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From the Department of Stating the Obvious…

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From AAAS’ Science, “It’s Official: Physics is Hard“:

Students and researchers alike have long understood that physics is challenging. But only now have scientists managed to prove it. It turns out that one of the most common goals in physics—finding an equation that describes how a system changes over time—is defined as “hard” by computer theory. That’s bad news for physics students who hope that a machine can solve all their homework problems, but at least their future jobs in the field are safe from automation.

Physicists are often interested in mathematically describing how a system behaves: for instance, a formula tracks the motions of the planets and their moons in their complicated dance around the sun. Researchers work out these equations by measuring the objects at various points in time and then developing a formula that links all of those points together, such as filling in a video from a set of snapshots.

With each new variable, however, it becomes tougher to find the right equation. Computers can speed things up by sifting through potential solutions at breakneck speed, but even the world’s top supercomputers meet their match with a certain class of problems, known as “hard” problems. These problems take exponentially more time to solve with every additional variable that is thrown into the mix—an extra planet’s motion, for instance…

[Full article here]

Problems like these, known in complexity theory as NP-hard, may be discouraging of the prospect of quick solutions; but at least they seem to offer physicists some measure of job security.  Still, if a bankable short-cut could be found, it would have profound implications for math and it applications.  So the Clay Mathematics Institute has chosen the challenge as one of its Millennium Problems:  the scientist who comes up with a universal “problem tenderizer” wins $1 million.

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As we remember that pie are square, we might spare a memorial thought for the polymathic John Arbuthnot; he died on this date in 1735.  The mathematician, essayist, and physician published his translation of Huygens’ Of the Laws of Chance (1692), to which Arbuthnot added further games of chance– the first work on probability published in English.  He wrote a series of satirical pamphlets introducing “john Bull” (the now-iconic “Englishman”), and co-founded Scriblerus Club, where he inspired co-founders Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels book III) and Alexander Pope (Peri Bathous, Or the Art of Sinking in PoetryMemoirs of Martin Scriblerus, and The Dunciad).  And from 1705, he was physician to Queen Anne until her death in 1714.

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Written by LW

February 27, 2012 at 1:01 am

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