Monthly Archives: October 2014

Sundial

It’s about time: humanity’s heated relationship with the sun

This weekend you enjoyed an extra hour of sleep or revelry, if your region put the clocks back to put an end to daylight saving time.

Depending on your point of view (can you guess mine?), you’re either relishing a few more days of early morning sunlight, or resenting getting home in the dark and having to turn the light on to do your solely-indoor activities.

There’s a lot of confusion surrounding daylight saving time. From my informal poll of family members and colleagues, lots of people think that DST exists to help farmers, much like school summer holidays allowing children to stay at home during the harvest season, or that the summer hours represent the ‘true’ time, which we adjust in winter to be able to enjoy more hours of daylight when they are so scarce.

This is not so: DST is simply one of humanity’s latest attempts to wrest control of time from the dictates of the sun, a process of adaptation that’s been underway since the advent of industrialisation and artificial light in the 19th century. The changes to the sun-imposed daily routine are so great that in contrast to the extra hour of sleep you had last night, people in pre-industrial societies enjoyed an additional hour of wakefulness in the middle of the night, dividing their sleep in two.

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Konigsberg3

A bridged history of Königsberg

To mathematicians, they are the most famous bridges in the world. Spanning the river Pregel as it flows into the Baltic Sea, the Seven Bridges of Königsberg are today virtually synonymous with the field of topology, the mathematical study of shapes.

Their immortality was assured in 1735 when Leonhard Euler, the great Swiss mathematician, became intrigued by the city’s unique geometrical configuration. In addition to settlements on the north and south banks of the river Pregel, 18th Century Königsberg also included two large islands known as Kneiphof and Lomse. These islands were connected to the mainland as well as each other by seven bridges that were central to the city’s life.

Konigsberg_bridges

Euler wanted to know the answer to a comparatively simple question: would it be possible for a visitor to cross each and every one of Königsberg’s seven bridges once and only once? Being a mathematician and not a tourist, it didn’t matter to him whether the visitor started in the same place as she finished.

Such a path, Euler eventually concluded, would not be possible. The visitor (let’s call her Doris) would either find herself stranded on Kneiphof or else forced to angrily patrol the riverbank waiting for the authorities to build her another bridge. Needless to say, Euler refused to consider either jumping or swimming as valid options.

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Hedy Lamarr

The four women my computers are named after

At the age of 13 I got my first computer: a custom-built gaming rig with a brand new dual core processor. For the first time in my life I didn’t have to share a computer with anybody else in my family — I could use it exactly how I wanted and, more importantly, I could give it whatever name I chose.

Naming a household appliance may seem like a cute affectation — only marginally better than giving a name to your favourite rock or comfiest underwear — but is a necessary part of networking. Without a hostname, computers cannot identify themselves to each other to share information. The principle is somewhat abstracted on the Internet, but essentially, the www in “www.tychosnose.com” is the hostname of our web server.

In honour of the grandfather of computing I named my first computer babbage, so it was only natural that my first laptop – one of those laptops for teenagers – obtained several years later, should then be called lovelace (read on if you don’t know why). After babbage’s retirement, however, all my devices have been named after pioneering women in computer science or related fields.

Babbage and Lovelace as drawn in 2D Goggles

Babbage and Lovelace as a crime-fighting duo in 2D Goggles, a comic by Sydney Padua.

The ‘middle’ Tuesday in October is now known as Ada Lovelace Day, an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women in science and technology. As part of the celebrations, today I would like to share the stories of four amazing women my computers are named after.

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Hefele

Duet Yourself – the science of polyphonic overtone singing

When most people praise the quality of a duet, they expect to be congratulating two people. But, as a video that’s gone viral this week has proved, that assumption need not always hold true. In just over eight days German singer Anna-Maria Hefele has racked up 4 million views on YouTube by demonstrating her phenomenal ability to sing two separate melodies at the same time.

Hefele’s performance is an example of polyphonic overtone singing, a technique which allows her to produce two distinct notes in perfect harmony.The lower of the two is generated by the vibrations of vocal folds in the larynx: the same process as occurs in everyday speech. This sound wave is said to have a fundamental frequency, as it has the longest wavelength that will fit inside the resonant cavity formed by the speaker’s mouth and throat.

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mean-girls

It’s October 3rd: The Mathematics of Mean Girls

Mean Girls is arguably the teen movie of my generation.

I’m not sure if this counts as a valid appraisal of a film’s popular impact, but a site-specific Google search of Buzzfeed alone turns up 7,890 results for posts about the 2004 teen rom-com. If this is compared to various other bits of pop culture, we can see that the 28th highest box office film of 2004 has had a phenomenal cultural impact. It rates just behind the 6-film behemoth that is the Star Wars franchise and well ahead of its rival Clueless. Somehow, in the over-saturated high-school drama genre, Mean Girls made its mark.
october 3rd graph

If you’ve never seen the film, you’ll be wondering why I’m writing about it today. If you’ve seen the film once or twice, you may also be a little bemused. If, like me, you own multiple DVD copies because you keep one at your parents to have something to watch over Christmas, you’ll know that I’m writing this post today because on October 3rd Aaron Samuels asked Cady what day it was, and today is the tenth October 3rd since the movie’s release.

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Also if you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know we like to pick up on mathematics and science in pop culture. In Mean Girls, this isn’t particularly difficult as mathematics is used as the metaphorical weather vane for Cady Heron’s descent-into and subsequent ascent-out-of superficiality.

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