Archive for mathematics

The Problem of the Moving Triangle

Posted in Cute Problems, mathematics with tags , , on August 16, 2018 by telescoper

I found this nice geometric puzzle a few days ago on Twitter. It’s not too hard, but I thought I’d put it in the `Cute Problems‘ folder.

In the above diagram, the small equilateral triangle moves about inside the larger one in such a way that it keeps the orientation shown. What can you say about the sum a+b+c?

Answers through the comments box please, and please show your working!


When Log Tables aren’t Log Tables

Posted in Education, mathematics, Maynooth with tags , , , , , on May 17, 2018 by telescoper

Every now and then – actually more frequently than that – I reveal myself in Ireland as an ignorant foreigner. The other day some students were going through a past examination paper (from 2014) and I was surprised to see that the front cover (above) mentioned  `log tables’.

Now I’m old enough to remember using tables of logarithms (and other mathematical tables  of such things as square roots and trigonometric functions, in the form of lists of numbers) extensively at school. These were provided in this book of four-figure tables (which can now buy for 1p on Amazon, plus p&p).

As a historical note I’ll point out that I was in the first year at my school that progressed to calculators rather than slide rules (in the third year) so I was never taught how to use the former. My set of four-figure tables which was so heavily used that it was falling to bits anyway, never got much use after that and I threw it out when I went to university despite the fact that I’m a notorious hoarder.

Anyway, assuming that the mention of `log tables’ was a relic of many years past, I said to the group of students going through the old examination paper that it seemed somewhat anachronistic. I was promptly corrected, and told that `log tables’ are in regular use in schools and colleges throughout Ireland, but that the term is a shorthand for a booklet containing a general collection of mathematical formulae, scientific data and other bits of stuff that might come in useful to students; for an example appropriate to the Irish Leaving Certificate, see here. One thing that they don’t contain is a table of logarithms…

Students in Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University are also given a formula booklet for use during examinations. I don’t remember having access to such a thing as an undergraduate, but I don’t object to it. It seems to me that an examination shouldn’t be a memory test, and giving students the basic formulae as a starting point if anything allows the examiner to concentrate on testing what matters much more, i.e. the ability to formulate and solve a problem. The greatest challenge of science education at University level is, in my opinion, convincing students that their brain is much more than a memory device…

R.I.P. Maryam Mirzakhani (1977-2017)

Posted in mathematics with tags , , on July 18, 2017 by telescoper

Very sad news arrived at the weekend of the death of the brilliant Iranian-born mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani of breast cancer at the age of just 40. Let me first of all express my heartfelt condolences to her family, friends and colleagues on this devastating loss.

A uniquely creative and inspirational figure, Maryam Mirzakhani was the first woman ever to win the coveted Fields Medal; her citation for that award picks out her work on the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces.  Here’s a short video of her talking about her life and work. It’s fascinating not only because of the work itself, but the insight it gives into the way she did it – using very large sheets of paper covered in drawings and notes!

R.I.P. Maryam Mirzakhani (1977-2017).


Isotropic Random Fields in Astrophysics

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on June 29, 2017 by telescoper

So the little workshop  on `Isotropic Random Fields in Astrophysics’ I announced some time ago, sponsored via a “seedcorn” grant by the Data Innovation Research Institute, has finally arrived, and having spent most of the day at it I’m now catching up with some other stuff in the office before adjourning for the conference dinner.


This meeting is part of a series of activities aimed at bringing together world-leading experts in the analysis of big astrophysical data sets, specifically those arising from the (previous) Planck (shown above) and (future) Euclid space missions, with mathematical experts in the spectral theory of scalar vector or tensor valued isotropic random fields. Our aim is to promote collaboration between mathematicians interested in probability theory and statistical analysis and theoretical and observational astrophysicists both within Cardiff university and further afield.


It’s been a very interesting day of interleaving talks by cosmologists and mathematicians followed by an open-ended discussion session where we talked about unsolved problems and lines for future research. It’s clear that there are some language difficulties between the two communities but I hope this meeting helps to break down a few barriers and stimulate some new joint research projects.




Isotropic Random Fields in Astrophysics – Workshop Announcement!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on May 8, 2017 by telescoper

We have a little workshop coming up in Cardiff at the end of June, sponsored via a “seedcorn” grant by the Data Innovation Research Institute.

This meeting is part of a series of activities aimed at bringing together world-leading experts in the analysis of big astrophysical data sets, specifically those arising from the (previous) Planck and (future) Euclid space missions, with mathematical experts in the spectral theory of scalar vector or tensor valued isotropic random fields. Our aim is to promote collaboration between mathematicians interested in probability theory and statistical analysis and theoretical and observational astrophysicists both within Cardiff university and further afield.

The workshop page can be found here. We have a great list of invited speakers from as far afield as Japan and California (as well as some from much closer to home) and we’re also open for contributed talks. We’ll be publishing the full programme of titles and abstracts soon. Registration is free of charge, but you do need to register so we can be sure we have enough space, enough coffee and enough lunch! That goes whether you want to give a contributed talk, or just come along and listen!

It’s only a short (two-day) meeting and are aiming for an informal atmosphere with plenty of time for discussions, with roughly a 50-50 blend of astrophysicists and mathematicians and to achieve that aim we’d particularly welcome a few more contributed talks from the mathematical side of the house, but we still have spaces for more astrophysics talks too! We’d also welcome more contributions from early career researchers, especially PhD students.

Please feel free to pass this around your colleagues.


R.I.P. John M Stewart (1943-2016)

Posted in Biographical, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on November 23, 2016 by telescoper

john-stewartI was very sad this morning to hear of the death of distinguished mathematical physicist Dr John M. Stewart (left). Apart from a few years in Munich in the 1970s John Stewart spent most of his working life in Cambridge, having studied there as an undergraduate and postgraduate and then returning from his spell at the Max Planck Institute to the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics for forty years.

John’s research mostly concerned relativistic fluid dynamics. Indeed, he was one of the pioneers of numerical relativity in the United Kingdom, and he applied his knowledge to a number of problems in early Universe cosmology and structure formation. I think it is fair to say that he wasn’t the most prolific researcher in terms of publications, which is perhaps why he only got promoted to Senior Lecturer in 2000 and never made it to a Chair, retiring as Reader in Gravitational Physics in 2010. However, his work was always of a very high technical standard and presented with great clarity and he was held in a very high regard by those who knew him and worked with him.

The tributes paid to John Stewart by King’s College (of which he was a Life Fellow) here and his colleagues in the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology here give a detailed account of his research achievements, so I refer you to them for more information about that aspect of his career.

I just wanted to add a personal note not about John Stewart’s research, but about something else mentioned in the obituaries linked to above: his teaching. I was fortunate enough to have him as a lecturer when I was studying Natural Sciences at Cambridge during the early 1980s. In the second year (Part IB) I specialised in Physics and Mathematics, and John taught part of the Mathematics syllabus. He was an absolutely superb teacher. For a start he was superbly well organized and had clearly thought very deeply about how best to present some quite difficult material. But it wasn’t just that. He projected a very engaging personality, with nice touches of humour, that made him easy to listen. His lectures were also very well paced for taking notes. In fact he was one of the few lecturers I had whose material I didn’t have to transcribe into a neat form from rough notes.

I have kept all the notes from that course for over thirty years. Here are a couple of pages as an example:


Anyone who has ever seen my handwriting will know that this is about as neat as I ever get!

When I was called upon to teach similar material at Cardiff and Sussex I drew on them heavily, so anyone who has learned anything from me about complex analysis, contour integration, Green’s functions and a host of other things actually owes a huge debt to John Stewart. Anything they didn’t understand was of course my fault, not his..

I also remember that John came to Queen Mary to give a seminar when I worked there in the early 90s as a postdoc. I was still a bit in awe of him because of my experience of him in Cambridge. His talk was about a method for handling the evolution of cosmological matter perturbations based on an approach based on the Hamilton-Jacobi formalism. His visit was timely, as I’d been struggling to understand the papers that had been coming out at the time on this topic. In the bar after his talk I plucked up the courage to explain to him what it was that I was struggling to understand. He saw immediately where I was going wrong and put me right on my misconceptions straight away, plucking a simple illustrative example apparently out of thin air. I was deeply impressed, not only by his ability to identify the issue but also with his friendly and helpful demeanour.

Rest in Peace, Dr John M. Stewart (1943-2016).

Computable Numbers, 80 Years on..

Posted in History, mathematics, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on May 28, 2016 by telescoper

There’s been rather a lot of sad news conveyed via this blog recently, so I thought that today I’d mark a happier event. Eighty years ago today (i.e. on 28th May 1936), a paper by Alan Turing arrived at the London Mathematical Society. Entitled “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Enstscheidungsproblem“, this was not only enormously influential but also a truly beautiful piece of work. Turing was only 23 when he wrote it. It was delivered to the London Mathematical Society about 6 months after it was submitted,  i.e. in November 1936..

Here’s the first page:


The full reference is

Proc. London Math. Soc. (1937) s2-42 (1): 230-265. doi: 10.1112/plms/s2-42.1.230

You can find the full paper here. I heartily recommend reading it, it’s wonderful.