Midnight Oil


In trying to work out the trajectories of the planets, Johannes Kepler had to do reams of monstrous calculations by hand. In the manuscript pages for his revolutionary Astronomia nova of 1609, he concludes 15 folio pages of computations by writing:

“If thou art bored with this wearisome method of calculation, take pity on me, who had to go through with at least seventy repetitions of it, at a very great loss of time.”

Reversing Relations

The Book of Common Prayer includes a Table of Kindred and Affinity that lists prohibited degrees of marriage in the Church of England. For example, a man may not marry his daughter’s son’s wife, and a woman may not marry her husband’s mother’s father. In this case, the two proscriptions correspond — they describe the same relationship “from both sides,” so this union is prohibited to both parties in the relationship. But is this always the case? Is each union that’s denied to a man also denied to the woman? (The table lists only heterosexual unions.) It’s not immediately clear; 25 prohibited degrees are listed for each sex, and our language makes it hard to “reverse” the description of a relationship mentally.

In 1989 Manchester Polytechnic mathematician M.D. Stern worked out a notation that makes this easy. Use 1 to denote a male and 0 a female, and use this code to denote relationships between individuals:

00 spouse
01 parent
10 child
11 sibling

Now, to show the relationship between one person and another, write one digit for the first person followed by a sequence of three more digits — two to represent the relationship and one to represent the sex of the second person. So, taking the example above, a man’s daughter’s son’s wife would be denoted:

1 100 101 000

To interpret the same relationship from the woman’s point of view, we just reverse the order of the digits:

0 001 010 011

He is her husband’s mother’s father.

Applying this to the prohibited degrees in the table, Stern found that every prohibition for a man corresponds to an inverse prohibition for a woman — there are no prospective marriages that would be prohibited to one party but not the other.

(M.D. Stern, “A Notational Device for Analysing Relationships,” Mathematical Gazette 73:463 [March 1989], 37-40.)

More Prime Images

Inspired by James McKee’s Trinity Hall prime, physics researcher Gilles Esposito-Farese (of the self-descriptive pangram) has worked out that this 2,258-digit prime number:


renders these 7,500 digits in binary:

Esposito-Farese map

This is a 30,000-digit prime:

Esposito-Farese Gioconda

And this is self-explanatory:

Esposito-Farese prime declaration

More here.

(Thanks, Gilles.)

Nine Lives

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the 1960s, Soviet mathematician Vladimir Arnold mapped the square image of a cat to a torus, “stretched” (sheared) it as shown on that surface, then sliced the resulting image into pieces and recomposed them into a square.

As the process is repeated, any two points in the image quickly become separated, but, surprisingly, after sufficient repetitions the original image reappears.

A discrete analogue is at right. As the transformation is repeated, the image appears increasingly random or disordered, but the underlying cat can be glimpsed making occasional appearances, sometimes as a ghostly suggestion, sometimes in multiple smaller images, and occasionally (yowling, one imagines) even upside down.

It reappears again, unhurt, at the 300th iteration.

It’s called Arnold’s cat map. You can try it yourself here.

Advance Notice

In his 1966 book New Mathematical Diversions From Scientific American, Martin Gardner predicted that the millionth digit of π would be 5. (At the time the value was known only to about 10,000 decimal places.) He was reprinting a column on π from 1960 and included this in the addendum:

It will probably not be long until pi is known to a million decimals. In anticipation of this, Dr. Matrix, the famous numerologist, has sent me a letter asking that I put on record his prediction that the millionth digit of pi will be found to be 5. His calculation is based on the third book of the King James Bible, chapter 14, verse 16 (it mentions the number 7, and the seventh word has five letters), combined with some obscure calculation involving Euler’s constant and the transcendental number e.

He’d intended this as a hoax, but eight years later the computers discovered he was right.


Fit two identical 90-degrees cones base to base, slice the resulting shape in half vertically, and give one of the halves a quarter turn. The result is a sphericon, a solid that rolls with a bemusing meander: Where the original double cone rolls only in circles, the sphericon puts first one conical sector and then the other in contact with a flat surface beneath it, giving it a smooth but undulating trajectory sustained by a fixed center of mass.

And that’s just the start. “Two sphericons placed next to each other can roll on each other’s surfaces,” writes David Darling in The Universal Book of Mathematics. “Four sphericons arranged in a square block can all roll around one another simultaneously. And eight sphericons can fit on the surface of one sphericon so that any one of the outer solids can roll on the surface of the central one.” See the video for more.

(Thanks, Matthias.)

Nets and Tabs


A neat little fact pointed out by George Pólya and Donald Coxeter: If a convex polyhedron is unfolded and presented as a flat “net” fitted with tabs for gluing, as in a children’s activity book, the smallest number of tabs needed is just one less than the number of vertices in the assembled shape. The net above, with 7 tabs, can be assembled into a hexahedron with 8 vertices, and the one below, with 19 tabs, can be assembled into a dodecahedron with 20.

(Nick Lord, “Nets and Tabs,” Mathematical Gazette 73:464 [June 1989], 93-96.)


Miwin’s Dice

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Physicist Michael Winkelmann devised these nontransitive dice in 1975.

  • Die I has sides 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 9.
  • Die II has sides 1, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9.
  • Die III has sides 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8.

Collectively the 18 faces bear the numbers 1 to 9 twice. The numbers on each die sum to 30 and have an arithmetic mean of 5.

But Die I beats Die 2, Die 2 beats Die 3, and Die 3 beats Die 1, each with probability 17/36.

The Silurian Hypothesis


Complex life has existed on Earth’s land surface for about 400 million years, and our civilization has been here for only a tiny fraction of that. If another industrial society had arisen millions of years ago, what traces could we still hope to find?

Astrobiologists Gavin Schmidt and Adam Frank point out that, while we might search the geologic record for evidence of plastics, synthetic pollutants, and increased metal concentrations, that expectation is based only on our own history, and a more enlightened civilization might leave a smaller footprint by using more sustainable practices (indeed, such a society is likely to survive longer).

Ironically, a poorly managed industrial civilization may deplete dissolved oxygen in the oceans, leading to an increase in organic material in the sediment, which can serve as a source of future fossil fuels. “Thus, the prior industrial activity would have actually given rise to the potential for future industry via their own demise.”

See the link below for the full paper.

(Gavin A. Schmidt and Adam Frank, “The Silurian Hypothesis: Would It Be Possible to Detect an Industrial Civilization in the Geological Record?”, International Journal of Astrobiology 18:2 [2019], 142-150.)