Maths in a minute
Want facts and want them fast? Our Maths in a minute series explores key mathematical concepts in just a few words. From symmetry to Euclid's axioms, and from binary numbers to the prosecutor's fallacy, learn some maths without too much effort.
Kneeling in the mud by a country road on a cold drizzly day, I finally appreciated the wonder that is a lever. I was trying to change a flat tyre and even jumping on the end of the wheel wrench wouldn't budge the wheel nuts. But when the AA arrived they undid them with ease, thanks to a wheel wrench that was three times the size of mine. There you have it ... size really does matter!
Topologists famously think that a doughnut is the same as a coffee cup because one can be deformed into the other without tearing or cutting. In other words, topology doesn't care about exact measurements of quantities like lengths, angles and areas. Instead, it looks only at the overall shape of an object, considering two objects to be the same as long as you can morph one into the other without breaking it. But how do you work with such a slippery concept? One useful tool is what's called the fundamental group of a shape.
The dramatic curved surfaces of some of the iconic buildings created in the last decade, such as 30 St Mary's Axe (AKA the Gherkin) in London, are only logistically and economically possible thanks to mathematics. Curved panels of glass or other material are expensive to manufacture and to fit. Surprisingly, the curved surface of the Gherkin has been created almost entirely out of flat panels of glass — the only curved piece is the cap on the very top of the building. And simple geometry is all that is required to understand how.