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  • Joseph Nebus 6:00 pm on Friday, 2 December, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , science fiction, ,   

    The End 2016 Mathematics A To Z: Normal Numbers 


    Today’s A To Z term is another of gaurish’s requests. It’s also a fun one so I’m glad to have reason to write about it.

    Normal Numbers

    A normal number is any real number you never heard of.

    Yeah, that’s not what we say a normal number is. But that’s what a normal number is. If we could imagine the real numbers to be a stream, and that we could reach into it and pluck out a water-drop that was a single number, we know what we would likely pick. It would be an irrational number. It would be a transcendental number. And it would be a normal number.

    We know normal numbers — or we would, anyway — by looking at their representation in digits. For example, π is a number that starts out 3.1415926535897931159979634685441851615905 and so on forever. Look at those digits. Some of them are 1’s. How many? How many are 2’s? How many are 3’s? Are there more than you would expect? Are there fewer? What would you expect?

    Expect. That’s the key. What should we expect in the digits of any number? The numbers we work with don’t offer much help. A whole number, like 2? That has a decimal representation of a single ‘2’ and infinitely many zeroes past the decimal point. Two and a half? A single ‘2, a single ‘5’, and then infinitely many zeroes past the decimal point. One-seventh? Well, we get infinitely many 1’s, 4’s, 2’s, 8’s, 5’s, and 7’s. Never any 3’s, nor any 0’s, nor 6’s or 9’s. This doesn’t tell us anything about how often we would expect ‘8’ to appear in the digits of π.

    In an normal number we get all the decimal digits. And we get each of them about one-tenth of the time. If all we had was a chart of how often digits turn up we couldn’t tell the summary of one normal number from the summary of any other normal number. Nor could we tell either from the summary of a perfectly uniform randomly drawn number.

    It goes beyond single digits, though. Look at pairs of digits. How often does ’14’ turn up in the digits of a normal number? … Well, something like once for every hundred pairs of digits you draw from the random number. Look at triplets of digits. ‘141’ should turn up about once in every thousand sets of three digits. ‘1415’ should turn up about once in every ten thousand sets of four digits. Any finite string of digits should turn up, and exactly as often as any other finite string of digits.

    That’s in the full representation. If you look at all the infinitely many digits the normal number has to offer. If all you have is a slice then some digits are going to be more common and some less common. That’s similar to how if you fairly toss a coin (say) forty times, there’s a good chance you’ll get tails something other than exactly twenty times. Look at the first 35 or so digits of π there’s not a zero to be found. But as you survey more digits you get closer and closer to the expected average frequency. It’s the same way coin flips get closer and closer to 50 percent tails. Zero is a rarity in the first 35 digits. It’s about one-tenth of the first 3500 digits.

    The digits of a specific number are not random, not if we know what the number is. But we can be presented with a subset of its digits and have no good way of guessing what the next digit might be. That is getting into the same strange territory in which we can speak about the “chance” of a month having a Friday the 13th even though the appearances of Fridays the 13th have absolutely no randomness to them.

    This has staggering implications. Some of them inspire an argument in science fiction Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.sf.written every two years or so. Probably it does so in other venues; Usenet is just my first home and love for this. In a minor point in Carl Sagan’s novel Cosmos possibly-imaginary aliens reveal there’s a pattern hidden in the digits of π. (It’s not in the movie version, which is a shame. But to include it would require people watching a computer. So that could not make for a good movie scene, we now know.) Look far enough into π, says the book, and there’s suddenly a string of digits that are nearly all zeroes, interrupted with a few ones. Arrange the zeroes and ones into a rectangle and it draws a pixel-art circle. And the aliens don’t know how something astounding like that could be.

    Nonsense, respond the kind of science fiction reader that likes to identify what the nonsense in science fiction stories is. (Spoiler: it’s the science. In this case, the mathematics too.) In a normal number every finite string of digits appears. It would be truly astounding if there weren’t an encoded circle in the digits of π. Indeed, it would be impossible for there not to be infinitely many circles of every possible size encoded in every possible way in the digits of π. If the aliens are amazed by that they would be amazed to find how every triangle has three corners.

    I’m a more forgiving reader. And I’ll give Sagan this amazingness. I have two reasons. The first reason is on the grounds of discoverability. Yes, the digits of a normal number will have in them every possible finite “message” encoded every possible way. (I put the quotes around “message” because it feels like an abuse to call something a message if it has no sender. But it’s hard to not see as a “message” something that seems to mean something, since we live in an era that accepts the Death of the Author as a concept at least.) Pick your classic cypher `1 = A, 2 = B, 3 = C’ and so on, and take any normal number. If you look far enough into its digits you will find every message you might ever wish to send, every book you could read. Every normal number holds Jorge Luis Borges’s Library of Babel, and almost every real number is a normal number.

    But. The key there is if you look far enough. Look above; the first 35 or so digits of π have no 0’s, when you would expect three or four of them. There’s no 22’s, even though that number has as much right to appear as does 15, which gets in at least twice that I see. And we will only ever know finitely many digits of π. It may be staggeringly many digits, sure. It already is. But it will never be enough to be confident that a circle, or any other long enough “message”, must appear. It is staggering that a detectable “message” that long should be in the tiny slice of digits that we might ever get to see.

    And it’s harder than that. Sagan’s book says the circle appears in whatever base π gets represented in. So not only does the aliens’ circle pop up in base ten, but also in base two and base sixteen and all the other, even less important bases. The circle happening to appear in the accessible digits of π might be an imaginable coincidence in some base. There’s infinitely many bases, one of them has to be lucky, right? But to appear in the accessible digits of π in every one of them? That’s staggeringly impossible. I say the aliens are correct to be amazed.

    Now to my second reason to side with the book. It’s true that any normal number will have any “message” contained in it. So who says that π is a normal number?

    We think it is. It looks like a normal number. We have figured out many, many digits of π and they’re distributed the way we would expect from a normal number. And we know that nearly all real numbers are normal numbers. If I had to put money on it I would bet π is normal. It’s the clearly safe bet. But nobody has ever proved that it is, nor that it isn’t. Whether π is normal or not is a fit subject for conjecture. A writer of science fiction may suppose anything she likes about its normality without current knowledge saying she’s wrong.

    It’s easy to imagine numbers that aren’t normal. Rational numbers aren’t, for example. If you followed my instructions and made your own transcendental number then you made a non-normal number. It’s possible that π should be non-normal. The first thirty million digits or so look good, though, if you think normal is good. But what’s thirty million against infinitely many possible counterexamples? For all we know, there comes a time when π runs out of interesting-looking digits and turns into an unpredictable little fluttering between 6 and 8.

    It’s hard to prove that any numbers we’d like to know about are normal. We don’t know about π. We don’t know about e, the base of the natural logarithm. We don’t know about the natural logarithm of 2. There is a proof that the square root of two (and other non-square whole numbers, like 3 or 5) is normal in base two. But my understanding is it’s a nonstandard approach that isn’t quite satisfactory to experts in the field. I’m not expert so I can’t say why it isn’t quite satisfactory. If the proof’s authors or grad students wish to quarrel with my characterization I’m happy to give space for their rebuttal.

    It’s much the way transcendental numbers were in the 19th century. We understand there to be this class of numbers that comprises nearly every number. We just don’t have many examples. But we’re still short on examples of transcendental numbers. Maybe we’re not that badly off with normal numbers.

    We can construct normal numbers. For example, there’s the Champernowne Constant. It’s the number you would make if you wanted to show you could make a normal number. It’s 0.12345678910111213141516171819202122232425 and I bet you can imagine how that develops from that point. (David Gawen Champernowne proved it was normal, which is the hard part.) There’s other ways to build normal numbers too, if you like. But those numbers aren’t of any interest except that we know them to be normal.

    Mere normality is tied to a base. A number might be normal in base ten (the way normal people write numbers) but not in base two or base sixteen (which computers and people working on computers use). It might be normal in base twelve, used by nobody except mathematics popularizers of the 1960s explaining bases, but not normal in base ten. There can be numbers normal in every base. They’re called “absolutely normal”. Nearly all real numbers are absolutely normal. Wacław Sierpiński constructed the first known absolutely normal number in 1917. If you got in on the fractals boom of the 80s and 90s you know his name, although without the Polish spelling. He did stuff with gaskets and curves and carpets you wouldn’t believe. I’ve never seen Sierpiński’s construction of an absolutely normal number. From my references I’m not sure if we know how to construct any other absolutely normal numbers.

    So that is the strange state of things. Nearly every real number is normal. Nearly every number is absolutely normal. We know a couple normal numbers. We know at least one absolutely normal number. But we haven’t (to my knowledge) proved any number that’s otherwise interesting is also a normal number. This is why I say: a normal number is any real number you never heard of.

     
    • gaurish 5:42 am on Saturday, 3 December, 2016 Permalink | Reply

      Beautiful exposition! Using pi as motivation for the discussion was a great idea. The fact that unlike pimality, normality is associated with base system involved, fascinated me when I first came across normal numbers. Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Joseph Nebus 4:48 pm on Friday, 9 December, 2016 Permalink | Reply

        Aw, thank you. You’re most kind. π is a good number to use for explaining so many kinds of numbers. It’s familiar to people and it feels friendly, but it’s still an example of so many of the most interesting traits of numbers. Or, as with normality, it looks like it probably is. It’s easy to see why the number is so fascinating.

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  • Joseph Nebus 3:00 pm on Sunday, 26 June, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: comic books, , , , , , , , science fiction   

    Reading the Comics, June 26, 2015: June 23, 2016 Plus Golden Lizards Edition 


    And now for the huge pile of comic strips that had some mathematics-related content on the 23rd of June. I admit some of them are just using mathematics as a stand-in for “something really smart people do”. But first, another moment with the Magic Realism Bot:

    So, you know, watch the lizards and all.

    Tom Batiuk’s Funky Winkerbean name-drops E = mc2 as the sort of thing people respect. If the strip seems a little baffling then you should know that Mason’s last name is Jarr. He was originally introduced as a minor player in a storyline that wasn’t about him, so the name just had to exist. But since then Tom Batiuk’s decided he likes the fellow and promoted him to major-player status. And maybe Batiuk regrets having a major character with a self-consciously Funny Name, which is an odd thing considering he named his long-running comic strip for original lead character Funky Winkerbean.

    'I don't know how adding an E to your last name will make much of a difference, Mason.' 'It will immediately give my name more gravitas ... like Shiela E ... the E Street Band ... e e commungs ... E = mc^2 ... ' And he smirks because that's just what the comic strip is really about.

    Tom Batiuk’s Funky Winkerbean for the 23rd of June, 2016. They’re in the middle of filming one or possibly two movies about the silver-age comic book hero Starbuck Jones. This is all the comic strip is about anymore, so if you go looking for its old standbys — people dying — or its older standbys — band practice being rained on — sorry, you’ll have to look somewhere else. That somewhere else would be the yellowed strips taped to the walls in the teachers lounge.

    Charlie Podrebarac’s CowTown depicts the harsh realities of Math Camp. I assume they’re the realities. I never went to one myself. And while I was on the Physics Team in high school I didn’t make it over to the competitive mathematics squad. Yes, I noticed that the not-a-numbers-person Jim Smith can’t come up with anything other than the null symbol, representing nothing, not even zero. I like that touch.

    Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics rerun is about Richard Feynman, the great physicist whose classic memoir What Do You Care What Other People Think? is hundreds of pages of stories about how awesome he was. Anyway, the story goes that Feynman noticed one of the sequences of digits in π and thought of the joke which T-Rex shares here.

    π is believed but not proved to be a “normal” number. This means several things. One is that any finite sequence of digits you like should appear in its representation, somewhere. Feynman and T-Rex look for the sequence ‘999999’, which sure enough happens less than eight hundred digits past the decimal point. Lucky stroke there. There’s no reason to suppose the sequence should be anywhere near the decimal point. There’s no reason to suppose the sequence has to be anywhere in the finite number of digits of π that humanity will ever know. (This is why Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, which has as a plot point the discovery of a message apparently encoded in the digits of π, is not building on a stupid idea. That any finite message exists somewhere is kind-of certain. That it’s findable is not.)

    e, mentioned in the last panel, is similarly thought to be a normal number. It’s also not proved to be. We are able to say that nearly all numbers are normal. It’s in much the way we can say nearly all numbers are irrational. But it is hard to prove that any numbers are. I believe that the only numbers humans have proved to be normal are a handful of freaks created to show normal numbers exist. I don’t know of any number that’s interesting in its own right that’s also been shown to be normal. We just know that almost all numbers are.

    But it is imaginable that π or e aren’t. They look like they’re normal, based on how their digits are arranged. It’s an open question and someone might make a name for herself by answering the question. It’s not an easy question, though.

    Missy Meyer’s Holiday Doodles breaks the news to me the 23rd was SAT Math Day. I had no idea and I’m not sure what that even means. The doodle does use the classic “two trains leave Chicago” introduction, the “it was a dark and stormy night” of Boring High School Algebra word problems.

    Stephan Pastis’s Pearls Before Swine is about everyone who does science and mathematics popularization, and what we worry someone’s going to reveal about us. Um. Except me, of course. I don’t do this at all.

    Ashleigh Brilliant’s Pot-Shots rerun is a nice little averages joke. It does highlight something which looks paradoxical, though. Typically if you look at the distributions of values of something that can be measured you get a bell cure, like Brilliant drew here. The value most likely to turn up — the mode, mathematicians say — is also the arithmetic mean. “The average”, is what everybody except mathematicians say. And even they say that most of the time. But almost nobody is at the average.

    Looking at a drawing, Brilliant’s included, explains why. The exact average is a tiny slice of all the data, the “population”. Look at the area in Brilliant’s drawing underneath the curve that’s just the blocks underneath the upside-down fellow. Most of the area underneath the curve is away from that.

    There’s a lot of results that are close to but not exactly at the arithmetic mean. Most of the results are going to be close to the arithmetic mean. Look at how many area there is under the curve and within four vertical lines of the upside-down fellow. That’s nearly everything. So we have this apparent contradiction: the most likely result is the average. But almost nothing is average. And yet almost everything is nearly average. This is why statisticians have their own departments, or get to make the mathematics department brand itself the Department of Mathematics and Statistics.

     
  • Joseph Nebus 8:14 pm on Sunday, 1 February, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Jon Bon Jovi, , , science fiction, , ,   

    How My Mathematics Blog Was Read, For January 2015 


    And after reaching 20,000 views on the final day of December, 2014, could I reach 21,000 views by the end of January? Probably I could have, but in point of fact I did not. I am not complaining, though: I finished the month with 20,956 page views all told, after a record 944 pages got viewed by somebody, somewhere, for some reason. This is a record high for me, going well past the 831 that had been the January 2013 and December 2014 (tied) record. And likely I’ll reach 21,000 in the next couple days anyway.

    According to WordPress, this was read by 438 distinct visitors, reading 2.16 views per visitor on average. That isn’t quite a record: January 2013 remains my high count for visitors, at 473, but it’s still, all told, some pretty nice numbers especially considering I don’t think I had my best month of blog-writing. I can’t wait to get some interesting new topics in here for February and see that they interest absolutely nobody.

    The new WordPress statistics page is still awful, don’t get me wrong, but it has been getting a little bit better, and it does offer some new data I couldn’t gather easily before. Among them: that in January 205 I received 197 likes overall — a high for the past twelvemonth, which is as far as I can figure out how to get it, and up from 128 in December — and 51 comments, up from December 29, and also a high for the twelvemonth.

    The three countries sending me viewers were, once again, the big three of the United States (594), Canada (56), and the United Kingdom (52), with Austria sending in 32 viewers, and Germany and Argentina ending 22 each. And India, for a wonder sent me a noticeable-to-me 18 readers, although on a per capita basis that still isn’t very many, I admit.

    There was a bumper crop of single-reader countries, though, up from last month’s six: Belgium, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Indonesia, Iraq, Japan, Kuwait, Libya, Mexico, Paraguay, Slovakia, and the United Arab Emirates each found only one person viewing anything around here. Greece and Mexico are repeats from December.

    This month’s most popular articles were mostly comic strip posts, although they were a pretty popular set; none of these had fewer than 35 views per, which feels high to me. The top posts of the last 30 days, then, were:

    1. Reading the Comics, January 6, 2015: First of the Year Edition, in which I included drawing a sloppy `2′ as a snoring `Z’ as somehow connected to mathematics.
    2. Reading the Comics, January 24, 2015: Many, But Not Complicated Edition, which includes an explanation for why margins of errors on surveys are always like three or four percent.
    3. Reading the Comics, January 11, 2015: Standard Genres And Bloom County Edition, in which I reveal my best guess for Jon Bon Jovi’s shorts size in the late 80s.
    4. 20,000: My Math Blog’s Statistics, because my narcissism is apparently quite popular?
    5. Reading the Comics, January 17, 2015: Finding Your Place Edition, where, again, I can flog that thing about a watch as a compass.
    6. How Many Trapezoids I Can Draw, which also reveals how many trapeziums I think are different in interesting ways.
    7. A bit more about Thomas Hobbes, and his attempt to redefine the very nature of mathematics, which didn’t succeed in quite the way he wanted.

    Among the interesting search terms that brought people here the past month have been ([sic] on all of them):

    • science fiction and trapazoids (Somebody should totally write the definitive SFnal treatment of trapezoids, I agree.)
    • food. stotagre nebus (I feel strangely threatened by this.)
    • a group of student offer at least one of mathematics,physics, and statistcs , 14 of them offer mathematics, 12 offer physics,and 16 offer statistics.7 offer statistics and maths 6 offer maths and physics, 4 offer physics and statistics only, while 5 offer all the three subject (Help?)
    • hiw to draw diffrent trameziums
    • soglow otto radio (Pretty sure I used to listen to that back on WRSU in my undergrad days.)
    • if a calendar has two consecutive months with friday the 13th which would they be (February and March, in a non-bissextile — that is, non-leap — year)
    • how to measure a christmas tree made of triangles and trapeziums (I would use a tape measure, myself)

    So if I would summarize January 2015 in my readership here, I would say: tramezium?

     
    • Little Monster Girl 8:27 pm on Sunday, 1 February, 2015 Permalink | Reply

      Now you need to take all those search terms and make one blog post with the terms as the title! 😄

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    • Carrie Rubin 3:17 pm on Wednesday, 4 February, 2015 Permalink | Reply

      I don’t look into my stats page too much. I suppose I should. I might learn something. Mostly I see how people landed on my site (search terms, links from other sites, etc.). I think that can be helpful to know, though some of the search terms are bizarre. Last week I got “feet facebook.” Yeeaaah, not sure what to even make of that one…

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      • Joseph Nebus 9:27 pm on Friday, 6 February, 2015 Permalink | Reply

        I feel like if I could just read the right statistics I’d have a perfect understanding of how to find the audience that would most appreciate my writing, and that would most thrill me to write for, but I just don’t know how to turn the information I have into something useful, like, “here, write about the goldfish pond more, and post something about it every Wednesday morning”.

        Liked by 1 person

  • Joseph Nebus 9:33 pm on Wednesday, 25 June, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Olbers Paradox, science fiction, ,   

    In A Really Big Universe 


    I’d got to thinking idly about Olbers’ Paradox, the classic question of why the night sky is dark. It’s named for Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers, 1758-1840, who of course was not the first person to pose the problem nor to give a convincing answer to it, but, that’s the way naming rights go.

    It doesn’t sound like much of a question at first, after all, it’s night. But if we suppose the universe is infinitely large and is infinitely old, then, along the path of any direction you look in the sky, day or night, there’ll be a star. The star may be very far away, so that it’s very faint; but it takes up much less of the sky from being so far away. The result is that the star’s intensity, as a function of how much of the sky it takes up, is no smaller. And there’ll be stars shining just as intensely in directions that are near to that first star. The sky in an infinitely large, infinitely old universe should be a wall of stars.

    Oh, some stars will be dimmer than average, and some brighter, but that doesn’t matter much. We can suppose the average star is of average brightness and average size for reasons that are right there in the name of the thing; it makes the reasoning a little simpler and doesn’t change the result.

    The reason there is darkness is that our universe is neither infinitely large nor infinitely old. There aren’t enough stars to fill the sky and there’s not enough time for the light from all of them to get to us.

    But we can still imagine standing on a planet in such an Olbers Universe (to save myself writing “infinitely large and infinitely old” too many times), with enough vastness and enough time to have a night sky that looks like a shell of starlight, and that’s what I was pondering. What might we see if you looked at the sky, in these conditions?

    Well, light, obviously; we can imagine the sky looking as bright as the sun, but in all directions above the horizon. The sun takes up a very tiny piece of the sky — it’s about as wide across as your thumb, held at arm’s length, and try it if you don’t believe me (better, try it with the Moon, which is about the same size as the Sun and easier to look at) — so, multiply that brightness by the difference between your thumb and the sky and imagine the investment in sunglasses this requires.

    It’s worse than that, though. Yes, in any direction you look there’ll be a star, but if you imagine going on in that direction there’ll be another star, eventually. And another one past that, and another past that yet. And the light — the energy — of those stars shining doesn’t disappear because there’s a star between it and the viewer. The heat will just go into warming up the stars in its path and get radiated through.

    This is why interstellar dust, or planets, or other non-radiating bodies doesn’t answer why the sky could be dark in a vast enough universe. Anything that gets enough heat put into it will start to glow and start to shine from that light. The stars will slow down the waves of heat from the stars behind them, but given enough time, it will get through, and in an infinitely old universe, there is enough time.

    The conclusion, then, is that our planet in an Olbers Universe would get an infinite amount of heat pouring onto it, at all times. It’s hard to see how life could possibly exist in the circumstance; water would boil away — rock would boil away — and the planet just would evaporate into dust.

    Things get worse, though: it’s not just our planet that would get boiled away like this, but as far as I can tell, the stars too. Each star would be getting an infinite amount of heat pouring into it. It seems to me this requires the matter making up the stars to get so hot it would boil away, just as the atmosphere and water and surface of the imagined planet would, until the star — until all stars — disintegrate. At this point I have to think of the great super-science space-opera writers of the early 20th century, listening to the description of a wave of heat that boils away a star, and sniffing, “Amateurs. Come back when you can boil a galaxy instead”. Well, the galaxy would boil too, for the same reasons.

    Even once the stars have managed to destroy themselves, though, the remaining atoms would still have a temperature, and would still radiate faint light. And that faint light, multiplied by the infinitely many atoms and all the time they have, would still accumulate to an infinitely great heat. I don’t know how hot you have to get to boil a proton into nothingness — or a quark — but if there is any temperature that does it, it’d be able to.

    So the result, I had to conclude, is that an infinitely large, infinitely old universe could exist only if it didn’t have anything in it, or at least if it had nothing that wasn’t at absolute zero in it. This seems like a pretty dismal result and left me looking pretty moody for a while, even I was sure that EE “Doc” Smith would smile at me for working out the heat-death of quarks.

    Of course, there’s no reason that a universe has to, or even should, be pleasing to imagine. And there is a little thread of hope for life, or at least existence, in a Olbers Universe.

    All the destruction-of-everything comes about from the infinitely large number of stars, or other radiating bodies, in the universe. If there’s only finitely much matter in the universe, then, their total energy doesn’t have to add up to the point of self-destruction. This means giving up an assumption that was slipped into my Olbers Universe without anyone noticing: the idea that it’s about uniformly distributed. If you compare any two volumes of equal size, from any time, they have about the same number of stars in them. This is known in cosmology as “isotropy”.

    Our universe seems to have this isotropy. Oh, there are spots where you can find many stars (like the center of a galaxy) and spots where there are few (like, the space in-between galaxies), but the galaxies themselves seem to be pretty uniformly distributed.

    But an imagined universe doesn’t have to have this property. If we suppose an Olbers Universe without then we can have stars and planets and maybe even life. It could even have many times the mass, the number of stars and everything, that our universe has, spread across something much bigger than our universe. But it does mean that this infinitely large, infinitely old universe will have all its matter clumped together into some section, and nearly all the space — in a universe with an incredible amount of space — will be empty.

    I suppose that’s better than a universe with nothing at all, but somehow only a little better. Even though it could be a universe with more stars and more space occupied than our universe has, that infinitely vast emptiness still haunts me.

    (I’d like to note, by the way, that all this universe-building and reasoning hasn’t required any equations or anything like that. One could argue this has diverted from mathematics and cosmology into philosophy, and I wouldn’t dispute that, but can imagine philosophers might.)

     
    • Planetary Defense Commander 5:06 pm on Sunday, 29 June, 2014 Permalink | Reply

      I’m surprised anyone from that time period really thought of the night sky as dark. The first time I was in the African countryside (reasonably far from a city) and looked up, I thought the sky looked like rivers and streams of light in the distance, not the black curtain with pinpoints of light I was expecting.

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      • Joseph Nebus 3:39 am on Tuesday, 1 July, 2014 Permalink | Reply

        I can understand that. The first really quality dark sky I saw was just last year when I finally saw the Milky Way as a coherent and impressive object (along with a good number of meteors). But it’s hard to argue that the day sky is incredibly bright in a way the night sky isn’t, after all.

        Olbers did live and work for quite some time in the cities of German states and of France, which wouldn’t be nearly as light-polluted as they are now, but would still be pretty impressively lit. Of course, he wasn’t the first to pose the problem; I’d imagine it gets to be compelling to any astronomer who’s noticed how many more stars there are in the telescope, and supposes them to just go on forever.

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  • Joseph Nebus 6:02 pm on Wednesday, 9 April, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , science fiction   

    Weightlessness at the Equator (Whiteboard Sketch #1) 


    The mathematics blog Scientific Finger Food has an interesting entry, “Weightlessness at the Equator (Whiteboard Sketch #1)”, which looks at the sort of question that’s easy to imagine when you’re young: since gravity pulls you to the center of the earth, and the earth’s spinning pushes you away (unless we’re speaking precisely, but you know what that means), so, how fast would the planet have to spin so that a person on the equator wouldn’t feel any weight?

    It’s a straightforward problem, one a high school student ought to be able to do. Sebastian Templ works the problem out, though, including the all-important diagram that shows the important part, which is what calculation to do.

    In reality, the answer doesn’t much matter since a planet spinning nearly fast enough to allow for weightlessness at the equator would be spinning so fast it couldn’t hold itself together, and a more advanced version of this problem could make use of that: given some measure of how strongly rock will hold itself together, what’s the fastest that the planet can spin before it falls apart? And a yet more advanced course might work out how other phenomena, such as tides or the precession of the poles might work. Eventually, one might go on to compose highly-regarded works of hard science fiction, if you’re willing to start from the questions easy to imagine when you’re young.

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    scientific finger food

    At the present time, our Earth does a full rotation every 24 hours, which results in day and night. Just like on a carrousel, its inhabitants (and, by the way, all the other stuff on and of the planet) are pushed “outwards” due to the centrifugal force. So we permanently feel an “upwards” pulling force thanks to the Earth’s rotation. However, the centrifugal force is much weaker than the centri petal force, which is directed towards the core of the planet and usually called “gravitation”. If this wasn’t the case, we would have serious problems holding our bodies down to the ground. (The ground, too, would have troubles holding itself “to the ground”.)

    Especially on the equator, the centrifugal and the gravitational force are antagonistic forces: the one points “downwards” while the other points “upwards”.

    How fast would the Earth have to spin in order to cause weightlessness at the…

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  • Joseph Nebus 9:49 pm on Saturday, 15 March, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: human hearing, J G Ballard, , , , science fiction,   

    Listening To Vermilion Sands 


    My Beloved is reading J G Ballard’s Vermillion Sands; early in one of the book’s stories is a character wondering if an odd sound comes from one of the musical … let’s call it instruments, one with a 24-octave range. We both thought, wow, that’s a lot of range. Is it a range any instrument could have?

    As we weren’t near our computers this turned into a mental arithmetic problem. It’s solvable in principle because, if you know the frequency of one note, then you know the frequency of its counterpart one octave higher (it’s double that), and one octave lower (it’s half that). It’s not solvable, at this point, because we don’t have any information about what the range is supposed to be. So here’s roughly how we worked it out.

    The note A above middle C is 440 Hertz, or at least you can use that for tuning ever since the International Standards Organization set that as a tuning standard in 1953. (As with any basically arbitrary standard this particular choice is debatable, although, goodness but this page advocating a 432 Hertz standard for A doesn’t do itself any favors by noting that “440 Hz is the unnatural standard tuning frequency, removed from the symmetry of sacred vibrations and overtones that has declared war on the subconscious mind of Western Man” and, yes, Nikola Tesla and Joseph Goebbels turn up in the article because you might otherwise imagine taking it seriously.) Anyway, it doesn’t matter; 440 is just convenient as it’s a number definitely in hearing range.

    So I’m adding the assumption that 440 Hz is probably in the instrument’s range. And I’ll work on the assumption that it’s right in the middle of the range, that is, that we should be able to go down twelve octaves and up twelve octaves, and see if that assumption leads me to any problems. And now I’ve got the problem defined well enough to answer: is 440 divided by two to the twelfth power in human hearing range? Is 440 times two to the twelfth power in range?

    I’m not dividing 440 by two a dozen times; I might manage that with pencil and paper but not in my head. But I also don’t need to. Two raised to the tenth power is pretty close to 1,000, as anyone who’s noticed that the common logarithm of two is 0.3 could work out. Remembering a couple approximations like that are key to doing any kind of real mental arithmetic; it’s all about turning the problem you’re interested in into one you can do without writing it down.

    Another key to this sort of mental arithmetic is noticing that two to the 12th power is equal to two to the second power (that is, four) times two to the tenth power (approximately 1,000). In algebra class this was fed to you as something like “ax + y = (ax)(a y)”, and it’s the trick that makes logarithms a concept that works.

    Getting back to the question, 440 divided by two twelve times over is going to be about 440 divided by 4,000, which is going to be close enough to one-tenth Hertz. There’s no point working it out to any more exact answer, since this is definitely below the range of human hearing; I think the lower bound is usually around ten to thirty Hertz.

    Well, no matter; maybe the range of the instrument starts higher up and keeps on going. To see if there’s any room, what’s the frequency of a note twelve octaves above the 440-Hertz A?

    That’s going to be 440 Hertz times 4,000, which to make it simpler I’ll say is something more than 400 times 4000. The four times four is easy, and there’s five zeroes in there, so, that suggests an upper range on the high side of 1,600,000 Hertz. Again, I’m not positive the upper limit of human hearing but I’m confident it’s not more than about 30,000 Hertz, and I leave space below for people who know what it is exactly to say. There’s just no fitting 24 octaves into the human hearing range.

    So! Was Ballard just putting stuff into his science fiction story without checking whether the numbers make that plausible, if you can imagine a science fiction author doing such a thing?

    It’s conceivable. It’s also possible Ballard was trying to establish the character was a pretentious audiophile snob who imagines himself capable of hearing things that no, in fact, can’t be discerned. However, based on the setting … the instruments producing music in this story (and other stories in the book), set in the far future, include singing plants and musical arachnids and other things that indicate not just technology but biology has changed rather considerably. If it’s possible to engineer a lobster that can sing over a 24 octave range, it’s presumably possible to engineer a person who can listen to it.

     
  • Joseph Nebus 8:52 pm on Thursday, 6 February, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , science fiction, science history, ,   

    The Liquefaction of Gases – Part I 


    I know, or at least I’m fairly confident, there’s a couple readers here who like deeper mathematical subjects. It’s fine to come up with simulated Price is Right games or figure out what grades one needs to pass the course, but those aren’t particularly challenging subjects.

    But those are hard to write, so, while I stall, let me point you to CarnotCycle, which has a nice historical article about the problem of liquefaction of gases, a problem that’s not just steeped in thermodynamics but in engineering. If you’re a little familiar with thermodynamics you likely won’t be surprised to see names like William Thomson, James Joule, or Willard Gibbs turn up. I was surprised to see in the additional reading T O’Conor Sloane show up; science fiction fans might vaguely remember that name, as he was the editor of Amazing Stories for most of the 1930s, in between Hugo Gernsback and Raymond Palmer. It’s often a surprising world.

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    carnotcycle

    On Monday 3 December 1877, the French Academy of Sciences received a letter from Louis Cailletet, a 45 year-old physicist from Châtillon-sur-Seine. The letter stated that Cailletet had succeeded in liquefying both carbon monoxide and oxygen.

    Liquefaction as such was nothing new to 19th century science, it should be said. The real news value of Cailletet’s announcement was that he had liquefied two gases previously considered ‘non condensable’.

    While a number of gases such as chlorine, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, ethylene and ammonia had been liquefied by the simultaneous application of pressure and cooling, the principal gases comprising air – nitrogen and oxygen – together with carbon monoxide, nitric oxide, hydrogen and helium, had stubbornly refused to liquefy, despite the use of pressures up to 3000 atmospheres. By the mid-1800s, the general opinion was that these gases could not be converted into liquids under any circumstances.

    But in…

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    • Damyanti 6:47 am on Thursday, 13 February, 2014 Permalink | Reply

      I usually run far from all topics science-related, but I like this little bit of history here.

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      • Joseph Nebus 11:46 pm on Thursday, 13 February, 2014 Permalink | Reply

        I’m glad you do enjoy. I like a good bit of history myself, mathematics and science included, and might go looking for more topics that have a historical slant.

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    • LFFL 10:43 pm on Sunday, 23 February, 2014 Permalink | Reply

      You lost me at “deeper mathematical subjects”. I barely have addition & subtraction down.

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      • Joseph Nebus 4:43 am on Monday, 24 February, 2014 Permalink | Reply

        Aw, but the deeper stuff is fascinating. For example, imagine you have a parcel of land with some really complicated boundary, all sorts of nooks and crannies and corners and curves and all that. If you just walk around the outside, keeping track of how far you walk and in what direction, then, you can use a bit of calculus to tell exactly how much area is enclosed by the boundary, however complicated a shape it is.

        Isn’t that amazing? You never even have to set foot inside the property, just walk around its boundary.

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        • LFFL 4:46 am on Monday, 24 February, 2014 Permalink | Reply

          Wow. I’m impressed by your brain power. I just wasn’t born with a brain for much math beyond the basics.

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          • Joseph Nebus 4:25 am on Tuesday, 25 February, 2014 Permalink | Reply

            Aw, you’re kind to me, and unkind to you. It’s not my brainpower, at least. The result is a consequence of some pretty important work you learn early on in calculus, and I’d expect you could understand the important part of it without knowing more than the basics.

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  • Joseph Nebus 5:26 pm on Friday, 9 August, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , science fiction   

    Why I Don’t Believe It’s 1/e 




    The above picture, showing the Leap-the-Dips roller coaster at Lakemont Park before its renovation, kind of answers why despite my neat reasoning and mental calculations I don’t really believe that there’s a chance of something like one in three that any particular board from the roller coaster’s original, 1902, construction is still in place. The picture — from the end of the track, if I’m not mistaken — dates to shortly before the renovation of the roller coaster began in the late 90s. Leap-the-Dips had stood without operating, and almost certainly without maintenance, from 1986 (coincidental to the park’s acquisition by the Boyer Candy company and its temporary renaming as Boyertown USA, in miniature imitation of Hershey Park) to 1998.

    The result of this period seems almost to demand replacing every board in the thing. But we don’t know that happened, and after all, surely some boards took it better than others, didn’t they? Not every board was equally exposed to the elements, or to vandalism, or to whatever does smash up wood. And there’s a lot of pieces of wood that go into a wooden roller coaster. Surely some were lucky by virtue of being in the right spot?

    (More …)

     
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