(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Numbers

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast”*…

Imaginary numbers were long dismissed as mathematical “bookkeeping.” But now, as Karmela Padavic-Callaghan explains, physicists are proving that they describe the hidden shape of nature…

Many science students may imagine a ball rolling down a hill or a car skidding because of friction as prototypical examples of the systems physicists care about. But much of modern physics consists of searching for objects and phenomena that are virtually invisible: the tiny electrons of quantum physics and the particles hidden within strange metals of materials science along with their highly energetic counterparts that only exist briefly within giant particle colliders.

In their quest to grasp these hidden building blocks of reality scientists have looked to mathematical theories and formalism. Ideally, an unexpected experimental observation leads a physicist to a new mathematical theory, and then mathematical work on said theory leads them to new experiments and new observations. Some part of this process inevitably happens in the physicist’s mind, where symbols and numbers help make invisible theoretical ideas visible in the tangible, measurable physical world.

Sometimes, however, as in the case of imaginary numbers – that is, numbers with negative square values – mathematics manages to stay ahead of experiments for a long time. Though imaginary numbers have been integral to quantum theory since its very beginnings in the 1920s, scientists have only recently been able to find their physical signatures in experiments and empirically prove their necessity…

Learn more at “Imaginary numbers are real,” from @Ironmely in @aeonmag.

* The Red Queen, in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass


As we get real, we might spare a thought for two great mathematicians…

Georg Friedrich Bernhard Riemann died on this date in 1866. A mathematician who made contributions to analysis, number theory, and differential geometry, he is remembered (among other things) for his 1859 paper on the prime-counting function, containing the original statement of the Riemann hypothesis, regarded as one of the most influential papers in analytic number theory.


Andrey (Andrei) Andreyevich Markov died on this date in 1922.  A Russian mathematician, he helped to develop the theory of stochastic processes, especially those now called Markov chains: sequences of random variables in which the future variable is determined by the present variable but is independent of the way in which the present state arose from its predecessors.  (For example, the probability of winning at the game of Monopoly can be determined using Markov chains.)  His work on the study of the probability of mutually-dependent events has been developed and widely applied to the biological, physical, and social sciences, and is widely used in Monte Carlo simulations and Bayesian analyses.


“No part of mathematics is ever, in the long run, ‘useless’.”*…

The number 1 can be written as a sum of distinct unit fractions, such as 1/2 + 1/3 + 1/12 + 1/18 + 1/36…

Number theorists are always looking for hidden structure. And when confronted by a numerical pattern that seems unavoidable, they test its mettle, trying hard — and often failing — to devise situations in which a given pattern cannot appear.

One of the latest results to demonstrate the resilience of such patterns, by Thomas Bloom of the University of Oxford, answers a question with roots that extend all the way back to ancient Egypt.

“It might be the oldest problem ever,” said Carl Pomerance of Dartmouth College.

The question involves fractions that feature a 1 in their numerator, like 1/2, 1/7 or 1/122. These “unit fractions” were especially important to the ancient Egyptians because they were the only types of fractions their number system contained: With the exception of a single symbol for 23, they could only express more complicated fractions (like 3/4) as sums of unit fractions (1/2 + 1/4).

The modern-day interest in such sums got a boost in the 1970s, when Paul Erdős and Ronald Graham asked how hard it might be to engineer sets of whole numbers that don’t contain a subset whose reciprocals add to 1. For instance, the set {2, 3, 6, 9, 13} fails this test: It contains the subset {2, 3, 6}, whose reciprocals are the unit fractions 1/2, 1/3 and 1/6 — which sum to 1.

More exactly, Erdős and Graham conjectured that any set that samples some sufficiently large, positive proportion of the whole numbers — it could be 20% or 1% or 0.001% — must contain a subset whose reciprocals add to 1. If the initial set satisfies that simple condition of sampling enough whole numbers (known as having “positive density”), then even if its members were deliberately chosen to make it difficult to find that subset, the subset would nonetheless have to exist.

“I just thought this was an impossible question that no one in their right mind could possibly ever do,” said Andrew Granville of the University of Montreal. “I didn’t see any obvious tool that could attack it.”…

Bloom, building on work by Ernie Croot, found that tool. The ubiquity of ways to represent whole numbers as sums of fractions: “Math’s ‘Oldest Problem Ever’ Gets a New Answer,” by Jordana Cepelewicz (@jordanacep) in @QuantaMagazine.

* “No part of mathematics is ever, in the long run, ‘useless.’ Most of number theory has very few ‘practical’ applications. That does not reduce its importance, and if anything it enhances its fascination. No one can predict when what seems to be a most obscure theorem may suddenly be called upon to play some vital and hitherto unsuspected role.” – C. Stanley Ogilvy, Excursions in Number Theory


As we recombine, we might send carefully-calculated birthday greetings to Ulugh Beg (or, officially, Mīrzā Muhammad Tāraghay bin Shāhrukh); he was born on this date in 1394. A Timurid sultan with a hearty interest in science and the arts, he is better remembered as an astronomer and mathematician.

The most important observational astronomer of the 15th century, he built the great Ulugh Beg Observatory in Samarkand between 1424 and 1429– considered by scholars to have been one of the finest observatories in the Islamic world at the time and the largest in Central Asia. In his observations he discovered a number of errors in the computations of the 2nd-century Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy, whose figures were still being used. His star map of 994 stars was the first new one since Hipparchus. Among his contributions to mathematics were trigonometric tables of sine and tangent values correct to at least eight decimal places.

Ulugh Beg’s Statue in Samarkand, Uzbekistan


“Although the world looks messy and chaotic, if you translate it into the world of numbers and shapes, patterns emerge and you start to understand why things are the way they are”*…

50 Sour Patch Kids (eXtreme brand)

Or in any case, you have some illuminating fun. Tim Urban decided to use Sour Patch Kids to explore scale…

This helps illustrate just how huge a number a trillion is. A trillion is important because it’s the largest number that comes up in day-to-day life. We come across a trillion mainly when it comes to the government and money, and it’s such a large number, a stack of a trillion tightly-packed Sour Patch Kids would cover a football field and be as high as a 30-story building.

Now we enter the realm of numbers that are normally impossible to conceptualize. Luckily, we have my idiotic Sour Patch Kids method to help.

Taking 1,000 of the football stadium-size trillion box above and arranging them in a 10 x 10 x 10 box with dimensions 1km x 1km x 1.5km, we now have 1 quadrillion Sour Patch Kids, covering most of Downtown Manhattan. A quadrillion is a thousand trillion, or a million billion, and written out, it’s 1,000,000,000,000,000.

For reference, I put the Empire State Building and the world’s tallest building, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, next to the box.

If you’re wondering, experts say that there are somewhere between one and ten quadrillion ants on Earth…

See all of the steps, illustrated, all the way to one nonillion, or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 Sour Patch Kids (which stretches about half the distance between the Earth and the moon, 384,400 km) at “What Does a Quadrillion Sour Patch Kids Look Like?“– part the “upsettingly large numbers” subset of the “Pointless Calculation” theme running through Wait But Why, from @waitbutwhy (Tim Urban).

Marcus du Sautoy


As we count up, we might send motherly birthday greetings to Barbara Billingsley; she was born on this date in 1915. A film, television, voice, and stage actress, she is probably best remembered as June Cleaver in Leave it to Beaver (though her turn as “Jive Lady” in Airplane! is surely equally memorable).


“If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite”*…

For 50 years, mathematicians have believed that the total number of real numbers is unknowable. A new proof suggests otherwise…

Infinity comes in many sizes. In 1873, the German mathematician Georg Cantor shook math to the core when he discovered that the “real” numbers that fill the number line — most with never-ending digits, like 3.14159… — outnumber “natural” numbers like 1, 2 and 3, even though there are infinitely many of both.

Infinite sets of numbers mess with our intuition about size, so as a warmup, compare the natural numbers {1, 2, 3, …} with the odd numbers {1, 3, 5, …}. You might think the first set is bigger, since only half its elements appear in the second set. Cantor realized, though, that the elements of the two sets can be put in a one-to-one correspondence. You can pair off the first elements of each set (1 and 1), then pair off their second elements (2 and 3), then their third (3 and 5), and so on forever, covering all elements of both sets. In this sense, the two infinite sets have the same size, or what Cantor called “cardinality.” He designated their size with the cardinal number 0 (“aleph-zero”).

But Cantor discovered that natural numbers can’t be put into one-to-one correspondence with the continuum of real numbers. For instance, try to pair 1 with 1.00000… and 2 with 1.00001…, and you’ll have skipped over infinitely many real numbers (like 1.000000001…). You can’t possibly count them all; their cardinality is greater than that of the natural numbers.

Sizes of infinity don’t stop there. Cantor discovered that any infinite set’s power set — the set of all subsets of its elements — has larger cardinality than it does. Every power set itself has a power set, so that cardinal numbers form an infinitely tall tower of infinities.

Standing at the foot of this forbidding edifice, Cantor focused on the first couple of floors. He managed to prove that the set formed from all the different ways of ordering natural numbers (from smallest to largest, for example, or with all odd numbers first) has cardinality 1, one level up from the natural numbers. Moreover, each of these “order types” encodes a real number.

His continuum hypothesis asserts that this is exactly the size of the continuum — that there are precisely 1 real numbers. In other words, the cardinality of the continuum immediately follow 0, the cardinality of the natural numbers, with no sizes of infinity in between.

But to Cantor’s immense distress, he couldn’t prove it.

In 1900, the mathematician David Hilbert put the continuum hypothesis first on his famous list of 23 math problems to solve in the 20th century. Hilbert was enthralled by the nascent mathematics of infinity — “Cantor’s paradise,” as he called it — and the continuum hypothesis seemed like its lowest-hanging fruit.

To the contrary, shocking revelations last century turned Cantor’s question into a deep epistemological conundrum.

The trouble arose in 1931, when the Austrian-born logician Kurt Gödel discovered that any set of axioms that you might posit as a foundation for mathematics will inevitably be incomplete. There will always be questions that your list of ground rules can’t settle, true mathematical facts that they can’t prove. As Gödel suspected right away, the continuum hypothesis is such a case: a problem that’s independent of the standard axioms of mathematics.

These axioms, 10 in all, are known as ZFC (for “Zermelo-Fraenkel axioms with the axiom of choice”), and they undergird almost all of modern math. The axioms describe basic properties of collections of objects, or sets. Since virtually everything mathematical can be built out of sets (the empty set {} denotes 0, for instance; {{}} denotes 1; {{},{{}}} denotes 2, and so on), the rules of sets suffice for constructing proofs throughout math.

In 1940, Gödel showed that you can’t use the ZFC axioms to disprove the continuum hypothesis. Then in 1963, the American mathematician Paul Cohen showed the opposite —you can’t use them to prove it, either. Cohen’s proof, together with Gödel’s, means the continuum hypothesis is independent of the ZFC axioms; they can have it either way.

In addition to the continuum hypothesis, most other questions about infinite sets turn out to be independent of ZFC as well. This independence is sometimes interpreted to mean that these questions have no answer, but most set theorists see that as a profound misconception.

They believe the continuum has a precise size; we just need new tools of logic to figure out what that is. These tools will come in the form of new axioms. “The axioms do not settle these problems,” said Magidor, so “we must extend them to a richer axiom system.” It’s ZFC as a means to mathematical truth that’s lacking — not truth itself.

Ever since Cohen, set theorists have sought to shore up the foundations of infinite math by adding at least one new axiom to ZFC. This axiom should illuminate the structure of infinite sets, engender natural and beautiful theorems, avoid fatal contradictions, and, of course, settle Cantor’s question…

Two rival axioms emerged that do just that. For decades, they were suspected of being logically incompatible.

In October 2018, David Asperó was on holiday in Italy, gazing out a car window as his girlfriend drove them to their bed-and-breakfast, when it came to him: the missing step of what’s now a landmark new proof about the sizes of infinity. “It was this flash experience,” he said.

Asperó, a mathematician at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, contacted the collaborator with whom he’d long pursued the proof, Ralf Schindler of the University of Münster in Germany, and described his insight. “It was completely incomprehensible to me,” Schindler said. But eventually, the duo turned the phantasm into solid logic.

Their proof, which appeared in May in the Annals of Mathematics, unites two rival axioms that have been posited as competing foundations for infinite mathematics. Asperó and Schindler showed that one of these axioms implies the other, raising the likelihood that both axioms — and all they intimate about infinity — are true…

There are an infinite number of infinities. Which one corresponds to the real numbers? “How Many Numbers Exist? Infinity Proof Moves Math Closer to an Answer.”

[TotH to MK]

* William Blake


As we contemplate counting, we might spare a thought for Georg Friedrich Bernhard Riemann; he died on this date in 1866. A mathematician who made contributions to analysis, number theory, and differential geometry, he is remembered (among other things) for his 1859 paper on the prime-counting function, containing the original statement of the Riemann hypothesis, regarded as one of the most influential papers in analytic number theory.


“Those who wish to know the art of calculating, its subtleties and ingenuities, must know computing with hand figures”*…

Scholars at an Abbasid library. Maqamat of al-Hariri Illustration by Yahyá al-Wasiti, 1237 [source]

The House of Wisdom sounds a bit like make believe: no trace remains of this ancient library, destroyed in the 13th Century, so we cannot be sure exactly where it was located or what it looked like.

But this prestigious academy was in fact a major intellectual powerhouse in Baghdad during the Islamic Golden Age, and the birthplace of mathematical concepts as transformative as the common zero and our modern-day “Arabic” numerals.

Founded as a private collection for caliph Harun Al-Rashid in the late 8th Century then converted to a public academy some 30 years later, the House of Wisdom appears to have pulled scientists from all over the world towards Baghdad, drawn as they were by the city’s vibrant intellectual curiosity and freedom of expression (Muslim, Jewish and Christian scholars were all allowed to study there).

An archive as formidable in size as the present-day British Library in London or the Bibliothèque Nationale of Paris, the House of Wisdom eventually became an unrivalled centre for the study of humanities and sciences, including mathematics, astronomy, medicine, chemistry, geography, philosophy, literature and the arts – as well as some more dubious subjects such as alchemy and astrology.

To conjure this great monument thus requires a leap of imagination (think the Citadel in Westeros, or the library at Hogwarts), but one thing is certain: the academy ushered in a cultural Renaissance that would entirely alter the course of mathematics.

The House of Wisdom was destroyed in the Mongol Siege of Baghdad in 1258 (according to legend, so many manuscripts were tossed into the River Tigris that its waters turned black from ink), but the discoveries made there introduced a powerful, abstract mathematical language that would later be adopted by the Islamic empire, Europe, and ultimately, the entire world.

Tracing the House of Wisdom’s mathematical legacy involves a bit of time travel back to the future, as it were. For hundreds of years until the ebb of the Italian Renaissance, one name was synonymous with mathematics in Europe: Leonardo da Pisa, known posthumously as Fibonacci. Born in Pisa in 1170, the Italian mathematician received his primary instruction in Bugia, a trading enclave located on the Barbary coast of Africa (coastal North Africa). In his early 20s, Fibonacci traveled to the Middle East, captivated by ideas that had come west from India through Persia. When he returned to Italy, Fibonacci published Liber Abbaci, one of the first Western works to describe the Hindu-Arabic numeric system.

When Liber Abbaci first appeared in 1202, Hindu-Arabic numerals were known to only a few intellectuals; European tradesmen and scholars were still clinging to Roman numerals, which made multiplication and division extremely cumbersome (try multiplying MXCI by LVII!). Fibonacci’s book demonstrated numerals’ use in arithmetic operations – techniques which could be applied to practical problems like profit margin, money changing, weight conversion, barter and interest…

Fibonacci’s great genius was not just his creativity as a mathematician, however, but his keen understanding of the advantages known to Muslim scientists for centuries: their calculating formulas, their decimal place system, their algebra. In fact, Liber Abbaci relied almost exclusively on the algorithms of 9th-Century mathematician Al-Khwarizmi. His revolutionary treatise presented, for the first time, a systematic way of solving quadratic equations. Because of his discoveries in the field, Al-Khwarizmi is often referred to as the father of algebra – a word we owe to him, from the Arabic al-jabr, “the restoring of broken parts”—and in 821 he was appointed astronomer and head librarian of the House of Wisdom…

Centuries ago, a prestigious Islamic library (tragically burned in the the Siege of Baghdad) brought Arabic numerals to the world; its mathematical revolution changed our world: “How modern mathematics emerged from a lost Islamic library.”

For more on The House of Wisdom– and the sad stories of other libraries and archives that have been destroyed through the ages– see Richard Ovenden‘s remarkable new Burning the Books- a History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge.

* Leonardo da Pisa, known posthumously as Fibonacci [see here]


As we count our blessings, we might spare a thought for John Pell; he died on this date in 1685.  An English mathematician, he is perhaps best remembered for having introduced the “division sign”– the “obelus,” a short line with dots above and below– into use in English.  It was first used in German by Johann Rahn in 1659 in Teutsche Algebra; Pell’s translation brought the symbol to English-speaking mathematicians.  But Pell was an important influence on Rahn, and edited his book– so may well have been, many scholars believe, the originator of the symbol for this use.  (In any case the symbol wasn’t new to them:  the obelus [derived from the word for “roasting spit” in Greek] had already been used to mark passages in writings that were considered dubious, corrupt or spurious…. a use that surely seems only too appropriate to legions of second and third grade math students.)


%d bloggers like this: