Science & Math


1927 solvay conference

At the Fifth Solvay International Conference, held in Brussels in October 1927, 29 physicists gathered for a group photograph. Back row: Auguste Piccard, Émile Henriot, Paul Ehrenfest, Édouard Herzen, Théophile de Donder, Erwin Schrödinger, Jules-Émile Verschaffelt, Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg, Ralph Howard Fowler, Léon Brillouin. Middle: Peter Debye, Martin Knudsen, William Lawrence Bragg, Hendrik Anthony Kramers, Paul Dirac, Arthur Compton, Louis de Broglie, Max Born, Niels Bohr. Front: Irving Langmuir, Max Planck, Marie Sklodowska Curie, Hendrik Lorentz, Albert Einstein, Paul Langevin, Charles-Eugène Guye, Charles Thomson Rees Wilson, Owen Willans Richardson.

Seventeen of the 29 were or became Nobel Prize winners. Marie Curie, the only woman, is also the only person who has won the prize in two scientific disciplines.

Below: On Aug. 12, 1958, 57 notable jazz musicians assembled for a group portrait at 17 East 126th Street in Harlem. They included Red Allen, Buster Bailey, Count Basie, Emmett Berry, Art Blakey, Lawrence Brown, Scoville Browne, Buck Clayton, Bill Crump, Vic Dickenson, Roy Eldridge, Art Farmer, Bud Freeman, Dizzy Gillespie, Tyree Glenn, Benny Golson, Sonny Greer, Johnny Griffin, Gigi Gryce, Coleman Hawkins, J.C. Heard, Jay C. Higginbotham, Milt Hinton, Chubby Jackson, Hilton Jefferson, Osie Johnson, Hank Jones, Jo Jones, Jimmy Jones, Taft Jordan, Max Kaminsky, Gene Krupa, Eddie Locke, Marian McPartland, Charles Mingus, Miff Mole, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Oscar Pettiford, Rudy Powell, Luckey Roberts, Sonny Rollins, Jimmy Rushing, Pee Wee Russell, Sahib Shihab, Horace Silver, Zutty Singleton, Stuff Smith, Rex Stewart, Maxine Sullivan, Joe Thomas, Wilbur Ware, Dickie Wells, George Wettling, Ernie Wilkins, Mary Lou Williams, and Lester Young. Photographer Art Kane called it “the greatest picture of that era of musicians ever taken.”

The Wisdom of the Crowd

At a livestock exhibition at Plymouth, England, in 1907, attendees were invited to guess the weight of an ox and to write their estimates on cards, with the most accurate estimates receiving prizes. About 800 tickets were issued, and after the contest these made their way to Francis Galton, who found them “excellent material.”

“The average competitor,” he wrote, “was probably as well fitted for making a just estimate of the dressed weight of the ox, as an average voter is of judging the merits of most political issues on which he votes, and the variety among the voters to judge justly was probably much the same in either case.”

Happily for all of us, he found that the guesses in the aggregate were quite accurate. The middlemost estimate was 1,207 pounds, and the weight of the dressed ox proved to be 1,198 pounds, an error of 0.8 percent. This has been borne out in subsequent research: When a group of people make individual estimates of a quantity, the mean response tends to be fairly accurate, particularly when the crowd is diverse and the judgments are independent.

Galton wrote, “This result is, I think, more creditable to the trustworthiness of a democratic judgment than might have been expected.”

(Francis Galton, “Vox Populi,” Nature, March 7, 1907.)

Nicomachus’ Theorem

In 100 C.E., Nicomachus of Gerasa observed that

13 + 23 + 33 + … + n3 = (1 + 2 + 3 + … + n)2

Or “the sum of the cubes of 1 to n is the same as the square of their sum.” The diagram above demonstrates this neatly: Counting the individual squares shows that

1 × 12 + 2 × 22 + 3 × 32 + 4 × 42 + 5 × 52 + 6 × 62
= 13 + 23 + 33 + 43 + 53 + 63
= (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 6)2

Haruki’s Theorem

haruki's theorem

Draw three circles, each of which intersects the other two at two points, and connect these points of intersection as shown.

Now, neatly, ace/bdf = 1.

Discovered by University of Waterloo mathematician Hiroshi Haruki.

Math Notes

From a 1951 issue of The Dark Horse, the staff magazine of Lloyds Bank, a bitter mnemonic for pi:

Now I live a drear existence in ragged suits
And cruel taxation suffering.


Also, a curiosity:

(3,1,4) = (1,5,9) + (2,6,5) (mod 10)

(Thanks, Trevor.)

The Butterfly Theorem

Draw a circle, choose any chord PQ, and draw two further chords AB and CD through its midpoint M. Now, if AD and BC intersect PQ at X and Y, M will always be the midpoint of XY.

In Icons of Mathematics (2011), Claudi Alsina and Roger Nelsen write, “The surprise is the unexpected symmetry arising from an almost random construction.” The theorem first appeared in 1815.


galton criminal composites

In 1883 Francis Galton tried an experiment: He combined multiple photographs of criminals into composite images, hoping to discover an underlying “type.” He didn’t get a strong result, but he did notice something odd about the composite faces: They tended to be more attractive than the individual images that made them up. He found similar effects with other groups — a composite “sick person” seemed healthier than its constituent images, and a group of good-looking people became even more beautiful in composite. In one case he made a “singularly beautiful combination of the faces of six different Roman ladies, forming a charming ideal profile.”

The lesson seems to be that we find an “average” face most attractive — a face is appealing not because it has unusual features but because it lacks them. For example (below), a University of Toronto study found that the shape of Jessica Alba’s face approaches the average for all female profiles: The distance between her pupils is 46 percent of the width of her face, and the distance between her eyes and her mouth is 36 percent of the length of her face. The fact that we find this attractive makes some evolutionary sense: Natural selection tends to drive out disadvantageous features, so a partner with an “average” face is more likely to be healthy and fertile.

Made to Order

Draw three circles of equal size and inscribe them with a pentagon, a hexagon, and a decagon.

The sides of these figures form a right triangle — and half of a golden rectangle.

Straight and Narrow

A.B. Kempe’s provocatively titled How to Draw a Straight Line (1877) addresses an fundamental question. In the Elements, Euclid derives his results by drawing straight lines and circles. We can draw a circle by rotating a rigid body (such as a pair of compasses) around a fixed point. But how can we produce a straight line? “If we are to draw a straight line with a ruler, the ruler must itself have a straight edge; and how are we going to make the edge straight? We come back to our starting-point.”

Kempe’s solution is the Peaucellier–Lipkin linkage, an ingenious mechanism that was invented in 1864 by the French army engineer Charles-Nicolas Peaucellier, forgotten, and rediscovered by a Russian student named Yom Tov Lipman Lipkin. In the figure above, the colors denote bars of equal length. The green and red bars form a linkage called a Peaucellier cell. Adding the blue links causes the red rhombus to flex as it moves. A pencil fixed at the outer vertex of the rhombus will draw a straight line.

James Sylvester introduced Peaucellier’s discovery to England in a lecture at the Royal Institution in January 1874, which Kempe says “excited very great interest and was the commencement of the consideration of the subject of linkages in this country.” Sylvester writes that when he showed a model of the linkage to Lord Kelvin, he “nursed it as if it had been his own child, and when a motion was made to relieve him of it, replied ‘No! I have not had nearly enough of it — it is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life.'”

The Pythagoras Tree

Draw a square and perch two smaller squares above it, forming a right triangle:

Now perch still smaller squares upon these, and continue the pattern recursively:

Charmingly, if you keep this up you’ll grow a tree:

It was dubbed the Pythagoras tree by Albert Bosman, the Dutch mathematics teacher who discovered the figure in 1942. (Each trio of squares demonstrates the Pythagorean theorem.)

At first it looks as though the tree must grow without bound, but in fact it’s admirably tidy: Because the squares eventually begin to overlap one another, a tree sprouted from a unit square will confine itself to a rectangle measuring 6 by 4.

Dueling Pennies

A certain strange casino offers only one game. The casino posts a positive integer n on the wall, and the customer flips a fair coin repeatedly until it falls tails. If he has tossed n – 1 times, he pays the house 8n – 1 dollars; if he’s tossed n + 1 times, the house pays him 8n dollars; and in all other cases the payoff is zero.

The probability of tossing the coin exactly n times is 1/2n, so the customer’s expected winnings are 8n/2n + 1 – 8n – 1/2n – 1 = 4n – 1 for n > 1, and 2 for n = 1. So his expected gain is positive.

But suppose it turns out that the casino arrived at the number n by tossing the same fair coin and counting the tosses, up to and including the first tails. This presents a puzzle: “You and the house are behaving in a completely symmetric manner,” writes David Gale in Tracking the Automatic ANT (1998). “Each of you tosses the coin, and if the number of tosses happens to be the consecutive integers n and n + 1, then the n-tosser pays the (n + 1)-tosser 8n dollars. But we have just seen that the game is to your advantage as measured by expectation no matter what number the house announces. How can there be this asymmetry in a completely symmetric game?”

Visual Calculus

As a circle rolls along a line, a point on its circumference traces an arch called a cycloid. The arch encloses an area three times that of the circle, a result commonly proven using calculus. Now Armenian mathematician Mamikon Mnatsakanian has devised a “sweeping-tangent theorem” that accomplishes the same proof using intuition:

Imagine a tangent to the rolling circle. As the circle rolls, the tangent sweeps out a series of vectors (approximated here using colors). If these vectors are then gathered to a common point while preserving their length and orientation, they form a sort of bouquet whose size and shape turn out to match exactly those of the original circle. Because the enclosing rectangle has four times the area of the rolling circle (2πr × 2r = 4πr2), this shows that the area under the arch has three times the circle’s area.

All this is proven rigorously in Mnatsakanian’s 2012 book New Horizons in Geometry, written with his Caltech colleague Tom Apostol. The two have now collaborated on some 30 papers showing that many surprising and useful results that heretofore had required integration can now be obtained using intuitive methods that can appeal even to a young student.

That’s a welcome outcome for Mnatsakanian, who found himself stranded in the United States when the Armenian government collapsed in 1990. Apostol writes, “When young Mamikon showed his method to Soviet mathematicians they dismissed it out of hand and said ‘It can’t be right. You can’t solve calculus problems that easily.'”

Hesiod’s Anvil

How far off is heaven? In the Theogony Hesiod gives us a clue:

For a brazen anvil falling down from heaven nine nights and days would reach the earth upon the tenth; and again, a brazen anvil falling from earth nine nights and days would reach Tartarus upon the tenth.

How far can an anvil fall in nine days? Galileo, who taught that “the distances measured by the falling body increase according to the squares of the time,” would have determined that the anvil starts 2.96 × 109 km from earth, a distance greater than that between the sun and Uranus.

But Galileo’s calculation assumes that gravitational force is independent of the object’s distance from the earth. If we assume instead that it varies inversely with the square of the distance between mass centers (and if we ignore all masses except those of the earth and the anvil, and assume that the anvil falls in a straight line), King College mathematician Andrew Simoson calculates that Galileo’s anvil wouldn’t reach us for

hesiod's anvil calculation

Instead, under this new assumption, to reach us in nine days an anvil would start 5.81 × 105 km away — about one and a half times the distance between the earth and the moon.

(Andrew J. Simoson, Hesiod’s Anvil, 2007.)

Rolling Average

In a standard 10-frame game of bowling, the lowest possible score is 0 (all gutterballs) and the highest is 300 (all strikes). An average player falls somewhere between these extremes. In 1985, Central Missouri State University mathematicians Curtis Cooper and Robert Kennedy wondered what the game’s theoretical average score is — if you compiled the score sheets for every legally possible game of bowling, what would be the arithmetic mean of the scores?

It turns out it’s pretty low. There are (669)(241) possible games, which is about 5.7 × 1018. If we divide that into the total number of points scored in these games, we get

mean bowling score

which is about 80 (79.7439 …).

This “might make you feel better about your average,” Cooper and Kennedy conclude. “The mean bowling score is indeed awful even if you are just an occasional bowler. Even though this information is interesting, there are more difficult questions about the game of bowling that could be asked. For example, you might wish to determine the standard deviation of the set of bowling scores and hence know more about the distribution of the set of all bowling scores. But the exact determination of the distibution of the set of scores is, in our opinion, a difficult problem. For example, given an integer k between 0 and 300, how many different bowling games have the score k? This, we leave as an open problem.”

(Curtis N. Cooper and Robert E. Kennedy, “Is the Mean Bowling Score Awful?”, Journal of Recreational Mathematics 18:3, 1985-86.)

Golomb Rulers

This conference room is 11 units long and has folding partitions at positions 2, 7, and 8. This gives it a curious property: For a meeting of any given size, the room can be configured in exactly one way. A meeting of size 6 must use partitions 2 and 8 — no other setup will work exactly.

This is an example of a Golomb ruler, named for USC mathematician Solomon Golomb. It’s called a ruler because the simplest example is a measuring stick: If we’re given a 6-centimeter ruler, we find that we can add 4 marks (at integer positions) so that no two of them are the same distance apart: 0 1 4 6. No shorter ruler can accommodate 4 marks without duplication, so the 0-1-4-6 ruler is said to be “optimal.” It’s also “perfect” because it can measure any distance from 1 to 6.

The conference room is optimal because no shorter room can accommodate 5 walls without equal-sized partitions becoming available, but it’s not perfect, because it can’t accommodate an assembly of size 10. (It turns out that no perfect ruler with five marks is possible.)

Finding optimal Golomb rulers is hard — simply extending an existing ruler tends to produce a new ruler that’s either not Golomb or not optimal. The only way forward, it seems, is to compare every possible ruler with n marks and note the shortest one, an immensely laborious process. Distributed computing projects have found the longest optimal rulers to date — the most recent, with 27 marks, was found in February, five years after the previous record.

Far From Home,_Hearing_and_Touch).jpg

This is a detail from the allegorical painting Taste, Hearing and Touch, completed in 1620 by the Flemish artist Jan Brueghel the Elder. If the bird on the right looks out of place, that’s because it’s a sulphur-crested cockatoo, which is native to Australia. The same bird appears in Hearing, painted three years earlier by Brueghel and Peter Paul Rubens.

How did an Australian bird find its way into a Flemish painting in 1617? Apparently it was captured during one of the first Dutch visits to pre-European Australia, perhaps by Willem Janszoon in 1606, who would have carried it to the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and then to Holland in 1611. That’s significant — previously it had been thought that the first European images of Australian fauna had been made during the voyages of William Dampier and William de Vlamingh, which occurred decades after Brueghel’s death in 1625.

Warwick Hirst, a former manuscript curator at the State Library of New South Wales, writes, “While we don’t know exactly how Brueghel’s cockatoo arrived in the Netherlands, it appears that Taste, Hearing and Touch, and its precursor Hearing, may well contain the earliest existing European images of a bird or animal native to Australia, predating the images from Dampier’s and de Vlamingh’s voyages by some 80 years.”

(Warwick Hirst, “Brueghel’s Cockatoo,” SL Magazine, Summer 2013.) (Thanks, Ross.)

Warnsdorff’s Rule

The knight’s tour is a familiar task in chess: On a bare board, find a path by which a knight visits each of the 64 squares exactly once. There are many solutions, but finding them by hand can be tricky — the knight tends to get stuck in a backwater, surrounding by squares that it’s already visited. In 1823 H.C. von Warnsdorff suggested a simple rule: Always move the knight to a square from which it will have the fewest available subsequent moves.

This turns out to be remarkably effective: It produces a successful tour more than 85% of the time on boards smaller than 50×50, and more than 50% of the time on boards smaller than 100×100. (Strangely, on a 7×7 board its success rate drops to 75%; see this paper.) The video above shows a successful tour on a standard chessboard; here’s another on a 14×14 board:

While we’re at it: British puzzle expert Henry Dudeney once set himself the task of devising a complete knight’s tour of a cube each of whose sides is a chessboard. He came up with this:

If you cut out the figure, fold it into a cube and fasten it using the tabs provided, you’ll have a map of the knight’s path. It can start anywhere and make its way around the whole cube, visiting each of the 364 squares once and returning to its starting point.

Dudeney also came up with this puzzle. The square below contains 36 letters. Exchange each letter once with a letter that’s connected with it by a knight’s move so that you produce a word square — a square whose first row and first column comprise the same six-letter word, as do the second row and second column, and so on.

dudeney knight's tour word square puzzle

So, for example, starting with the top row you might exchange T with E, O with R, A with M, and so on. “A little thought will greatly simplify the task,” Dudeney writes. “Thus, as there is only one O, one L, and one N, these must clearly be transferred to the diagonal from the top left-hand corner to the bottom right-hand corner. Then, as the letters in the first row must be the same as in the first file, in the second row as in the second file, and so on, you are generally limited in your choice of making a pair. The puzzle can therefore be solved in a very few minutes.”

Click for Answer

Different Strokes

G.H. Hardy had a famous distaste for applied mathematics, but he made an exception in 1945 with an observation about golf. Conventional wisdom holds that consistency produces better results in stroke play (where strokes are counted for a full round of 18 holes) than in match play (where each hole is a separate contest). So if two players complete a full round with the same total number of strokes, then the more erratic player should do better if they compete hole by hole.

Hardy argues that the opposite is true. Imagine a course on which every hole is par 4. Player A is so deadly reliable that he shoots par on every hole. Player B has some chance x of hitting a “supershot,” which saves a stroke, and the same chance of hitting a “subshot,” losing a stroke. Otherwise he shoots par. Both players will average par and will be equal over a series of full rounds of golf, but the conventional wisdom says that B’s erratic play should give him an advantage if they play each hole as a separate contest.

Hardy’s insight is that the presence of the hole limits a run of good luck, while there’s no such limit on a run of bad luck. “To do a three, B must produce a supershot at one of his first three strokes, while he will take a five if he makes a subshot at one of his first four. He will thus have a net expectation 4x – 3x of loss on the hole, and should lose the match, contrary to common expectation.”

In general he finds that B’s chance of winning a hole is 3x – 9x2 + 10x3, and his chance of losing is 4x – 18x2 + 40x3 – 35x4, so that there’s a balance f(x) = x – 9x2 + 30x3 – 35x4 against him. If x < 0.37 -- that is, in all realistic cases -- the erratic player should lose.

"If experience points the other way -- and I cannot deny it, since I am no golfer -- what is the explanation? I asked Mr. Bernard Darwin, who should be as good a judge as one could find, and he put his finger at once on a likely flaw in the model. To play a 'subshot' is to give yourself an opportunity of a 'supershot' which a more mechanical player would miss: if you get into a bunker you have an opportunity of recovering without loss, and one which you are naturally keyed up to take. Thus the less mechanical player's chance of a supershot is to some extent automatically increased. How far this may resolve the paradox, if it is one, I cannot say, and changes in the model make it unpleasantly complex."

(G.H. Hardy, "A Mathematical Theorem About Golf," Mathematical Gazette, December 1945.)

Five of a Kind

kordemsky multigrade

All Right Then

W.H. Auden won first prize for mathematics at St. Edmund’s School in Hindhead, Surrey, when he was 13. He recalled being asked to learn the following mnemonic around 1919:

Minus times Minus equals Plus;
The reason for this we need not discuss.

Math Notes

1 + 2 = 3
1×2 + 2×3 + 3×4 = 4×5
1×2×3 + 2×3×4 + 3×4×5 + 4×5×6 = 5×6×7
1×2×3×4 + 2×3×4×5 + 3×4×5×6 + 4×5×6×7 + 5×6×7×8 = 6×7×8×9

In general, the sum of the first (n+1) products of consecutive n-tuples of consecutive integers is equal to the product of the next n-tuple.

(Thanks, Peter.)

Montmort’s Theorem

Suppose n students are sitting at n desks in a classroom. They’re asked to stand, mill around at random, and then sit again. What is the probability that at least one student will find herself in her original seat?

Intuition says that the probability ought to drop as the number of students increases, but in fact it remains about the same:

montmort table

In fact, Pierre Rémond de Montmort showed in 1708 that it’s

montmort theorem

… which approaches 1 – 1/e, or about 0.63212. Whether there are 10 students or 10,000, the chance that at least one student returns to her own seat is about 2/3.

Coming to Terms

Antoni Zygmund once asked if the World Series shouldn’t be called the World Sequence? And shouldn’t a combination lock be called a permutation lock? John Von Neumann once had a dog called Inverse. It would sit when told to stand and go when it was told to come. Von Neumann pronounced the term infinite series as infinite serious.

— Michael Stueben, Twenty Years Before the Blackboard, 1998


Starting in the 1970s, neurobiologist Otto-Joachim Grüsser spent 10 years collating the light sources in 2,124 paintings selected at random from Western art originating between the 14th and 20th centuries. He found that in most paintings considered Western works of art, especially those painted around the time of the Scientific Revolution, the light falls from the left.

“At the beginning of modern Western art during the early Gothic period, a preference for diffuse illumination or light sources distributed around the painted scene was found,” Grüsser noted. “In a minority of paintings from the fourteenth century that show a clear light direction, a bias to the left side is present. This left-sided preference increased at the expense of diffuse or middle light sources up to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and declined thereafter. In the twentieth century, the diffuse or middle type of light distribution again became dominant.”

It’s not clear what to make of this. It seems reasonable that a right-handed artist might favor light falling from the left, but why should this vary with time? Grüsser found that the left-handed Leonardo da Vinci applied light sources from varying angles, and Hans Holbein the Younger, also a dominant left-hander, favored light falling from the right.

“From such observations in the works of these two left-handed painters who painted, drew, and wrote with the left hand, one gains the impression that the distribution of left, middle, and right light direction in left-handed painters deviates significantly from the average distribution of light found in the paintings of other contemporary painters. It would be interesting to study the drawings and paintings of other confirmed left-handed artists, who worked exclusively with the left hand.”

(Otto-Joachim Grüsser, Thomas Selke, and Barbara Zynda, “Cerebral Lateralization and Some Implications for Art, Aesthetic Perception, and Artistic Creativity,” in Ingo Rentschler, Barbara Herzberger, and David Epstein, Beauty and the Brain, 1988.)