Science & Math

Turn, Turn, Turn

Image: Flickr

The Hoover Dam contains a star map depicting the sky of the Northern Hemisphere as it appeared at the moment that Franklin Roosevelt dedicated the dam. Artist Oskar Hansen imagined that the massive structure might outlive our civilization, and that the map could help future astronomers to calculate the date of its creation. The center star on the map, Alcyone, is the brightest star in the Pleiades, and our sun occupies a position at the center of a flagpole. The whole map traces a complete sidereal revolution of the equinox, a period of 25,694 of our years, and marks the point of the dam’s dedication in that period.

“Man has always sought to express and preserve the magnitude of his exploits in symbols,” Hansen said in 1935. “The written words are symbols arranged so as to preserve in objectified form the thought of man and to record his variant states, both mental and physical. All other arts are similar as to their symbolic significance. They take their place among the category of human endeavor simply as the interpreter of life to itself. They serve as an outer object typifying the inner process. They form the connecting link between the spiritual and the material world. They are the shadows cast by the realities of the soul.”


  • Juneau, Alaska, is larger than Rhode Island.
  • After reading Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, Byron said, “I wish he would explain his explanation.”
  • If A + B + C = 180°, then tan A + tan B + tan C = (tan A)(tan B)(tan C).
  • Five counties meet in the middle of Lake Okeechobee.
  • “Life resembles a novel more often than novels resemble life.” — George Sand

No one knows whether Andrew Jackson was born in North Carolina or South Carolina. The border hadn’t been surveyed well at the time.


When Glenn Seaborg appeared as a guest scientist on the children’s radio show Quiz Kids in 1945, one of the children asked whether any new elements, other than plutonium and neptunium, had been discovered at the Metallurgical Laboratory in Chicago during the war.

In fact two had — Seaborg announced for the first time anywhere that two new elements, with atomic numbers 95 and 96 (americium and curium), had been discovered. He said, “So now you’ll have to tell your teachers to change the 92 elements in your schoolbook to 96 elements.”

In his 1979 Priestley Medal address, Seaborg recalled that many students apparently did bring this knowledge to school. And “judging from some of the letters I received from such youngsters, they were not entirely successful in convincing their teachers.”


lee sallows triangle theorem

A pretty new theorem by Lee Sallows: Connect each vertex of a triangle to the midpoint of the opposite side, and place a hinge at that point. Now rotate the smaller triangles about these hinges and you’ll produce three congruent triangles.

If the original triangle is isosceles (or equilateral), then the three resulting triangles will be too.

The theorem appears in the December 2014 issue of Mathematics Magazine.

The Trojan Fly

Achilles overtakes the tortoise and runs on into the sunset, exulting. As he does so, a fly leaves the tortoise’s back, flies to Achilles, then returns to the tortoise, and continues to oscillate between the two as the distance between them grows, changing direction instantaneously each time. Suppose the tortoise travels at 1 mph, Achilles at 5 mph, and the fly at 10 mph. An hour later, where is the fly, and which way is it facing?

Strangely, the fly can be anywhere between the two, facing in either direction. We can find the answer by running the scenario backward, letting the three participants reverse their motions until all three are again abreast. The right answer is the one that returns the fly to the tortoise’s back just as Achilles passes it. But all solutions do this: Place the fly anywhere between Achilles and the tortoise, run the race backward, and the fly will arrive satisfactorily on the tortoise’s back at just the right moment.

This is puzzling. The conditions of the problem allow us to predict exactly where Achilles and the tortoise will be after an hour’s running. But the fly’s position admits of an infinite number of solutions. Why?

(From University of Arizona philosopher Wesley Salmon’s Space, Time, and Motion, after an idea by A.K. Austin.)

Traffic Waves

In 2008, physicist Yuki Sugiyama of the University of Nagoya demonstrated why traffic jams sometimes form in the absence of a bottleneck. He spaced 22 drivers around a 230-meter track and asked them to proceed as steadily as possible at 30 kph, each maintaining a safe distance from the car ahead of it. Because the cars were packed quite densely, irregularities began to appear within a couple of laps. When drivers were forced to brake, they would sometimes overcompensate slightly, forcing the drivers behind them to overcompensate as well. A “stop-and-go wave” developed: A car arriving at the back of the jam was forced to slow down, and one reaching the front could accelerate again to normal speed, producing a living wave that crept backward around the track.

Interestingly, Sugiyama found that this phenomenon arises predictably in the real world. Measurements on various motorways in Germany and Japan have shown that free-flowing traffic becomes congested when the density of cars reaches 40 vehicles per mile. Beyond that point, the flow becomes unstable and stop-and-go waves appear. Because it’s founded in human reaction times, this happens regardless of the country or the speed limit. And as long as the total number of cars on the motorway doesn’t change, the wave rolls backward at a predictable 12 mph.

“Understanding things like traffic jams from a physical point of view is a totally new, emerging field of physics,” Sugiyama told Gavin Pretor-Pinney for The Wavewatcher’s Companion. “While the phenomenon of a jam is so familiar to us, it is still too difficult to truly understand why it happens.”

The Facts

“Boarding-House Geometry,” by Stephen Leacock:

Definitions and Axioms

All boarding-houses are the same boarding-house.
Boarders in the same boardinghouse and on the same flat are equal to one another.
A single room is that which has no parts and no magnitude.
The landlady of a boarding-house is a parallelogram — that is, an oblong angular figure, which cannot be described, but which is equal to anything.
A wrangle is the disinclination of two boarders to each other that meet together but are not in the same line.
All the other rooms being taken, a single room is said to be a double room.

Postulates and Propositions

A pie may be produced any number of times.
The landlady can be reduced to her lowest terms by a series of propositions.
A bee line may be made from any boarding-house to any other boarding-house.
The clothes of a boarding-house bed, though produced ever so far both ways, will not meet.
Any two meals at a boarding-house are together less than two square meals.
If from the opposite ends of a boarding-house a line be drawn passing through all the rooms in turn, then the stovepipe which warms the boarders will lie within that line.
On the same bill and on the same side of it there should not be two charges for the same thing.
If there be two boarders on the same flat, and the amount of side of the one be equal to the amount of side of the other, each to each, and the wrangle between one boarder and the landlady be equal to the wrangle between the landlady and the other, then shall the weekly bills of the two boarders be equal also, each to each.
For if not, let one bill be the greater. Then the other bill is less than it might have been — which is absurd.

From his Literary Lapses, 1918. See Special Projects.

A Late Contribution

A ghost co-authored a mathematics paper in 1990. When Pierre Cartier edited a Festschrift in honor of Alexander Grothendieck’s 60th birthday, Robert Thomas contributed an article that was co-signed by his recently deceased friend Thomas Trobaugh. He explained:

The first author must state that his coauthor and close friend, Tom Trobaugh, quite intelligent, singularly original, and inordinately generous, killed himself consequent to endogenous depression. Ninety-four days later, in my dream, Tom’s simulacrum remarked, ‘The direct limit characterization of perfect complexes shows that they extend, just as one extends a coherent sheaf.’ Awaking with a start, I knew this idea had to be wrong, since some perfect complexes have a non-vanishing K0 obstruction to extension. I had worked on this problem for 3 years, and saw this approach to be hopeless. But Tom’s simulacrum had been so insistent, I knew he wouldn’t let me sleep undisturbed until I had worked out the argument and could point to the gap. This work quickly led to the key results of this paper. To Tom, I could have explained why he must be listed as a coauthor.

Thomason himself died suddenly five years later of diabetic shock, at age 43. Perhaps the two are working again together somewhere.

(Robert Thomason and Thomas Trobaugh, “Higher Algebraic K-Theory of Schemes and of Derived Categories,” in P. Cartier et al., eds., The Grothendieck Festschrift Volume III, 1990.)

Cross Purposes

ferland crossword grid

The daily New York Times crossword puzzle fills a grid measuring 15×15. The smallest number of clues ever published in a Times puzzle is 52 (on Dec. 23, 2008), and the largest is 86 (on Jan. 21, 2005).

This set Bloomsburg University mathematician Kevin Ferland wondering: What are the theoretical limits? What are the shortest and longest clue lists that can inform a standard 15×15 crossword grid, using the standard structure rules (connectivity, symmetry, and 3-letter words minimum)?

The shortest is straightforward: A blank grid with no black squares will be filled with 30 15-letter words, 15 across and 15 down.

The longest is harder to determine, but after working out a nine-page proof Ferland found that the answer is 96: The largest number of clues that a Times-style crossword will admit is 96, using a grid such as the one above.

In honor of this result, he composed a puzzle using this grid — it appears in the June-July 2014 issue of the American Mathematical Monthly.

(Kevin K. Ferland, “Record Crossword Puzzles,” American Mathematical Monthly 121:6 [June-July 2014], 534-536.)

All for One

A flock of starlings masses near sunset over Gretna Green in Scotland, preparatory to roosting after a day’s foraging. The flock’s shape has a mesmerisingly fluid quality, flowing, stretching, rippling, and merging with itself. Similarly massive flocks form over Rome and over the marshlands of western Denmark, where more than a million migrating starlings form an enormous display known as the “black sun.”

What rules produce this behavior? In the 1970s scientists thought that the birds might be following an electrostatic field produced by the leader. Earler, in the 1930s, one paper even suggested that they use thought transference.

But in 1986 computer graphics expert Craig Reynolds found that he could create a lifelike virtual flock (below) using a surprisingly simple set of rules: direct each bird to avoid crowding nearby flockmates, steer toward the average heading of nearby flockmates, and move toward the center of mass of nearby flockmates.

Studies with real birds seem to bear this out: Under rules like these a flock can react sensitively to a change in direction by any of its members, permitting the whole group to respond efficiently as one organism. “News of a predator’s approach can be communicated rapidly through the flock by whichever of the hundreds of birds on the outside notice it first,” writes Gavin Pretor-Pinney in The Wavewatcher’s Companion. “When under attack by a peregrine falcon, for instance, starling flocks will contract into a ball and then peel away in a ribbon to distract and confuse the predator.”