doing it. To avoid G or H would be like avoiding “Jane [or John] Doe” as the name for a specific but unidentified person. You can do it, but it seems off.

The End 2016 Mathematics A To Z: Yang Hui’s Triangle


Today’s is another request from gaurish and another I’m glad to have as it let me learn things too. That’s a particularly fun kind of essay to have here.

Yang Hui’s Triangle.

It’s a triangle. Not because we’re interested in triangles, but because it’s a particularly good way to organize what we’re doing and show why we do that. We’re making an arrangement of numbers. First we need cells to put the numbers in.

Start with a single cell in what’ll be the top middle of the triangle. It spreads out in rows beneath that. The rows are staggered. The second row has two cells, each one-half width to the side of the starting one. The third row has three cells, each one-half width to the sides of the row above, so that its center cell is directly under the original one. The fourth row has four cells, two of which are exactly underneath the cells of the second row. The fifth row has five cells, three of them directly underneath the third row’s cells. And so on. You know the pattern. It’s the one that pins in a plinko board take. Just trimmed down to a triangle. Make as many rows as you find interesting. You can always add more later.

In the top cell goes the number ‘1’. There’s also a ‘1’ in the leftmost cell of each row, and a ‘1’ in the rightmost cell of each row.

What of interior cells? The number for those we work out by looking to the row above. Take the cells to the immediate left and right of it. Add the values of those together. So for example the center cell in the third row will be ‘1’ plus ‘1’, commonly regarded as ‘2’. In the third row the leftmost cell is ‘1’; it always is. The next cell over will be ‘1’ plus ‘2’, from the row above. That’s ‘3’. The cell next to that will be ‘2’ plus ‘1’, a subtly different ‘3’. And the last cell in the row is ‘1’ because it always is. In the fourth row we get, starting from the left, ‘1’, ‘4’, ‘6’, ‘4’, and ‘1’. And so on.

It’s a neat little arithmetic project. It has useful application beyond the joy of making something neat. Many neat little arithmetic projects don’t have that. But the numbers in each row give us binomial coefficients, which we often want to know. That is, if we wanted to work out (a + b) to, say, the third power, we would know what it looks like from looking at the fourth row of Yanghui’s Triangle. It will be 1\cdot a^4 + 4\cdot a^3 \cdot b^1 + 6\cdot a^2\cdot b^2 + 4\cdot a^1\cdot b^3 + 1\cdot b^4 . This turns up in polynomials all the time.

Look at diagonals. By diagonal here I mean a line parallel to the line of ‘1’s. Left side or right side; it doesn’t matter. Yang Hui’s triangle is bilaterally symmetric around its center. The first diagonal under the edges is a bit boring but familiar enough: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-et cetera. The second diagonal is more curious: 1-3-6-10-15-21-28 and so on. You’ve seen those numbers before. They’re called the triangular numbers. They’re the number of dots you need to make a uniformly spaced, staggered-row triangle. Doodle a bit and you’ll see. Or play with coins or pool balls.

The third diagonal looks more arbitrary yet: 1-4-10-20-35-56-84 and on. But these are something too. They’re the tetrahedronal numbers. They’re the number of things you need to make a tetrahedron. Try it out with a couple of balls. Oranges if you’re bored at the grocer’s. Four, ten, twenty, these make a nice stack. The fourth diagonal is a bunch of numbers I never paid attention to before. 1-5-15-35-70-126-210 and so on. This is — well. We just did tetrahedrons, the triangular arrangement of three-dimensional balls. Before that we did triangles, the triangular arrangement of two-dimensional discs. Do you want to put in a guess what these “pentatope numbers” are about? Sure, but you hardly need to. If we’ve got a bunch of four-dimensional hyperspheres and want to stack them in a neat triangular pile we need one, or five, or fifteen, or so on to make the pile come out neat. You can guess what might be in the fifth diagonal. I don’t want to think too hard about making triangular heaps of five-dimensional hyperspheres.

There’s more stuff lurking in here, waiting to be decoded. Add the numbers of, say, row four up and you get two raised to the third power. Add the numbers of row ten up and you get two raised to the ninth power. You see the pattern. Add everything in, say, the top five rows together and you get the fifth Mersenne number, two raised to the fifth power (32) minus one (31, when we’re done). Add everything in the top ten rows together and you get the tenth Mersenne number, two raised to the tenth power (1024) minus one (1023).

Or add together things on “shallow diagonals”. Start from a ‘1’ on the outer edge. I’m going to suppose you started on the left edge, but remember symmetry; it’ll be fine if you go from the right instead. Add to that ‘1’ the number you get by moving one cell to the right and going up-and-right. And then again, go one cell to the right and then one cell up-and-right. And again and again, until you run out of cells. You get the Fibonacci sequence, 1-1-2-3-5-8-13-21-and so on.

We can even make an astounding picture from this. Take the cells of Yang Hui’s triangle. Color them in. One shade if the cell has an odd number, another if the cell has an even number. It will create a pattern we know as the Sierpiński Triangle. (Wacław Sierpiński is proving to be the surprise special guest star in many of this A To Z sequence’s essays.) That’s the fractal of a triangle subdivided into four triangles with the center one knocked out, and the remaining triangles them subdivided into four triangles with the center knocked out, and on and on.

By now I imagine even my most skeptical readers agree this is an interesting, useful mathematical construct. Also that they’re wondering why I haven’t said the name “Blaise Pascal”. The Western mathematical tradition knows of this from Pascal’s work, particularly his 1653 Traité du triangle arithmétique. But mathematicians like to say their work is universal, and independent of the mere human beings who find it. Constructions like this triangle give support to this. Yang lived in China, in the 12th century. I imagine it possible Pascal had hard of his work or been influenced by it, by some chain, but I know of no evidence that he did.

And even if he had, there are other apparently independent inventions. The Avanti Indian astronomer-mathematician-astrologer Varāhamihira described the addition rule which makes the triangle work in commentaries written around the year 500. Omar Khayyám, who keeps appearing in the history of science and mathematics, wrote about the triangle in his 1070 Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra. Again so far as I am aware there’s not a direct link between any of these discoveries. They are things different people in different traditions found because the tools — arithmetic and aesthetically-pleasing orders of things — were ready for them.

Yang Hui wrote about his triangle in the 1261 book Xiangjie Jiuzhang Suanfa. In it he credits the use of the triangle (for finding roots) was invented around 1100 by mathematician Jia Xian. This reminds us that it is not merely mathematical discoveries that are found by many peoples at many times and places. So is Boyer’s Law, discovered by Hubert Kennedy.

Who Discovered Boyle’s Law?


Stigler’s Law is a half-joking principle of mathematics and scientific history. It says that scientific discoveries are never named for the person who discovered them. It’s named for the statistician Stephen Stigler, who asserted that the principle was discovered by the sociologist Robert K Merton.

If you study much scientific history you start to wonder if anything is named correctly. There are reasons why. Often it’s very hard to say exactly what the discovery is, especially if it’s something fundamental. Often the earliest reports of something are unclear, at least to later eyes. People’s attention falls on a person who did very well describing or who effectively publicized the discovery. Sometimes a discovery is just in the air, and many people have important pieces of it nearly simultaneously. And sometimes history just seems perverse. Pell’s Equation, for example, is named for John Pell, who did not discover it, did not solve it, and did not particularly advance our understanding of it. We seem to name it Pell’s because Pell had translated a book which included a solution of the problem into English, and Leonhard Euler mistakenly thought Pell had solved it.

The Carnot Cycle blog for this month is about a fine example of naming confusion. In this case it’s about Boyle’s Law. That’s one of the rules describing how gases work. It says that, if a gas is held at a constant temperature, and the amount of gas doesn’t change, then the pressure of the gas times its volume stays constant. Squeeze the gas into a smaller volume and it exerts more pressure on the container it’s in. Stretch it into a larger volume and it presses more weakly on the container.

Obvious? Perhaps. But it is a thing that had to be discovered. There’s a story behind that. Peter Mander explains some of its tale.