Archive for Vector Calculus

Teaching and Fourier Series

Posted in Education, mathematics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on December 1, 2022 by telescoper

Now as we approach the last fortnight of term, I am nearing the end of both my modules, MP110 Mechanics 1 and Special Relativity and MP201 Vector Calculus and Fourier Series, and in each case am about to start the bit following the “and”…

In particular, having covered just about everything I need to do on Vector Calculus for MP201, tomorrow I start doing a block of lectures on Fourier Series. I have to wait until Monday to start doing Special Relativity with the first years.

As I have observed periodically, the two topics mentioned in the title of the module MP201 (Vector Calculs and Fourier Series) are not disconnected, but are linked via the heat equation, the solution of which led Joseph Fourier to devise his series in Mémoire sur la propagation de la chaleur dans les corps solides (1807), a truly remarkable work for its time that inspired so many subsequent developments.

Anyway I was looking for nice demonstrations of Fourier series to help my class get to grips with them when I remembered this little video recommended to me some time ago by esteemed Professor George Ellis. It’s a nice illustration of the principles of Fourier series, by which any periodic function can be decomposed into a series of sine and cosine functions.

This reminds me of a point I’ve made a few times in popular talks about astronomy. It’s a common view that Kepler’s laws of planetary motion according to which which the planets move in elliptical motion around the Sun, is a completely different formulation from the previous Ptolemaic system which involved epicycles and deferents and which is generally held to have been much more complicated.

The video demonstrates however that epicycles and deferents can be viewed as the elements used in the construction of a Fourier series. Since elliptical orbits are periodic, it is perfectly valid to present them in the form a Fourier series. Therefore, in a sense, there’s nothing so very wrong with epicycles. I admit, however, that a closed-form expression for such an orbit is considerably more compact and elegant than a Fourier representation, and also encapsulates a deeper level of physical understanding. What makes for a good physical theory is, in my view, largely a matter of economy: if two theories have equal predictive power, the one that takes less chalk to write it on a blackboard is the better one!

Del or Nabla?

Posted in Biographical, mathematics with tags , , on October 12, 2021 by telescoper

I am today preoccupied with vector calculus so, following on from yesterday’s notational rant, I am wondering about the relative frequency of usage of names for this symbol, commonly used in math to represent the gradient of a function ∇f:

To write this in Tex or Latex you use “\nabla” which is, or so I am told, so called because the symbol looks like a harp and the Greek word for the Hebrew or Egyptian form of a harp is “nabla”:

When I was being taught vector calculus many moons ago, however, the name always used was “del”. That may be a British – or even a Cambridge – thing. Here is an example of that usage a century ago.

Anyway, I am interested to know the relative frequency of the usage of “nabla” and “del” so here’s a poll.

There may be other terms, of course. Please enlighten me through the comments box if you know of any…

On Grinds

Posted in Literature, mathematics with tags , , , , on July 24, 2020 by telescoper

When I moved to Ireland a couple of years ago, one of the words I discovered had a usage with which I was unfamiliar was grind. My first encounter with this word was after a lecture on vector calculus when a student asked if I knew of anyone who could offer him grinds. I didn’t know what he meant but was sure it wasn’t the meaning that sprang first into my mind so I just said no, I had just arrived in Ireland so didn’t know of anyone. I resisted the temptation to suggest he try finding an appropriate person via Grindr.

I only found out later that grinds are a form of private tuition and they are quite a big industry in Ireland, particularly at secondary school level. School students whose parents can afford it often take grinds in particular subjects to improve their performance on the Leaving Certificate. It seems to be less common for third level students to pay for grinds, but it does happen. More frequently university students actually offer grinds to local schoolkids as a kind of part-time employment to help them through college.

The word grind can also refer to a private tutor, i.e. you can have a maths grind. It can also be used as a verb, in which sense it means `to instil or teach by persistent repetition’.

This sense of the word grind may be in use in the United Kingdom but I have never come across it before, and it seems to me to be specific to Ireland.

All of which brings me back to vector calculus, via Charles Dickens.

In Hard Times by Charles Dickens there is a character by the name of Mr Thomas Gradgrind, a grimly utilitarain school superintendent who insisted on teaching only facts.

Thomas Gradgrind (engraving by Sol Eytinge, 1867).

If there is a Mr Gradgrind, why is there neither a Mr Divgrind nor a Mr Curlgrind?

Vector Calculus Weather

Posted in mathematics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on October 12, 2018 by telescoper

As it happens I did a lecture today about vector fields as part of my module on vector calculus. Whenever I did similar lectures in the past I used the day’s weather map as an illustration, so this morning I downloaded what turned out to be a particularly dramatic example. The curl of the velocity field around the weather system off the west coast of Ireland this morning was definitely non-zero…

Storm Callum turned out to be not as damaging as feared. Apparently it was rather windy in Maynooth overnight, but I slept right through it.

A (Physics) Problem from the Past

Posted in Cute Problems, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on September 25, 2012 by telescoper

I’ve been preparing material for my new 2nd year lecture course module The Physics of Fields and Flows, which starts next week. The idea of this is to put together some material on electromagnetism and fluid mechanics in a way that illustrates the connections between them as well as developing proficiency in the mathematics that underpins them, namely vector calculus. Anyway, in the course of putting together the notes and exercises it occurred to me to have a look at the stuff I was given when I was in the 2nd year at university, way back in 1983-4. When I opened the file I found this problem which caused me a great deal of trouble when I tried to do it all those years ago. It’s from an old Cambridge Part IB Advanced Physics paper. See what you can make of it..

(You can click on the image to make it larger…)