Plus Blog

September 29, 2008
Tuesday, September 30, 2008

LHC intermission

Sadly, the LHC is on a compulsory break after breaking down last week, but here's something to while away the time until it's fixed:

posted by Plus @ 4:15 PM


At 3:19 PM, Anonymous james gill said...

i think that the video totally described to me what the LHC was because i had know idea but now i do and the rap was brilliant.

September 29, 2008
Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Mathematical moments - Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis

Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis
Born on the 28th of September 1698 in Saint Malo, France
Died on the 27th of July 1759 in Basel, Switzerland

For an originator of the principle of least action, Maupertuis led a surprisingly productive life, shunning neither effort nor intrigue. His early academic studies focussed on philosophy and music, were interrupted by a stint with the Musketeers, and resumed in Paris, where his interest in mathematics began to blossom. His first paper as a member of the Academie de Sciences explored the influence of a musical instrument's shape on the sounds it produces, and was followed by a range of works on mathematical curves. The entirely non-mathematical Salamander - yes, the amphibian - was the topic of another of his papers from that period.

Keen to expand his mathematical expertise, Maupertuis relocated to Basle in 1729, where he lived with and studied under none other than Johann Bernoulli. Back in Paris, papers on astronomy, mechanics and differential equations followed, and Maupertuis established himself as an eclectic mathematical talent. But it wasn't all theory. In 1736 Maupertuis set out on an expedition to Lapland, his mission to measure the length of a degree along the meridian. After enduring swarms of pesky insects, terrible cold and being shipwrecked, Maupertuis returned in 1737 with the knowledge that the Earth was oblate ... and two native Finnish girls. The latter did not further his academic standing, instead they laid him open to ridicule from his enemies.

And enemies there were many. Maupertuis, who was given to penning venomous attacks on his opponents, managed to fall out with Johann Bernoulli and later also with Voltaire with whom he had become friends after the expedition. On the upside, his academic talents inspired the interest of Frederick the Great, who in 1740 invited him to become president of the brand new Berlin Academy. After visiting Frederick in Berlin, Maupertuis ended up on the battle field on the side of the Prussians, was taken prisoner by the Austrians, but was eventually released, shaken but unharmed. In 1746, after his career had made good progress in Paris, he did take the presidency of the Berlin Academy and moved to Berlin permanently.

Maupertuis talents were indeed eclectic. He published on a range of subjects including mathematics, philosophy and astronomy. A hundred years before Darwin he almost formulated Darwin's theory of evolution. But it is probably the principle of least action that he is most remembered for now. The principle says that physical systems, in getting from state A to state B, always choose the path that minimises the effort required. This begs the question of who or what does the minimising, and the principle opened up all sorts of cans of teleological worms.

Maupertuis was extremely proud of his principle of least action, so it came as a shock when he accidentally recommended a paper for publication which stated that it wasn't him but Leibniz who first postulated it. The resulting priority dispute cast a shadow over the last years of his life and had an adverse effect on his health. In 1756 he left Berlin for good and three years later died on a journey he undertook to improve his health.

For more information on Maupertuis visit the MacTutor History of Maths site

And for more on the principle of least action read the Plus article Frugal nature.

posted by Plus @ 3:15 PM


September 28, 2008
Monday, September 29, 2008

Maths on telly and radio

BBC Four will launch a new three-part TV series on maths at 9pm this coming Monday the 6th of October. In The story of maths Marcus du Sautoy, Oxford mathematician and one of the UK's finest maths popularisers, describes the often surprising lives of the great mathematicians, explains the development of the key mathematical ideas and shows how — in a multitude of unusual ways — those ideas underpin the science, technology and culture that shape our world. The first episode will look at the contributions from the ancient Greeks.

To get you into the mood, have a look at du Sautoy's Plus articles The prime number lottery, The music of the primes, and Beckham in his prime number.

If you prefer the radio, then tune into BBC Radio 4's In our time on Thursday the 9th of October at 9am and again at 9.30pm. Melvyn Bragg together with experts including John D Barrow will discuss Gödel's infamous incompleteness theorem.

posted by Plus @ 11:46 AM


At 1:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you think "The story of maths" on BBC 4, will be viewable in some format for those outside the UK?

I believe Simon Singh's "Fermat's Last Theorem" documentary originally aired on BBC, but was distributed to PBS US. I enjoyed it so much, I went out and bought the book. It would be nice to listen/watch these intelligent programs in a more timely fashion, rather than several years later :-)

I've been able to download a few BBC mp3 files and listen to them on the go.

At 4:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds very interesting! Is it possible to view BBC4 without living in the UK?

At 11:29 AM, Blogger Plus said...

As far as we can tell there's no easy way to watch BBC Four from abroad, but we're trying to find out how to get hold of the programme. We'll let you know when we know....

At 12:38 PM, Blogger Plus said...

...and you may be interested to know that one of du Sautoy's previous programmes, The music of the primes, is available on DVD from the Open University at

At 6:27 AM, Blogger westius said...

Check out this link for some interesting info on watching the BBC iPlayer outside of the UK.

In summary, you have to be a little bit dodgy to do it, but it can be done.

It's also likely that this show will pop up on youtube at some stage.

At 10:45 PM, Anonymous Supertelly said...

More recently on the excellent BBC4 there was a very interesting chemistry programme - I can't remember the name but it was like a beginner's guide, very good TV.

September 24, 2008
Thursday, September 25, 2008

Alles Gute zum Geburtstag! Joyeux Anniversaire! Suk San Wan Keut! Sun Yat Fai Lok! Hartelijk gefeliciteerd! Felichan Naskightagon! And Happy Birthday to Google in the other 93-plus languages it speaks!

As the web search engine Google celebrates its 10th birthday it is hard to imagine life online without it. It has become such an indispensable tool that we don't just search for something any more, we "google" it, as recognised by the Oxford English Dictionary in 2006. What many people don't realise is that Google's rise to become one of the most successful search engines on the web today is due to the mathematical algorithm PageRank, devised by Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page, the founders of Google. This algorithm not only decides which webpages match your search criteria (which all search engines do), but also which are more important and returns these at the top of the results.



posted by Plus @ 12:14 PM


At 9:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Happy birthday google!!!!!!!

September 22, 2008
Tuesday, September 23, 2008

More evidence of the intrinsic beauty of maths, this time shown in a lovely slideshow from the BBC, narrated by mathematician Lasse Rempe from the University of Liverpool.

Rempe works in the area of dynamical systems: systems that change over time and can be found everywhere from the stockmarket to the weather. In the slideshow, he explains how dynamical systems can be generated from very simple polynomials yet produce extremely complex behaviour, and how these systems can be graphically represented by such beautiful images.

As John Barrow told us in our first image-enhanced Plus podcast Cosmic Imagery, mathematical images such as these have actually been responsible for changing science and how we see the world around us . So sit back with your coffee and enjoy the shows!

You can read more about dynamical systems and mathematics and art on Plus.

posted by Plus @ 10:41 AM


September 17, 2008
Thursday, September 18, 2008

...and yesterday was brought to you by the number 54, thanks to the Mathematical Association of America's NumberADay blog. Every working day they post a number and a biography of its interesting properties.

Today's number 11,185,272 is the number of decimal digits in the 46th known Mersenne prime, discovered on Sept. 6, 2008 (you can read more in Prime record broken? on Plus).

54 might seems less significant, but in fact thanks to the MAA Plus now knows that it is the smallest number that can be written as the sum of 3 squares in 3 ways, the number of colored squares on a Rubik’s cube, and is a nonadecagonal (19-gonal) number!

posted by Plus @ 2:12 PM


Syndicate content