Tag Archives: math

reblog: Pi in the Sky Science Journalism

I seem to be doing a lot of reblogging lately (a lot for me, anyway). But I’m on kind of a math kick right now, and this ties in nicely with all that.

4 gravitons

You’ve probably seen it somewhere on your facebook feed, likely shared by a particularly wide-eyed friend: pi found hidden in the hydrogen atom!

FionaPi

ChoPi

OuellettePi

From the headlines, this sounds like some sort of kabbalistic nonsense, like finding the golden ratio in random pictures.

Read the actual articles, and the story is a bit more reasonable. The last two I linked above seem to be decent takes on it, they’re just saddled with ridiculous headlines. As usual, I blame the editors. This time, they’ve obscured an interesting point about the link between physics and mathematics.

So what does “pi found hidden in the hydrogen atom” actually mean?

It doesn’t mean that there’s some deep importance to the number pi in nature, beyond its relevance in mathematics in general. The reason that pi is showing up here isn’t especially deep.

It isn’t trivial either, though. I’ve seen a few people…

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Secret Code

kid codeWhen I was a high school kid, my dad and I sometimes played a game where one of us would make up a secret code, write a message in that code, and the other would try to decipher the message. We generally used simple substitution ciphers, so it was an exercise in letter frequency analysis and word guessing.

There’s a cute secret code I found in a book back then that really stuck with me because of the neat way it looks. It also stuck with me because it’s so simple that once you learn it, you really can’t forget it.

So for some Saturday fun, I thought I’d share it with you.

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Moar Math!

Math!

But my brain is full!

You may have noticed that, in a number of recent posts, the topic has been math. The good-bad news is that there’s more to come (sorry, but I love this stuff).  The good-good news is that I’m done with math foundations. For now.

To wrap up the discussion of math’s universality and inevitability — and also of its fascination and beauty — today I just have some YouTube videos you can watch this Sunday afternoon. (Assuming you’re a geek like me.)

So get a coffee and get comfortable!

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Sideband #57: Weird Math

math-clockIn the recent post Inevitable Math I explored the idea that mathematics was both universal and inevitable. The argument is that the foundations of mathematics are so woven into the fabric of reality (if not actually being the fabric of reality) that any intelligence must discover them.

Which is not to say they would think about or express their mathematics in ways immediately recognizable to us. There could be fundamental differences, not just in their notation, but in how they conceive of numbers.

To explore that a little, here are a couple of twists on numbers:

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Inevitable Math

Math!

Oh, no! Not math again!

Among those who try to imagine alien first contact, many believe that mathematics will be the basis of initial communication. This is based on the perceived universality and inevitability of mathematics. They see math as so fundamental any intelligence must not only discover it, but must discover the same things we’ve discovered.

There is even a belief that math is more real than the physical universe, that it may be the actual basis of reality. The other end of that spectrum is a belief that mathematics is an invented game of symbol manipulation with no deep meaning.

So today: the idea that math is universal and inevitable.

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Vectors and Scalars (oh, my!)

Math!Put on your arithmetic caps, dear readers. Also your math mittens, geometry galoshes and cosine coats. Today we’re venturing after numeric prey that lurks down among the lines and angles.

There’s no danger, at least not to life or limb, but I can’t promise some ideas won’t take root in your brain. There’s a very real danger of learning something when you venture into dark territory such as this.  Even the strongest sometimes succumb, so hang on to your hats (and galoshes and mittens and coats and brains).

Today we’re going after vectors and scalars (and some other game)!

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The Universal Computer

Computing...

Computing…

I’ve written here before about chaos theory and how it prevents us from calculating certain physical models effectively. It’s not that these models don’t accurately reflect the physics involved; it’s that any attempt to use actual numbers introduces tiny errors into the process. These cause the result to drift more and more as the calculation extends into the future.

This is why tomorrow’s weather prediction is fairly accurate but a prediction for a year from now is entirely guesswork. (We could make a rough guess based on past seasons.) Yet the Earth itself is a computer — an analog computer — that tells us exactly what the weather is a year from now.

The thing is: it runs in real-time and takes a year to give us an answer!

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Science is Easy!

scientist (mad)No doubt those who regard quantum physics or Einstein’s relativity or even just trigonometry as an impenetrable thicket of unknowable terms and ideas have a hard time believing science could be easy. The lingo alone seems to create an exclusive “members only” club.

The trick is: easy (or difficult) compared to what? Many scientists now disdain philosophy (apparently forgetting what we now call science was once called natural philosophy). They point to the advances of science in the last 500 (or whatever) years and then say that philosophy hasn’t been nearly as successful in 2000 years.

But that’s because science is easy. It’s philosophy that’s hard!

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Square Footage

This one’s mine!

So I was conversing with a fellow I know, and the right side of my brain asked the left side, “So just how much square footage per person is there these days?” We both agreed that seemed like an interesting question (given all the people running around these days), so we looked around for a body to help us research the answer.

We just happened to find one handy, so off we all went to the virtual library and math lab.  Unfortunately our math consultant was a Communications Arts major and made a small error thinking square kilometers to square miles was the same as kilometers to miles. Fortunately everyone involved obsessively double-checks their work, so we caught the error in time.

Pity, though. The original answer would have been fun to write about.

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Sideband #10: A Full Hand

Sidebands are 10; a full hand; a (very small) odometer moment.

The accident of genetics and evolution that gives us ten fingers (and ten toes) causes us to count in tens and celebrate things that occur on tens boundaries. Turning 30, 40 or 50 years of age is viewed as cause to bring out the black balloons and mocking birthday cards. Yet celebrating 30, 40, 50 or 60 years of marriage is increasingly cause to celebrate (especially these divorce-prone days).

Despite the (admittedly very pedantic) fact that the new millennium actually began in 2001—the first year of the new epoch—most people celebrated the odometer change from 1999 to 2000. (In our IT department we had to deal with the Y-to-K issue. We spent a huge amount of time going through all corporate documentation and changing all those “Y”s to “K”s.  It was never clear why that was so important, but we got it done and just in time for the party.)

The baseball world was all agog this past week, because New York Yankee Derek Jeter got his 3000th hit (and he did it with a home run, a feat only ever equaled by Wade Boggs back in 1999—the last year of the previous millennium). Seems like getting 2999 (or 3001) hits is a pretty big deal, but 3000 is a record book entry.

In particular, we revere the major odometer numbers—the ones with all zeros (except for the “1” on the very left): 10; 100; 1000; 10,000; 100,000; 1,000,000; etc. There is, perhaps, an instinctive reason for this. These numbers represent the digit positions themselves and are the basis of how we naturally represent numbers.

And they progress upon themselves:

  • 100 = (10 x 10)
  • 1000 = (10 x 10 x 10)
  • 10,000 = (10 x 10 x 10 x 10)
  • (and so forth)

As we’ll explore some other time, they can also be represented like this:

  • 10 = 101
  • 100 = 102
  • 1000 = 103
  • 10,000 = 104
  • (and so forth)

But for now, Sidebands are 10.  Happy 1oth!