Science & Math

Special Projects

Facilities suggested by Lewis Carroll for a school of mathematics at Oxford, 1868:

  1. A very large room for calculating Greatest Common Measure. To this a small one might be attached for Least Common Multiple: this, however, might be dispensed with.
  2. A piece of open ground for keeping Roots and practising their extraction: it would be advisable to keep Square Roots by themselves, as their corners are apt to damage others.
  3. A room for reducing Fractions to their Lowest Terms. This should be provided with a cellar for keeping the Lowest Terms when found, which might also be available to the general body of Undergraduates, for the purpose of “keeping Terms.”
  4. A large room, which might be darkened, and fitted up with a magic lantern for the purpose of exhibiting Circulating Decimals in the act of circulation. This might also contain cupboards, fitted with glass-doors, for keeping the various Scales of Notation.
  5. A narrow strip of ground, railed off and carefully levelled, for investigating the properties of Asymptotes, and testing practically whether Parallel Lines meet or not: for this purpose it should reach, to use the expressive language of Euclid, “ever so far.”

He introduced this topic with an administrator by writing, “Dear Senior Censor,–In a desultory conversation on a point connected with the dinner at our high table, you incidentally remarked to me that lobster-sauce, ‘though a necessary adjunct to turbot, was not entirely wholesome.’ It is entirely unwholesome. I never ask for it without reluctance: I never take a second spoonful without a feeling of apprehension on the subject of possible nightmare. This naturally brings me to the subject of Mathematics …”

Round and Round

Since demolishing 78 traffic signals and installing 80 roundabouts, the northern Indiana city of Carmel has reduced the number of accidents by 40 percent and the number of accidents with injuries by 78 percent.

“It’s nearly impossible to have a head-on or T-bone collision when using the roadways, and collisions that do happen tend to occur at much lower speeds,” noted Governing magazine. “Other benefits of roundabouts include reduced fuel consumption, due to a lack of idling, and a construction cost that is at least $150,000 less than installing traffic lights.”

“We have more than any other city in the U.S.,” says mayor James Brainard. “It’s a trend now in the United States. There are more and more roundabouts being built every day because of the expense saved and, more importantly, the safety.”

Bear Facts

blackmore bear

The Veterinary Record of April 1, 1972, contained a curious article: “Some Observations on the Diseases of Brunus edwardii.” Veterinarian D.K. Blackmore and his colleagues examined 1,598 specimens of this species, which they said is “commonly kept in homes in the United Kingdom and other countries in Europe and North America.”

“Commonly-found syndromes included coagulation and clumping of stuffing, resulting in conditions similar to those described as bumble foot and ventral (rupture in the pig and cow respectively) alopecia, and ocular conditions which varied from mild squint to intermittent nystagmus and luxation of the eyeball. Micropthalmus and macropthalmus were frequently recorded in animals which had received unsuitable ocular prostheses.”

They found that diseases could be either traumatic or emotional. Acute traumatic conditions were characterized by loss of appendages, often the result of disputed ownership, and emotional disturbances seemed to be related to neglect. “Few adults (except perhaps the present authors) have any real affection for the species,” and as children mature, they tend to relegate these animals to an attic or cupboard, “where severe emotional disturbances develop.”

The authors urged their colleagues to take a greater interest in the clinical problems of the species. “It is hoped that this contribution will make the profession aware of its responsibilities, and it is suggested that veterinary students be given appropriate instruction and that postgraduate courses be established without delay.”

Stick Fight

The Rod of Asclepius, left, with a single snake, is the symbol of medicine. Unfortunately, a large number of commercial American medical organizations instead use the caduceus, right, which has two snakes. Asclepius was the Greek god of healing, but the caduceus was wielded by Hermes and connotes commerce, negotiation, and trickery.

The confusion began when the American military began using the caduceus in the late 19th century, and it persists today. In a survey of 242 healthcare logos (reported in his 1992 book The Golden Wand of Medicine), Walter Friedlander found that 62 percent of professional associations used the rod of Asclepius, while 76 percent of commercial organizations used the caduceus.

“If it’s got wings on it, it’s not really the symbol of medicine,” the communications director of the Minnesota Medical Association told author Robert Taylor. “Some may find it hard to believe, but it’s true. It’s something like using the logo for the National Rifle Association when referring to the Audubon Society.”


In February 1962 John Glenn circled Earth three times on Friendship 7.

When he landed, he received a card from the International Flat Earth Research Society.

It said, “OK wise guy.”


In 1945, Oxford University’s Museum of the History of Science realized that 14 astrolabes were missing from its collection. Curator Robert T. Gunther had arranged for storage of the museum’s objects during the war, but both he and the janitor who had helped him had died in 1940. The missing instruments, the finest of the museum’s ancient and medieval astrolabes, were irreplaceable, the only examples of their kind. Where had Gunther hidden them?

The museum consulted the Oxford city police and Scotland Yard, who searched basements and storerooms throughout the city. The Times, the Daily Mail, and the Thames Gazette publicized the story. Inquiries were extended to local taxi drivers and 108 country houses. At Folly Bridge, Gunther’s house, walls were inspected, flagstones lifted, and wainscoting prised away. A medium and a sensitive were even consulted, to no avail. Finally the detective inspector in charge of the case reviewed the evidence and composed a psychological profile of Gunther, a man he had never met:

Clever professor type, a bit irascible, who didn’t get on too well with his colleagues. Single minded. Lived for the Museum. Hobby in Who’s Who ‘… founding a Museum’. Used to gloat over the exhibits and looked upon them as his own creation. Never allowed anyone else to handle them. Reticent, even secretive. Never told anyone what he what he was going to do. Didn’t trust them, perhaps. Not even his friends the Rumens, who would have offered their car to move the things. Had original ideas though. Safe from blast below street level. Germans would never bomb Oxford. Why, its total war damage was £100 and that from one of our own shells. How right he was. He never expected to die then. Believed he’d live to 90. Hadn’t made any plans; like most of us he thought he might get bumped off when the war started. That’s what he was telling his son in those letters. There was only one conclusion with a man like that anyhow: he’d never let the things out of his reach if he could have helped it. Didn’t even take the trouble to pack his own treasures away in Folly Bridge.

In 1948 the new curator found the missing instruments — they were right “within reach” in the museum’s basement. Gunther had disguised their crate with a label reading “Eighteenth-Century Sundials,” and it had evaded detection throughout the searches.

From A.E. Gunther, Early Science in Oxford, vol. XV, 1967, 303-309.

(Thanks, Diane.)

Art Appreciation

If we stand immediately below a painting in a gallery, it appears foreshortened. But if we stand on the other side of the room, it appears small. Somewhere between these two points must be the optimum viewing position, where the painting fills the widest possible angle in our vision. How can we find it?

The German mathematician Regiomontanus posed this question in 1471. We can solve it using calculus, but it also yields to simple geometry: Draw a circle defined by the top and bottom of the painting and our eye level. That’s the point we want — any other point at eye level will define a larger circle, in which the picture makes a smaller chord and subtends a smaller angle.

(Thanks, David.)

Equal Opportunity

The Pythagorean theorem works for any similar shapes, not just squares.

In the figure above, A + B = C.

If the three sides of a right triangle are made the diameters of three circles, then the combined area of the two smaller circles equals that of the largest. That’s also the area of the circumcircle, since a right triangle’s hypotenuse forms the diameter of its circumscribing circle.

Digit Count

A letter from John Phillips of the Yale University School of Medicine to the New England Journal of Medicine, Feb. 14, 1991:

When referring to the hand, the names digitus pollicis, indicis, medius, annularis, and minimus specify the five fingers. In situations of clinical relevance the use of such names can preclude anatomical ambiguity. These time-tested terms have honored the fingers, but the toes have been labeled only by number, except of course the great toe, or hallux. Is it not time for the medical community to have the toes no longer stand up and merely be counted? I submit for consideration the following nomenclature to refer to the pedal digits: for the hallux, porcellus fori; for the second toe, p. domi; for the third toe, p. carnivorus; for the fourth toe, p. non voratus; and for the fifth toe, p. plorans domum.

Using porcellus as the diminutive form of porcus, or pig, one can translate the suggested terminology as follows: piglet at market, piglet at home, meat-eating piglet, piglet having not eaten, and piglet crying homeward, respectively.

(Thanks, Scott.)

Words and Numbers

alphamagic square 1

Spell out each number in this magic square and count its letters (25 -> TWENTY-FIVE -> 10), and you’ll produce another magic square:

alphamagic square 2

David Brooks points out that this works also in Pig Latin.

Lee Sallows extends the idea into geometry: