Some Mathematics Things I Read On Twitter


I had thought I’d culled some more pieces from my Twitter and other mathematics-writing-reading the last couple weeks and I’m not sure where it all went. I think I might be baffled by the repostings of things on Quanta Magazine (which has a lot of good mathematics articles, but not, like, a 3,000-word piece every day, and they showcase their archive just as anyone ought).

So, here, first.

It reviews Kim Plofker’s 2008 text Mathematics In India, a subject that I both know is important — I love to teach with historic context included — and something that I very much bluff my way through. I mean, I do research things I expect I’ll mention, but I don’t learn enough of the big picture and a determined questioner could prove how fragile my knowledge was. So Plofker’s book should go on my reading list at least.

These are lecture notes about analysis. In the 19th century mathematicians tried to tighten up exactly what we meant by things like “functions” and “limits” and “integrals” and “numbers” and all that. It was a lot of good solid argument, and a lot of surprising, intuition-defying results. This isn’t something that a lay reader’s likely to appreciate, and I’m sorry for that, but if you do know the difference between Riemann and Lebesgue integrals the notes are likely to help.

And this, Daniel Grieser and Svenja Maronna’s Hearing The Shape Of A Triangle, follows up on a classic mathematics paper, Mark Kac’s Can One Hear The Shape Of A Drum? This is part of a class of problems in which you try to reconstruct what kinds of things can produce a signal. It turns out to be impossible to perfectly say what shape and material of a drum produced a certain sound of a drum. But. A triangle — the instrument, that is, but also the shape — has a simpler structure. Could we go from the way a triangle sounds to knowing what it looks like?

And I mentioned this before but if you want to go reading every Calvin and Hobbes strip to pick out the ones that mention mathematics, you can be doing someone a favor too.

How To Hear Drums


The @mathematicsprof tweet above links to a paper, by Carolyn Gordon and David Webb and published in American Scientist in 1996, that’s about one of those questions that’s both mathematically interesting and of obvious everyday interest. The question was originally put, in nice compact and real-world-relevant form, in 1966 by Mark Kac: can one hear the shape of a drum?

At first glance the answer may seem, “of course” — you can hear the difference between musical instruments by listening to them. You might need experience, but, after all, you’re not going to confuse a bass drum from a bongo even if you haven’t been in the music store much. At second glance, why would Kac bother asking the question if the answer were obvious? He didn’t need the attention. He had, among other things, his work in ferromagnetism to be proud of (and I should write about that some.) And could you tell one bass drum from another?

The question ties into what’s known as “spectral theory”: given a complicated bundle of information what can you say about the source? One metaphorical inspiration here is studying the spectrum of a burning compound: the wavelengths of light emitted by it give you information about what elements go into the compound, and what their relative abundances are.

The sound of a drum is going to be a potentially complicated set of sound waves produced by the drum’s membrane itself oscillating. That membrane oscillation is going to depend, among other things, on the shape of the membrane, and that’s why we might suppose that we could tell what the shape of the drum is by the sound it makes when struck. But then it might also be that multiple different shapes could produce the exact same sound.

It took to about 1990 to get a definite answer; Gordon and Webb, along with Scott Wolpert, showed that you can get different-shaped drums that sound the same, and very nicely showed an example. In the linked article, Gordon and Webb describe some of the history of the problem and how they worked out a solution. It does require some technical terms that maybe even re-reading several times won’t help you parse, but if you’re willing to just move on past a paragraph that looks like jargon to the rest I believe you’ll find some interesting stuff out, for example, whether you could at least hear the area of a drum, even if you can’t tell what the shape is.