Plus Blog

September 12, 2011

Compass & Rule: Architecture as Mathematical Practice in England, 1500-1750, is a lovely online version of the physical exhibition held at the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford, in 2009. Compass and Rule focuses on design and drawing, exploring the role of geometry in the dramatic transformation of English architecture between the 16th and 18th centuries. During this time new concepts of design based on geometry changed how architects worked and what they built, as well as the intellectual status and social standing of their discipline. Identified as a branch of practical mathematics, architecture became the most artistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the arts.

As well as a great online exhibition covering the geometry of stonemasons, the design of St Paul's and the architectural apprenticeship of King George III, it also has some fascinating videos of how to construct technical drawings or design classical architectural features using just a straight edge, compass and right angle.

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September 8, 2011

One of London's most loved landmarks, the dome of St Paul's, has looked over the city for more than three centuries. However many people don't realise that it hides an intriguing example of the interplay between maths and architecture.

Seen from the outside, the building is crowned by a glorious hemispherical dome supporting a magnificent lantern. But what you see from the inside is not the same as what you see from the outside. Sir Christopher Wren created an ingenious design of three nested domes: a hemispherical outer dome to dominate the skyline, a steeper inner dome more fitting with the internal dimensions of the cathedral, and a hidden middle dome.

This middle dome was necessary to provide structural support to the outer dome and lantern. Although the outer dome's spherical form is important aesthetically, it is an inherently weak structure and would never have carried the weight of the lantern. And although the inner dome appears to be open to the lantern above, it is actually the inside of the middle dome painted to appear as the lantern.

Wren's sketch for St Paul's

Christopher Wren's sketch for the triple dome design for St Paul's cathedral. It clearly shows his plotting of the cubic curve, y=x3, to give the shape for the middle dome. (Image from the British Museum)

This early sketch (c. 1690) of the triple dome design shows Wren using a mathematical curve to define the shape of the middle dome; the cubic curve y=x3 is clearly plotted on axes marked on the design. The curve not only defines the shape of the middle dome but also the height and width of the surrounding abutments, positioned so as to contain a continuation of the cubic curve to ground level. Wren was applying the theory of his colleague Robert Hooke about the mathematical shapes of ideal masonry domes and arches, one of the earliest instances of mathematical science being used as part of the design process.

In 1675 Hooke published the anagram Ut pendet continuum flexile, sic stabit contiguum rigidum inversum, which translates to "as hangs the flexible line, so but inverted will stand the rigid arch". Hooke had correctly understood that the tension passing through a hanging cord is equivalent to the compression in a standing arch. And so the natural form of a hanging cord — a catenary — would also be the shape of the line of thrust of an arch. For an arch to be stable it needs to contain this line of thrust, either in the material of the arch itself or in its abutments. Therefore the ideal shape for a masonry arch, the shape requiring the least material, is a catenary.

Hook and Wren thought that the ideal shape of a masonry dome would be the cubico-parabolic conoid created by rotating half of the cubic curve, y=x3. Their mathematical descriptions were very close but the correct equations defining the shape of the catenary and the ideal dome were discovered much later (you can find the details in an excellent paper by Jaques Heyman).

The design of the triple dome continued to evolve after this drawing, with the use of experimental models and the impacts of economics and aesthetics deciding its final shape. The middle dome, as finally constructed, is no longer the pure geometric form of the sketch. But it is clear that its shape is derived from the mathematical concept of a cubic curve, one of the most awe-inspiring instances of the role of mathematics in architecture.

You can read more about the mathematics of architecture and the design of St Paul's at the online exhibition, Compass & Rule, at the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford. The site includes some fascinating footage of the geometric construction of classical architecture using just a compass and rule. You can uncover more maths in our urban environment at Maths in the City and find out more about the maths of engineering and architecture here on Plus.

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September 2, 2011

We've found our lucky winner of a £50 Amazon voucher, as a reward for doing our Constructing our lives survey! Check your email to see if it's you!

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August 17, 2011

Have you read any of the articles, or listened to any of the podcasts, from our project Constructing our lives: the mathematics of engineering? Perhaps you've read about the velodrome, or about engineering and music, or listened to our climate change podcast?

If yes, then we'd like to know what you thought of what you read and heard. We are about to report back to the Royal Academy of Engineering, who funded the project, and your feedback will give us and them valuable information on the impact of public engagement activities. It may even help us to secure more funding for similar projects in the future.

So please take the time to complete our 3-minute online survey. It will remain open until Friday 26th August and when it's closed, one lucky participant will win a £50 voucher from Amazon. For a reminder of the articles and podcasts published as part of the project, visit the Constructing our lives page. Tell us what you think!

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August 17, 2011
Ri Masterclass

Dr Katie Steckles delivering the Playing with Squares masterclass in Manchester.

Would you like to present engaging mathematics sessions to young people?

The Royal Institution of Great Britain (Ri) is offering development sessions for new Ri mathematics masterclass speakers as part of the celebration of the 30th anniversary of the programme. The network stretches from Aberdeen to Truro, including Jersey and Northern Ireland, and is ever-expanding.

The Ri welcomes enquiries from teachers, researchers, postgraduate students, professionals from industry or any other person with interest in mathematics and in communicating it. Places are limited but they will do their best to accommodate all requests at this or future sessions.

The next development session is in Cambridge, on 20th October 2011. Details about the masterclasses can be found on the Ri website.

If you like to know more about the project or the session please contact Sara Santos on or call 020 7670 2915.

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August 3, 2011

If you live in or near Cambridge, you've got the chance to see a genuine World War II Enigma machine in action and watch the movie Enigma starring Kate Winslet and Dougray Scott afterwards!

On Monday the 5th of September at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse cinema, James Grime, from our sister project Enigma, will demonstrate one of the miraculous code breaking machines and talk about its history. This is followed by a screening of the movie and an informal Q&A session in the cinema bar. The only fee is the cinema ticket.

The event is part of SciScreen, a new film festival at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse organised by the British Science Association Cambridgeshire branch. The aim of SciScreen is to raise public awareness for the real science behind the science portrayed in cinema. In each SciScreen session experts explain the science from the film in a short talk before curtain-up, and after the film everyone is invited to the Arts Picturehouse bar for a drink and informal discussion.

For more information and updates visit the SciScreen Facebook page.

To find out more about the Enigma machine, read Exploring the Enigma or listen to our Enigma podcast.