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Posts Tagged ‘Mathematics

“Oh, I am fortune’s fool!”*…


The distribution of wealth follows a well-known pattern sometimes called an 80:20 rule: 80 percent of the wealth is owned by 20 percent of the people. Indeed, a report last year concluded that just eight men had a total wealth equivalent to that of the world’s poorest 3.8 billion people.

This seems to occur in all societies at all scales. It is a well-studied pattern called a power law that crops up in a wide range of social phenomena. But the distribution of wealth is among the most controversial because of the issues it raises about fairness and merit. Why should so few people have so much wealth?

The conventional answer is that we live in a meritocracy in which people are rewarded for their talent, intelligence, effort, and so on. Over time, many people think, this translates into the wealth distribution that we observe, although a healthy dose of luck can play a role.

But there is a problem with this idea: while wealth distribution follows a power law, the distribution of human skills generally follows a normal distribution that is symmetric about an average value. For example, intelligence, as measured by IQ tests, follows this pattern. Average IQ is 100, but nobody has an IQ of 1,000 or 10,000.

The same is true of effort, as measured by hours worked. Some people work more hours than average and some work less, but nobody works a billion times more hours than anybody else.

And yet when it comes to the rewards for this work, some people do have billions of times more wealth than other people. What’s more, numerous studies have shown that the wealthiest people are generally not the most talented by other measures.

What factors, then, determine how individuals become wealthy? Could it be that chance plays a bigger role than anybody expected? And how can these factors, whatever they are, be exploited to make the world a better and fairer place?…

A new computer model of wealth creation confirms that the most successful people are not the most talented, just the luckiest. Learn more at: “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich? Turns out it’s just chance.

* Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet


As we muse on merit, we might send carefully-calculated birthday greetings to a forbearer of the researchers who did the work recounted above, Sir Roy George Douglas Allen; he was born on this date in 1906.  A mathematician and statistician turned economist, he was a leader in the field of mathematical economics, writing a number of influential texts including  Mathematical Analysis for EconomistsStatistics for Economists, and Mathematical Economics.



Written by LW

June 3, 2018 at 1:01 am

“All numbers are by their nature correct. Well, except for Pi, of course. I can’t be doing with Pi. Gives me a headache just thinking about it, going on and on and on and on and on…”*…


It’s Pi Day!

In celebration, a few amusing– and illuminating– links:

The history of pi

Pi day magic revealed

10 stunning images show the beauty hidden in pi

The history of Pi Day

How to Memorize Pi if You’re a Word Person (from whence, the image above)

* Neil Gaiman, Anansi Boys


As we enumerate endlessly, we might pause for a piece of pi(e)…


… in celebration of Albert Einstein’s birthday; he was born on this date in 1879.


“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”


Written by LW

March 14, 2018 at 1:01 am

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“A metaphor is like a simile”*…


“Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.”

-Virginia Woolf

Just one of the “exhibits” in “an ongoing collection of the world’s most likable literary device”:  The Simile Museum.

[source of the image above]

* Steven Wright


As we remember that “liking” has a very long history, we might spare a thought for Thomas Carlyle; he died on this date in 1881.  A Victorian polymath, he was an accomplished philosopher, satirical writer, essayist, translator, historian, mathematician, and teacher.  While he was an enormously popular lecturer in his time, and his contributions to mathematics earned him eponymous fame (the Carlyle circle), he may be best remembered as a historian (and champion of the “Great Man” theory of history)… and as the coiner of phrases like “the dismal science” (to describe economics)

“A well-written Life is almost as rare as a well-spent one.”   – Thomas Carlyle



Written by LW

February 5, 2018 at 1:01 am

“We never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born”*…


This animation shows the movement of the north magnetic pole at 10-year intervals from 1970 to 2020. The red and blue lines indicate “declination,” the difference between magnetic north and true north depending on where one is standing; on the green line, a compass would point to true north. Visual by NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information

In scenario planning, one tries to identify the “driving forces”– the social, political, ecological, technical, and economic dynamics afoot– in the environment that are both likely to impact our future materially and outside our control; one then to knits the possible outcomes of those forces into alternative futures, plausible sketches of the opportunities and challenges that one might face.

There is a special class of driving force, what scenario planners call a wild card: a possibility that has relative low probability in the (usually 10 year) time horizon, but that, should it occur, would have massive consequence.  Wild cards are often things like major earthquakes or geo-political conflicts… or environmental catastrophes.  While one plans for the implications of the scenarios and their defining driving forces, one plans against wild cards; one creates action plans for the scenarios, contingency plans for the wild cards.

As climate change is slowly but surely converting yesterday’s wildcards (sustained droughts, regular, catastrophic wildfires and storms, etc.) into “regular” driving forces, it is perhaps prudent to look at some of the wildest cards that remain…

One day in 1905, the French geophysicist Bernard Brunhes brought back to his lab some rocks he’d unearthed from a freshly cut road near the village of Pont Farin. When he analyzed their magnetic properties, he was astonished at what they showed: Millions of years ago, the Earth’s magnetic poles had been on the opposite sides of the planet. North was south and south was north. The discovery spoke of planetary anarchy. Scientists had no way to explain it.

Today, we know that the poles have changed places hundreds of times, most recently 780,000 years ago. (Sometimes, the poles try to reverse positions but then snap back into place, in what is called an excursion. The last time was about 40,000 years ago.) We also know that when they flip next time, the consequences for the electrical and electronic infrastructure that runs modern civilization will be dire. The question is when that will happen…

The shield that protects the Earth from solar radiation is under attack from within. We can’t prevent it, but we ought to prepare. Learn more at “The Magnetic Field Is Shifting. The Poles May Flip. This Could Get Bad.”

* Albert Einstein


As we ponder powerlessness, we might recall that it was on this date in 1697 that Isaac Newton received a copy of Johann Bernoulli’s long-standing mathematical challenge, the brachistochrone problem: “To determine the curved line joining two given points, situated at different distances from the horizontal and not in the same vertical line, along which the mobile body, running down by its own weight and starting to move from the upper point, will descend most quickly to the lower point.” (Bernoulli coined the name from Gr. brachistos, shortest; and chronos, time.)

Newton solved it the same day, and forwarded his solution to the Royal Society—anonymously.  When Bernoulli read the solution, he shrewdly guessed it was Newton’s work.  By legend, he said, “I recognize the lion by his paw.”

Bernoulli and Newton



“Woe, destruction, ruin, and decay; the worst is death and death will have his day”*…


Grossinger’s outdoor pool, olympic sized, built in 1949 at a cost of $400,000 (about $5 million in today’s market.) Long gone are the private cabanas, changing room and lounges that used to surround it.

Not long ago an old matchbook laying on photographer Pablo Iglesias Maurer‘s desk caught his eye. Or rather, it was the postcard-like picture on it, of a resort complex built in the 1960s. It got Pablo wondering how the place looked now, and the answer has led him to make an amazing photo series called Abandoned States.

The picture came with the title How to Run A Successful Golf Course, but when Maurer got to the place, it was clear the owner of Penn Hills Resort didn’t follow that advice. He pointed the camera at the decaying building at roughly the same spot and did a ‘5-decades-after’ shot of the place.

Ever since then, Pablo was hooked. He ordered more 60s postcards from eBay and started going around the country capturing these once beautiful buildings that now stand abandoned only as faint memories of what once was…

* Shakespeare, Richard II


As we contemplate continuity, we might send never-ending birthday greetings to August Ferdinand Möbius; he was born on this date in 1790.  A German mathematician and theoretical astronomer, he is best remembered as a topologist, more specifically for his discovery of the Möbius strip (a two-dimensional surface with only one side… or more precisely, a non-orientable two-dimensional surface with only one side when embedded in three-dimensional Euclidean space).





Written by LW

November 17, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Oh, there you are Peter”*…


The missing links between galaxies have finally been found. This is the first detection of the roughly half of the normal matter in our universe – protons, neutrons and electrons – unaccounted for by previous observations of stars, galaxies and other bright objects in space.

You have probably heard about the hunt for dark matter, a mysterious substance thought to permeate the universe, the effects of which we can see through its gravitational pull. But our models of the universe also say there should be about twice as much ordinary matter out there, compared with what we have observed so far.

Two separate teams found the missing matter – made of particles called baryons rather than dark matter – linking galaxies together through filaments of hot, diffuse gas

Get galactic at: “Half the universe’s missing matter has just been finally found.”

* meme


As we heed E.M. Forster, we might recall that it was on this date in 1843 that Sir William Rowan Hamilton conceived the theory of quaternions.  A physicist, astronomer, and mathematician who made important contributions to classical mechanics, optics, and algebra, he had been working since the late 1830s on the basic principles of algebra, resulting in a theory of conjugate functions, or algebraic couples, in which complex numbers are expressed as ordered pairs of real numbers.  But he hadn’t succeeded in developing a theory of triplets that could be applied to three-dimensional geometric problems.  Walking with his wife along the Royal Canal in Dublin, Hamilton realized that the theory should involve quadruplets, not triplets– at which point he stopped to carve carve the underlying equations in a nearby bridge lest he forget them.



Written by LW

October 16, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Exploring pi is like exploring the universe”*…




Pi is an infinite string of seemingly random numbers, but if you break down the first 1000 digits of Pi according to how many times each number from 0 to 9 appears, they’re all just about equal — with 1 being the outlier at 12% (although we wonder if they’d all average to ~10% given enough digits of Pi)…

More at “Visualizing The Breakdown Of The Numbers In The First 1000 Digits Of Pi Is Fascinating.”

* David Chudnovsky


As we watch it even out in the end, we might spare a thought for Hannah Wilkinson Slater; she died on this date in 1812. The daughter and the wife of mill owners, Ms. Slater was the first woman to be issued a patent in the United States (1793)– for a process using spinning wheels to twist fine Surinam cotton yarn, that created a No. 20 two-ply thread that was an improvement on the linen thread previously in use for sewing cloth.

A waxen Hannah, at the Slaters’ Mill Museum in Pawtucket, RI




Written by LW

October 2, 2017 at 1:01 am

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