#ThanksEinstein: J.P. Ostriker on Einstein and the wonder of pure thought

Einstein meme

Questions with No Reply

J. P. Ostriker

J.P. Ostriker is an astrophysicist and the co-author of Heart of Darkness, which tells the saga of humankind’s quest to unravel the deepest secrets of the universe: dark matter and dark energy. Here is his story about how an Einstein thought experiment he encountered as a teenager changed his life.

When I was a high school student I drove my teachers crazy with incessant and insatiable curiosity about the natural world. Next to our pictures in the yearbook, one of the teachers had added a line for each student and for me it was “I thought of questions that have no reply.”

And for the questions that I had that my teachers could not or would not answer, I went to books. Einstein wrote several of these that were accessible to high school students, and they fascinated me. I remember a “thought experiment” presented in one of them: A scientist sets up an exquisite laboratory on a train and tests both Newton’s laws of mechanics and Maxwell’s laws of electricity and magnetism. And, hypothetically, one finds that both are correct to arbitrary precision.

train image, copyright: phildaintThen the train begins to move and E shows that, since the laws transform differently with the velocity of the observer, they can no longer both be true! Therefore one (or both) theories must be false.

This amazed me. No experiment was necessary. Pure thought was all that was needed and any high school student who thought about it could have come to the same conclusion as Einstein, and could have invented special relativity to solve the problem! I thought that this was wonderful, truly wonderful. I resolved that I would pursue physics and think about simple and fundamental matters. It looked easy.

Well, needless to say it was not always easy, but it has always been fun. I’m thankful I had access to Einstein’s popular books when I was a teenager with more questions than answers.

Jeremiah P. Ostriker is professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University. He is author, with Simon Mitton, of Heart of Darkness: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Invisible Universe. His books include Formation of Structure in the Universe and Unsolved Problems in Astrophysics (Princeton).


Train tracks image from Shutterstock, copyright: phildaint

PUP congratulates writers chosen for The Best Writing on Mathematics 2015

Highlighting the finest articles published throughout the entire year, The Best Writing on Mathematics 2015 shines the spotlight on math’s brightest, most creative minds. Edited by Mircea Pitici, the volume is inviting to experienced mathematicians and numbers novices alike.

The Best Writing on Mathematics, in its sixth edition, offers surprising and meaningful insights and perspectives into the highly influential world of mathematics. Colm Mulcahy and Dana Richards express their appreciation and reflections of the significant work of icon Martin Gardner, Toby Walsh creatively uses the popular game Candy Crush as a vehicle to analyze the hardships of solving computational problems, Benoît Rittaud and Albrecht Heeffer investigate and question the true derivation of the pigeonhole principle, Carlo Cellucci considers and defines beauty in mathematics — and that’s just the beginning.

Best Writing on Math 2015

Congratulations to those chosen to be included in The Best Writing in Mathematics 2015!

Interpreting mathematics is not about mathematical truth (or any other truth); it is a personal take on mathematical facts, and in that it can be true or untrue, or it can even be fiction; it is vision, or it is rigorous reasoning, or it is pure speculation, all occasioned by mathematics; it is imagination on a mathematical theme; it goes back several millennia and it is flourishing today, as I hope this series of books lays clear, (xiii)

— Mircea Pitici, Editor


Articles and authors selected in The Best Writing on Mathematics 2015

Articles Authors
A Dusty Discipline Michael J. Barany and Donald MacKenzie
How Puzzles Made Us Human Pradeep Mutalik
Let the Games Continue Colm Mulcahy and Dana Richards
Challenging Magic Squares for Magicians Arthur T. Benjamin and Ethan J. Brown
Candy Crush’s Puzzling Mathematics Toby Walsh
Chaos on the Billiard Table Marianne Freiberger
Juggling with Numbers Erik R. Tou
The Quest for Randomness Scott Aaronson
Synthetic Biology, Real Mathematics Dana Mackenzie
At the Far Ends of a New Universal Law Natalie Wolchover
Twisted Math and Beautiful Geometry Eli Maor and Eugen Jost
Kenichi Miura’s Water Wheel, or The Dance of the Shapes of Constant Width Burkard Polster
Dürer: Disguise, Distance, Disagreements, and Diagonals! Annalisa Crannell, Marc Frantz, and Fumiko Futamura
The Quaternion Group as a Symmetry Group Vi Hart and Henry Segerman
The Steiner-Lehmus Angle Bisector Theorem John Conway and Alex Ryba
Key Ideas and Memorability in Proof Gila Hanna and John Mason
The Future of High School Mathematics Jim Fey, Sol Garfunkel, Diane Briars, Andy Isaacs, Henry Pollak, Eric Robinson, Richard Scheaffer, Alan Schoenfeld, Cathy Seeley, Dan Teague, and Zalman Usiskin
Demystifying the Math Myth: Analyzing the Contributing Factors for the Achievement Gap between Chinese and U.S. Students Guili Zhang and Miguel A. Padilla
The Pigeonhole Principle, Two Centuries before Dirichlet Benoît Rittaud and Albrecht Heeffer
A Prehistory of Nim Lisa Rougetet
Gödel, Gentzen, Goodstein: The Magic Sound of a G-String Jan von Plato
Global and Local James Franklin
Mathematical Beauty, Understanding, and Discovery Carlo Cellucci
A Guide for the Perplexed: What Mathematicians Need to Know to Understand Philosophers of Mathematics Mark Balaguer
Writing about Math for the Perplexed and the Traumatized Steven Strogatz
Is Big Data Enough? A Reflection on the Changing Role of Mathematics in Applications Domenico Napoletani, Marco Panza, and Daniele C. Struppa
The Statistical Crisis in Science Andrew Gelman and Eric Loken
Statistics and the Ontario Lottery Retailer Scandal Jeffrey S. Rosenthal
Never Say Never David J. Hand

Mircea Pitici holds a PhD in mathematics education from Cornell University, where he teaches math and writing. He has edited The Best Writing on Mathematics since 2010.

Children’s Literature for Grownups #ReadUp

Have you ever found yourself returning to a book considered “children’s literature?” There’s just something about our favorite children’s books that can draw us in. What’s with the magnetism? Children’s books are a part of our literary foundation, and some of the best ones hold a special place in our hearts. Or is it something more?

k10538Remember reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? First published in 1865, PUP is publishing a new edition in honor of the 150th anniversary, illustrated by none other than the famous surrealist, Salvador Dalí.

The whimsical world of Wonderland holds a special charm for both children and adults. You can bet more adults will be purchasing this item for themselves than for their children, both for the sense of nostalgia and for the promise of new things that children’s books inevitably hold. This promise is much more prominent in children’s books than it is in adult books because children’s books are written differently. They are written with the idea that they will likely be revisited, often including multiple layers and facets. Just ask Neil Gaiman. In a recent article, Gaiman notes that “When I’m writing for kids, I’m always assuming that a story, if it is loved, is going to be re-read. So I try and be much more conscious of it than I am with adults.”

Re-reading a children’s book as an adult brings the gift of new perspective. Would you read A Wrinkle in Time or The Hobbit the same way now as you did when you were 10? We might find and identify common themes, or develop sympathies for characters we formerly loved to hate. When we revisit these stories later in life, we read them with a new lens, one altered by experience and time, often picking up on new and interesting tidbits that we never knew existed. This is particularly true of fairy tales. If these Disney-esque stories are meant for children, why do we, as adults, enjoy them so much? The answer probably lies in their adult origins. One of PUP’s most popular recent books is The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition. The first edition. Take note.k10300

AndreaDezso_BrothersGrimm3As David Barnett states in The Guardian in a piece titled, Adult content warning: beware fairy stories, “Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm . . . did not set out to collect the stories that bear their name in order to entertain children. They were primarily collectors and philologists, who assembled their tales as part of a life’s work. . . . And they were surprised when the adults who bought their collections of fairy tales to read to their children began to complain about the adult nature of the content.”

These stories were not polished and sanitized until much later. Originally, they were filled with violence and other adult content. (As evidenced by the picture on the above left, by Andrea Dezsö, featured in PUP’s The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm). This image is from a tale entitled Herr Fix-It-Up. Herr Fix-It-Up must complete tasks denoted by a lord and king in order to win the lord his princess bride. One of the tasks is to kill a unicorn that’s been “causing a great deal of damage.” By today’s standards, beheading of unicorns is hardly the stuff of children’s tales, but these tales are more sociological accounts than children’s stories, reflecting the sensibilities of the time period and place in which they were written.

UntitledOthk10312er “children’s” books expand on this very aspect of fairy tales, including The Fourth Pig by Naomi Mitchison. Mitchison takes many of the classic tales of our childhood including Hansel and Gretel and The Little Mermaid and re-imagines them for an older audience.

As a fairly new member of the press, it never occurred to me that some titles on our list would include some of my old favorites. What children’s books do you love more as an adult?


You can take a tour of the gorgeous interior of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland here:



Feature image by Steve Czajka – https://www.flickr.com/photos/steveczajka/11392783794

Frontispiece designed by Gertrude Hermes


Feynman on the historic debate between Einstein & Bohr

The golden age of quantum theory put many of the greatest minds of the 20th century in contact with some of the most significant scientific and philosophical questions of their era. But it also put these minds in contact with one another in ways that have themselves been a source of curiosity and ongoing scientific debate.

Richard Feynman and Albert Einstein, two towering geniuses of their time, were both as revered for their scientific contributions as they were beloved for their bursts of wisdom on a wide range of subjects. It’s hard not to wonder just what these men thought of one another. Princeton University Press, which published The Ultimate Quotable Einstein in 2010 publishes The Quotable Feynman this fall. The book includes reflections by Feynman on Einstein, from his memorable mannerisms to his contributions to some of the most heated debates in 20th century science.Feynman quote

Perhaps because of the gap between their career high points, (Einstein died in 1955; Feynman didn’t receive his Nobel Prize until 1965), there are no verified quotes where Einstein alludes to Feynman or his expansive body of work. But Feynman had made observations on the older physicist, several of which revolve around Einstein’s famous 1927 public debate with Niels Bohr on the correctness of  quantum mechanics. Central to the debate was this question: Were electrons, light, and similar entities waves or particles? In some experiments they behaved like the former, and in others, the latter.

In an attempt to resolve the contradictory observations, Einstein proposed a series of “thought experiments”, which Bohr responded to. Bohr essentially took the stance that the very act of measuring alters reality, whereas Einstein insisted that reality exists, independent of the act of measurement. Key to the philosophy of science, the dispute between the two giants is detailed by Bohr in “Discussions with Einstein on Epistemological Problems in Atomic Physics”. Richard Feynman is quoted as commenting on the debate:Feynman quote 2

An Einstein Encyclopedia contains a section on the Einstein-Bohr debates, as well as a wealth of other information on Einstein’s career, family, friends. There is an entire section dedicated to righting the various misconceptions that swirl around the man, and another on his romantic interests (actual, probable, and possible).

In spite of their differences, Bohr and Einstein were friends and shared great respect for each others’ work. Until Einstein’s death 3 decades later, they continued their debates, which became, in essence, a debate about the nature of reality itself.  feynman quote 3

Check out other new Einstein publications this fall, including:

An Einstein Encyclopedia
The Road to Relativity

Why Calculus Will Save You from the Zombie Apocalypse

To survive a zombie apocalypse, one will need more than instinct and short term solutions – one will need logic and, most importantly, math. A thought-out plan comprised of sophisticated calculus equations will ensure long-term safety objectives. Thankfully, Zombies and Calculus by Colin Adams colorfully illustrates the critical implementation of calculus components when going head-to-head with zombies. Adams demonstrates how a professor and his students successfully exercise calculus to survive the attacks of zombies who not only disrupt their calculus class (the horror!), but are also out for human flesh.

Here are a few need-to-knows:

Zombies travel approximately at one yard per second – a constant derivative.

A derivative of a function is its rate of change. If a function is changing quickly, its derivate will be high, while if a function is changing slowly, its derivate will be low. Adams explains that we can measure the function’s rate of change through the steepness of the tangent line. zombies and calculus rate of change
Since speed is defined as distance divided by time, one can calculate the speed required to get from Point A to Point B in a specific time, while being able to evade any unwanted visitors (zombies). Keep in mind — speed tends to vary (not for zombies, remember, they travel in a constant derivative!), so the derivate of the function has the potential to increase or decrease. Using these simple formulas, one is able to plan out the distance, time, and speed needed to outrun these deadly predators.

It’s hard to crack a zombie’s skull. It’s easier to knock a zombie unconscious.

As detailed in Zombies and Calculus, the amount of force necessary to crack a human skull is 10,000 newtons (a newton is a measurement for force that equals 1 kilogram meter per second squared). Adams offers an example: if a baseball is going 90 miles per hour (40.2 meters/second), weighs 5 ounces (0.145 kilograms), and comes into contact with a head for .007 seconds, its force can be calculated through:Screen Shot 2015-10-29 at 4.44.31 PMSo since a baseball, with said specifications, can only create approximately 800 newtons, imagine how much force is needed to produce 10,000 newtons! When attacking a zombie with force, do not try to go for the easy kill — rather play strategically by knocking the zombie unconscious with a sudden sharp blow to the head. This will create a dramatic head jerk, causing the brain to get knocked around in the cranial cavity, thus causing a short circuit. The benefit of knocking a zombie unconscious, of course, is additional planning and escape time!

Zombies pursue in a radiodrome path.

Like a dog pursues a rabbit, a zombie pursues its human prey. A zombie will follow its prey’s path at the prey’s given location at that specific instant. In a scene from Zombies and Calculus, (pause to imagine it), a Dean is running towards the safe haven of an academic building in a straight line. However, a zombie is present and begins to pursue the Dean, always having its tangent vector pointing at the Dean. The zombie is going to travel to wherever the Dean is in that current moment. Screen Shot 2015-10-29 at 4.39.23 PM

Since zombies are incapable of developing an efficient plan, the zombie does not run at a diagonal towards the academic building, which would cut-off the dean’s path. Instead of recognizing the Dean’s travel pattern or destination, the zombie is chasing the dean like a dog chasing a bunny’s tail to the rabbit hole. If only the dog knew that its radiodrome procedure was flawed, the dog would be able (with a speed higher than the rabbit) to cut-off the rabbit at its hole and claim victory. If dogs were to catch on, there would probably be fewer bunnies hopping around.

Cold-blooded creatures are unable to regulate their body heat.

Like other cold-blooded creatures, zombies hibernate. A zombie’s body temperature will decrease according to the differential equation that guides the temperature change of an object placed in a space with a different temperature (so for instance, if a zombie with a temperature of 60 degrees is placed a room of 30 degrees.) According to Newton’s Law of Cooling (remember Newton from discussing the measurement ‘newton’ for force?), the temperature of a body’s rate of change is proportional to the difference between the present temperature of that body and the ambient temperature (basically, the temperature of its surroundings). Given as a function of time, the zombie’s temperature (where Tg is the specific location):Screen Shot 2015-10-29 at 4.42.31 PMThe larger the contrast of temperatures, the faster the body temperature will drop. As the characters in the book discover, if there is a zombie apocalypse, it might be time to consider a move to our friendly neighbor to the north, Canada.


Zombies and CalculusTo discover more lifesaving tips, fun and entertaining mathematical applications, and learn the fate of the brave calculus professor and his students, read Colin Adam’s  Zombies and Calculus. Just in case the zombie apocalypse does occurs (maybe tomorrow?) it should be comforting to know there’s a mathematical guide to survival on your bookshelf.

An exclusive trailer for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, featuring illustrations by Salvador Dalí

ALICE WAS BEGINNING TO get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”

Thus begins Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, one of the most beloved classics of children’s literature. Commemorating the 150th anniversary of its publication, this illustrated edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, edited by Lewis Carroll expert Mark Burstein, features rarely seen illustrations by Salvador Dalí. In the introduction, Burstein discusses Dalí’s connections with Carroll, the nature of wonderland, and his treatment of the towering (though sometimes shrinking) figure of Alice.

Take an exclusive peek inside the curiously mathematical world into which Alice famously falls, here:

Wobbly table? Applied math can fix that

We are excited to be running a series of posts on applied mathematics by Nicholas Higham over the next few weeks. Higham is editor of The Princeton Companion to Applied Mathematics, new this month. Read his popular first post on color in mathematics here.

In The Princeton Companion to Applied Mathematics (page 50) I mention that a four-legged table provides an example of an ill-posed problem. If we take a table having four legs of equal length lying on a flat surface and shorten one leg by an arbitrarily small amount then the weight supported by that leg will jump from one quarter of the total weight to zero.


A table with one leg shorter than the others wobbles, as may one sitting on an uneven floor, and how to cure wobbly tables has been the subject of a number of papers over the years. The tongue-in cheek article

Hanspeter Kraft, The Wobbly Garden Table, Journal of Biological Physics and Chemistry 1, 95-96, 2001

describes how an engineer, a physicist, and a mathematician would go about solving the problem. The engineer would invent an adjustable leg. The physicist would submit a research proposal to tackle the more general problem of “the stability of multiply-legged objects on rough surfaces”. The mathematician would construct an argument based on the intermediate value theorem to show that stability can be restored with a suitable rotation of no more than 90 degrees. This argument has been discussed by several authors, but turning it into a mathematically precise statement with appropriate assumptions on the table and the ground on which it rests is not easy.

The two most recent contributions to this topic that I am aware of are:

A. Martin, On the Stability of Four-Legged Tables, Physics Letters A, 360, 495-500, 2007

Bill Baritompa, Rainer Löwen, Burkard Polster, and Marty Ross, Mathematical Table Turning Revisited, arXiv:math/0511490v1, 17 pp., 2008

In the latter paper it is shown that if the ground on which a rectangular table rests slopes by less than 35.36 degrees and the legs of the table are at least half as long as its diagonals then the rotation trick works.

For more insight into this problem you may like to watch the video below in which Matthias Kreck explains the problem with the aid of some excellent animations.

Benford’s Law: A curious statistical phenomenon that keeps getting curiouser

Ted Hill, one of the contributors to The Princeton Companion to Applied Mathematics, as well as the coauthor, with Arno Berger, of An Introduction to Benford’s Law, has written a post on this fascinating statistical phenomenon. You’ll be surprised at the rather unexpected places it pops up, from an analysis of Donald Trump’s finances, to earthquake detection.

Benford’s Law

The acclaimed business and technology news website Business Insider proudly offers this advice to its readers, in capital letters:


The curious statistical phenomenon known as Benford’s Law, first discovered by Newcomb in 1881 and later rediscovered and popularized by Benford in 1938, is currently experiencing an explosion of research activity, especially in fraud detection ranging from tax data and digital images to clinical trial statistics, and from voting returns to macroeconomic data. Complementing these new forensic Benford tools, recent applications also include earthquake detection, analysis of Big Data and of errors in scientific computations, and diagnostic tests for mathematical models. As is common in developing fields, the quality of this research is all over the map, from scholarly and insightful to amusing and outlandish. The most recent Benford article I have seen is an analysis of Donald Trump’s finances, and I will let interested readers have fun judging these Benford articles for themselves. Most may be found on the open access and fully searchable Benford Online Bibliography, which currently references more than 800 articles on Benford’s Law, as well as other resources (books, websites, lectures, etc.).

The First-digit Law

In its most common formulation, the special case of the first significant (i.e., first non-zero) decimal digit, Benford’s Law says that the leading decimal digit is not equally likely to be any one of the nine possible digits 1, 2, …, 9, but rather follows the logarithmic distribution

equationwhere D1 denotes the first significant decimal digit. Many numerical datasets follow this distribution, from mathematical tables like the Fibonacci numbers and powers of 2 to real-life data like the numbers appearing in newspapers, in tax returns, in eBay auctions, and in the meta-dataset of all numbers on the World Wide Web (see Figure 1).

For datasets like these that are close to being Benford, about 30% of the leading (nonzero) decimal digits are 1, about 18% are 2, and the other leading digit proportions decrease exponentially to about 5% that begin with 9.

fig 1
Figure 1. Empirical Evidence of Benford’s Law

The complete form of Benford’s Law also specifies the probabilities of occurrence of the second and higher significant digits, and more generally, the joint distribution of all the significant digits. For instance, the probability that a number has the same first three significant digits as π = 3.141… is

eqn 2(For non-decimal bases b, the analogous law simply replaces decimal logarithms with logarithms base b.)

Robustness of Benford’s Law

Benford’s Law is remarkably robust, which may help explain its ubiquity in both theory and applications. For example, it is the only distribution on significant digits that is scale invariant (e.g., converting from dollars to euros or feet to meters preserves Benford’s Law), and is the only continuous distribution on significant digits that is base-invariant.

As an example of stochastic robustness, if a random variable X satisfies Benford’s Law, then so does XY for all positive Y independent of X; thus in multiplying independent positive random variables, say to model stock prices, if you ever encounter a single Benford’s Law entry, the whole product will obey Benford’s Law. Moreover, if X follows Benford’s Law, then so do 1/X and X2, (and all other non-zero integral powers of X).

Benford’s Law is also robust under both additive and multiplicative errors: If an increasing unbounded sequence of values X obeys Benford’s Law, then so does X + E for every bounded “error” sequence E, and if X is Benford and E is any independent error with |E| < 1, then (1 + E)X is also exactly Benford.

Applications of Benford’s Law

The most widespread application of Benford’s Law currently is its use in detection of fraud. The idea here is simple: if true data of a certain type is known to be close to Benford’s Law, then chi-squared goodness-of-fit tests can be used as a simple “red flag” test for data fabrication or falsification. Whether the tested data are close to Benford’s Law or are not close proves nothing, but a poor fit raises the level of suspicion, at which time independent (non-Benford) tests or monitoring may be applied.

A similar application is being employed to detect changes in natural processes. If the significant digits are close to Benford’s Law when the process is in one particular state, but not when the process is in a different state, then comparison to Benford can help identify when changes in the state of the process occur. Recent studies have reported successful Benford’s Law tests to detect earthquakes, phase transitions in quantum many-body problems, different states of anesthesia, signal modulations in electrophysiological recordings, and output changes in interventional radiology.

Tests for goodness-of-fit to Benford are also useful as a diagnostic tool for assessing the appropriateness of mathematical models. If current and past data obey Benford’s Law, it is reasonable to expect that future data will also obey Benford’s Law. For example, the 1990, 2000, and 2010 census statistics of populations of the some three thousand counties in the United States follow Benford’s Law very closely (see Figure 1), so to evaluate a proposed mathematical model’s prediction of future populations, simply enter current values as input, and then check to see how closely the output of that model agrees with Benford’s Law (see Figure 2).

fig 2
Figure 2. Benford-in-Benford-out Diagnostic Test

The appearance of Benford’s law in real-life scientific computations is now widely accepted, both as an empirical fact (as reported in Knuth’s classic text), and as a mathematical fact (e.g., Newton’s method and related numerical algorithms have recently been shown to follow Benford’s Law). Thus, in those scientific calculations where Benford’s Law is expected to occur, knowledge of the distribution of the output of the algorithm permits better estimates of both round-off and overflow/underflow errors.

Recent Theoretical Developments

Complementing these applications are new theoretical advancements, which are useful in explaining and predicting when Benford analysis is appropriate, and which are also of independent mathematical interest. Recent results include:

  • The outputs of many numerical algorithms, including Newton’s method, obey Benford’s Law.
  • Iterations of most linear functions follow Benford’s Law exactly, and iterations of most functions close to linear, such as f(x) = 2x + ex, also follow Benford’s Law exactly.
  • Continuous functions with exponential or super-exponential growth or decay typically exhibit Benford’s Law behavior, and thus wide classes of initial value problems obey Benford’s Law exactly.
  • Powers and products of very general classes of random variables, including all random variables with densities, approach Benford’s law in the limit (see Figure 3 for the standard uniform case).
  • Many multidimensional systems such as powers of large classes of square matrices and Markov chains, obey Benford’s Law.
  • Large classes of stochastic processes, including geometric Brownian motion and many Levy processes, obey Benford’s Law.
  • If random samples from different randomly selected probability distributions are combined, the resulting meta-sample also typically converges to Benford’s Law. (This may help explain why numbers in the WWW and newspapers and combined financial data have been found to follow Benford’s Law.)


Fig 3
Figure 3. Powers of a Uniform Random Variable

The study of Benford’s Law has also at times been entertaining. I’ve been contacted about its use to support various religious philosophies (including evidence of Benford’s Law in the Bible and Quran, and its appearance in tables of the earth’s elements as evidence of Intelligent Design), as well as a website where Eastern European entrepreneurs sold Benford data to people who need it for 25 euros a pop. For me, however, the main attraction has been its wealth of fascinating and challenging mathematical questions.

Ted Hill is Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and currently Research Scholar in Residence at the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. He is the co-author, with Arno Berger, of An Introduction to Benford’s Law, (Princeton University Press, 2015).

Intro to Benford's Law


Introducing the new video trailer for The Princeton Companion to Applied Mathematics

We are pleased to present the new video trailer for The Princeton Companion to Applied Mathematics. Modeled on the popular Princeton Companion to Mathematics, this is an indispensable resource for undergraduate and graduate students, researchers, and practitioners in other disciplines seeking a user-friendly reference book. Check out the video in which editor Nicholas Higham, Richardson Professor of Applied Mathematics at The University of Manchester, talks about the major ideas covered in this expansive project, which includes nearly 200 entries organized thematically and written by an international team of distinguished contributors.

An interview with Nicholas Higham on The Princeton Companion to Applied Mathematics

Higham jacket

We are excited to be running a series of posts on applied mathematics by Nicholas Higham over the next few weeks. Higham is editor of The Princeton Companion to Applied Mathematics, new this month. Recently he took the time to answer some questions about the book, and where the field is headed. Read his popular first post on color in mathematics here.

What is Applied Mathematics?

NH: There isn’t any generally agreed definition, but I rather like Lord Rayleigh’s comment that applied mathematics is about using mathematics to solve real-world problems “neither seeking nor avoiding mathematical difficulties”. This means that in applied mathematics we don’t go out of our way to consider special cases that will never arise in practice, but equally we do not sidestep genuine difficulties.

What is the purpose of The Companion?

NH: The Companion is intended to give an overview of the main areas of applied mathematics, to give examples of particular problems and connections with other areas, and to explain what applied mathematicians do—which includes writing, teaching, and promoting mathematics as well as studying the subject. The coverage of the book is not meant to be exhaustive, but it is certainly very broad and I hope that everyone from undergraduate students and mathematically interested lay readers to professionals in mathematics and related subjects will find it useful.

What is an example of something aspect of applied mathematics that you’ve learned while editing the book?

NH: Applied mathematics is a big subject and so there are many articles on topics outside my particular areas of expertise. A good example concerns applications of computational fluid dynamics in sport. An article by Nicola Parolini and Alfio Quarteroni describes the mathematical modeling of yachts for the America’s cup. The designer wishes to minimize water resistance on the hull and maximize the thrust produced by the sails. Numerical computations allow designs to be simulated without building and testing them. The article also describes mathematical modeling of the hi-tech swimsuits that are now banned from competition. The model enables the benefit of the suits on race times to be estimated.

The Companion is about 1000 pages. How would advise people to read the book.

NH: The book has a logical structure, with eight parts ranging from introductory material in Part I, the main areas of applied mathematics in Part IV (the longest part), through to broader essays in the final part. It is a good idea to start by reading some of the articles in Part I, especially if you are less familiar with the subject. But a perfectly sensible alternative approach is to select articles of interest from the table of contents, read them, and follow cross-references. Or, you can just choose a random article and start reading—or simply follow interesting index entries! We worked very hard on the cross-references and index so an unstructured approach to reading should lead you around the book and allow you to discover a lot of relevant material.

What was the hardest thing about editing The Companion?

NH: The hardest aspect of the project was ensuring that it was completed in a reasonable time-frame. With 165 authors it’s hard to keep track of everything and to to ensure that drafts, revisions, and corrected proofs are delivered on time.

How much of the book did you write?

NH: I wrote about 100 of the 1000 pages. This was great fun, but it was some of the hardest writing I’ve done. The reason is partly that I was sometimes writing about topics that I don’t normally write about. But it was also because Companion articles are quite different from the papers I’m used to writing: they should have a minimal number of equations and formal statements of theorems, lots of diagrams and illustrations, and no citations (just Further Reading at the end of the article).

How did you choose the cover?

NH: We considered many different ideas. But after a lot of thought we settled on the motor boat picture, which captures the important topics of fluid mechanics, waves, and ocean, all of which are covered in the book in a number of articles.

What is the most unexpected article?

NH: Perhaps the article Mediated Mathematics: Representations of Mathematics in Popular Culture and Why These Matter by sociologist of education Heather Mendick. She discusses the way mathematics is represented in numerous TV shows and films.

What would you be doing if you hadn’t become a mathematician?

NH: I’d be playing a Hammond B3 organ in a jazz or blues band. I’m a keen musician and played keyboards semi-professionally for many years, starting in my teens.

How did you go about organizing the book?

NH: I recruited five Associate Editors with expertise in different areas and we met and planned out the eight parts of the book and the articles, along with a list of authors to invite. We looked for authors who are leading international experts in their field and are at the same time excellent expositors. Signing up the 165 authors was quite a long process. We were able to find authors for almost every article, so just a very small number had to be dropped. In some cases the authors suggested changes of content or emphasis that we were happy to agree with.

What range of readers is The Companion aimed at?

NH: The target audience for The Companion is very broad. It includes mathematicians at undergraduate level or above, students, researchers, and professionals in other subjects who use mathematics, and mathematically interested lay readers. Some articles will also be accessible to students studying mathematics at pre-university level.

Why not just seek information online? Why is there a need for a book?

NH: When Princeton University Press asked me to edit The Companion they told me that reference books still have great value. Many people have trouble navigating the vast amount of information available online and so the need for carefully curated thematic reference works, written by high calibre authors, is as great as ever. So PUP’s experience is that print is definitely not dead, and indeed my own experience is that I have many books in PDF form on my computer, but if I want to read them seriously I use a hard copy.

How have you ensured that the book will not go out of date quickly?

NH: This was a major consideration. This was a five and a half year project and we wanted to make sure that the book will still be relevant 10, 20, or 50 years from now. To do that we were careful to choose articles on topics that have proven long-term value and are not likely to be of short-term interest. This is not to say that we don’t cover some relatively new, hot topics. For example, there are articles on compressed sensing (recovering sparse, high-dimensional data from a small number of indirect measurements) and on cloaking (hiding an object from an observer who is using electromagnetic, or other, forms of imaging, as in Harry Potter or Romulan space ships in Star Trek), both of which are areas that have grown tremendously in the last decade.

What sort of overview of applied mathematics does the book give?

NH: Applied mathematics is a huge subject, so we cannot cover everything in 1000 pages. We have tried to include the main areas of research as well as key underlying concepts, key equations, function and laws, as well as lots of example of applied mathematics problems. The examples range from the flight of a golf ball, to robotics, to ranking web pages. We also cover the use of applied mathematics in other disciplines such as engineering, biology, computer science, and physics. Indeed the book also has a significant mathematical physics component.

Where is the field going?

NH: Prior to the 20th century, applied mathematics was driven by problems in astronomy and mechanics. In the 20th century physics became the main driver, with other areas such as biology, chemistry, economics, engineering, and medicine also providing many challenging mathematical problems from the 1950s onwards. With the massive and still growing amounts of data available to us in today’s digital society information, in its many guises, will be an increasingly important influence on applied mathematics in the 21st century.

To what extent does The Companion discuss the history of applied mathematics?

NH: We have an excellent 25-page article in Part I titled The History of Applied Mathematics by historians of mathematics June Barrow-Green and Reinhard Siegmund-Schultze. Many articles contain historical information and anecdotes. So while The Companion looks to the future it also gives an appreciation of the history of the subject.

How do you see the connections between applied mathematics and other disciplines developing?

NH: Applied mathematics is becoming ever more interdisciplinary. Many articles in The Companion illustrate this. For example,

  • various facets of imaging feature in several articles, including those on compressed sensing, medical imaging, radar, and airport baggage screening,
  • the article on max-plus algebras shows how what may seem like an esoteric area of pure mathematics has applications to all kinds of scheduling processes,
  • the article on the spread of infectious diseases shows the value of mathematical models in epidemiology,
  • several articles show how mathematics can be used to help understand the earth’s weather and climate, focusing on topics such as weather prediction, tsunamis, and sea ice.

What are you thoughts on the role of computing in applied mathematics?

NH: Computation has been a growing aspect of applied mathematics ever since the first stored program computer was invented here in Manchester. More and more it is the case that numerical computations and simulations are used in tandem with, or even in place of, the classical analysis that relies just on pen and paper. What I find particularly interesting is that while the needs of mathematics and of science in general have, naturally, influenced the development of computers and programming languages, there have been influences in the other direction. For example, the notation for the ceiling and floor functions that map a real number to the next larger or smaller integer, respectively, was first introduced in the programming language APL.

Of course numerical computations are expressed in terms of algorithms, and algorithms are ubiquitous in applied mathematics, and strongly represented in the book.

Do you have any views on ensuring the correctness of work in applied mathematics?

NH: As the problems we solve become every more complicated, and the computations we perform run for longer and longer, questions about the correctness of our results become more important. Applied mathematicians have always been good at estimating answers, perhaps by an asymptotic analysis, so we usually know roughly what the answer should look like and we may be able to spot gross errors. Several particular aspects of treating correctness are covered in The Companion.

Uncertainty quantification is about understanding how uncertainties in the data of a problem affect the solution. It’s particularly important because often we don’t know the problem data exactly—for example, in analyzing groundwater flow we don’t know the exact structure of what lies under the ground and so have to make statistical assumptions, and we want to know how these impact the computed flows.

A different aspect of correctness concerns the reproducibility of our computations and treats issues such as whether another scientist can reproduce our results and whether a computation on a high-performance computer will produce exactly the same answer when the computation is repeated.

All of these issues are covered in multiple articles in the book.

Nicholas J. Higham is the Richardson Professor of Applied Mathematics at The University of Manchester. Mark R. Dennis is professor of theoretical physics at the University of Bristol. Paul Glendinning is professor of applied mathematics at The University of Manchester. Paul A. Martin is professor of applied mathematics at the Colorado School of Mines. Fadil Santosa is professor of mathematics at the University of Minnesota. Jared Tanner is professor of the mathematics of information at the University of Oxford.

Patterns are math we love to look at

This piece by Frank Farris was originally published on The Conversation.

Frank A Farris, Santa Clara University

Why do humans love to look at patterns? I can only guess, but I’ve written a whole book about new mathematical ways to make them. In Creating Symmetry, The Artful Mathematics of Wallpaper Patterns, I include a comprehensive set of recipes for turning photographs into patterns. The official definition of “pattern” is cumbersome; but you can think of a pattern as an image that repeats in some way, perhaps when we rotate, perhaps when we jump one unit along.

Here’s a pattern I made, using the logo of The Conversation, along with some strawberries and a lemon:

Repeating forever left and right.
Frank A Farris, CC BY-ND

Mathematicians call this a frieze pattern because it repeats over and over again left and right. Your mind leads you to believe that this pattern repeats indefinitely in either direction; somehow you know how to continue the pattern beyond the frame. You also can see that the pattern along the bottom of the image is the same as the pattern along the top, only flipped and slid over a bit.

When we can do something to a pattern that leaves it unchanged, we call that a symmetry of the pattern. So sliding this pattern sideways just the right amount – let’s call that translation by one unit – is a symmetry of my pattern. The flip-and-slide motion is called a glide reflection, so we say the above pattern has glide symmetry.

A row of A’s has multiple symmetries.
Frank A Farris, CC BY-ND

You can make frieze patterns from rows of letters, as long as you can imagine that the row continues indefinitely left and right. I’ll indicate that idea by …AAAAA…. This row of letters definitely has what we call translational symmetry, since we can slide along the row, one A at a time, and wind up with the same pattern.

What other symmetries does it have? If you use a different font for your A’s, that could mess up the symmetry, but if the legs of the letter A are the same, as above, then this row has reflection symmetry about a vertical axis drawn through the center of each A.

Now here’s where some interesting mathematics comes in: did you notice the reflection axis between the As? It turns out that every frieze pattern with one vertical mirror axis, and hence an infinite row of them (by the translational symmetry shared by all friezes), must necessarily have an additional set of vertical mirror axes exactly halfway between the others. And the mathematical explanation is not too hard.

Suppose a pattern stays the same when you flip it about a mirror axis. And suppose the same pattern is preserved if you slide it one unit to the right. If doing the first motion leaves the pattern alone and doing the second motion also leaves the pattern alone, then doing first one and then the other leaves the pattern alone.

Flipping and then sliding is the same as one big flip.
Frank A Farris, CC BY-ND

You can act this out with your hand: put your right hand face down on a table with the mirror axis through your middle finger. First flip your hand over (the mirror symmetry), then slide it one unit to the right (the translation). Observe that this is exactly the same motion as flipping your hand about an axis half a unit from the first.

That proves it! No one can create a pattern with translational symmetry and mirrors without also creating those intermediate mirror symmetries. This is the essence of the mathematical concept of group: if a pattern has some symmetries, then it must have all the others that arise from combining those.

The surprising thing is that there are only a few different types of frieze symmetry. When I talk about types, I mean that a row of A’s has the same type as a row of V’s. (Look for those intermediate mirror axes!) Mathematicians say that the two groups of symmetries are isomorphic, meaning of the same form.

It turns out there are exactly seven different frieze groups. Surprised? You can probably figure out what they are, with some help. Let me explain how to name them, according to the International Union of Crystallographers.

The naming symbol uses the template prvh, where the p is just a placeholder, the r denotes rotational symmetry (think of a row of N’s), the v marks vertical qualities and the h is for horizontal. The name for the pattern of A’s is p1m1: no rotation, vertical mirror, no horizontal feature beyond translation. They use 1 as a placeholder when that particular kind of symmetry does not occur in the pattern.

What do I mean by horizontal stuff? My introductory frieze was p11g, because there’s glide symmetry in the horizontal directions and no symmetry in the other slots.

Another frieze pattern, this one based on a photo of a persimmon.
Frank A Farris, CC BY-ND

Write down a bunch of rows of letters and see what types of symmetry you can name. Hint: the persimmon pattern above (or that row of N’s) would be named p211. There can’t be a p1g1 because we insist that our frieze has translational symmetry in the horizontal direction. There can’t be a p1mg because if you have the m in the vertical direction and a g in the horizontal, you’re forced (not by me, but by the nature of reality) to have rotational symmetry, which lands you in p2mg.

A p2mg pattern based on some of the same raw materials as our first frieze pattern.

It’s hard to make p2mg patterns with letters, so here’s one made from the same lemon and strawberries. I left out the logo, as the words became too distorted. Look for the horizontal glides, vertical mirrors, and centers of twofold rotational symmetry. (Here’s a funny feature: the smiling strawberry faces turn sad when you see them upside down.)

One consequence of the limitation on wallpaper groups is that honeybees cannot make combs with fivefold symmetry.
LHG Creative Photography, CC BY-NC-ND

In my book, I focus more on wallpaper patterns: those that repeat forever along two different axes. I explain how to use mathematical formulas called complex wave forms to construct wallpaper patterns. I prove that every wallpaper group is isomorphic – a mathematical concept meaning of the same form – to one of only 17 prototype groups. Since pattern types limit the possible structures of crystals and even atoms, all results of this type say something deep about the nature of reality.

Ancient Roman mosaic floor in Carranque, Spain.
a_marga, CC BY-SA

Whatever the adaptive reasons for our human love for patterns, we have been making them for a long time. Every decorative tradition includes the same limited set of pattern types, though sometimes there are cultural reasons for breaking symmetry or omitting certain types. Did our visual love for recognizing that “Yes, this is the same as that!” originally have a useful root, perhaps evolving from an advantage in distinguishing edible from poisonous plants, for instance? Or do we just like them? Whyever it is, we still get pleasure from these repetitive patterns tens of thousands of years later.

Frank A Farris, Associate Professor of Mathematics, Santa Clara University. He is the author of Creating Symmetry.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


The Conversation

Nicholas Higham on Mathematics in Color


We are excited to be running a series of posts on applied mathematics by Nicholas Higham over the next few weeks. Higham is editor of The Princeton Companion to Applied Mathematics, which is out this month. A slightly longer version of this post on color in mathematics can be found on Higham’s blog, and it has been cross posted at John Cook’s blog, The Endeavour. —PUP Blog Editor

Color is a fascinating subject. Important early contributions to our understanding of it came from physicists and mathematicians such as Newton, Young, Grassmann, Maxwell, and Helmholtz. Today, the science of color measurement and description is well established and we rely on it in our daily lives, from when we view images on a computer screen to when we order paint, wallpaper, or a car, of a specified color.

For practical purposes color space, as perceived by humans, is three-dimensional, because our retinas have three different types of cones, which have peak sensitivities at wavelengths corresponding roughly to red, green, and blue. It’s therefore possible to use linear algebra in three dimensions to analyze various aspects of color.


A good example of the use of linear algebra is to understand metamerism, which is the phenomenon whereby two objects can appear to have the same color but are actually giving off light having different spectral decompositions. This is something we are usually unaware of, but it is welcome in that color output systems (such as televisions and computer monitors) rely on it.

Mathematically, the response of the cones on the retina to light can be modeled as a matrix-vector product Af, where A is a 3-by-n matrix and f is an n-vector that contains samples of the spectral distribution of the light hitting the retina. The parameter n is a discretization parameter that is typically about 80 in practice. Metamerism corresponds to the fact that Af_1 = Af_2 is possible for different vectors f_1 and f_2. This equation is equivalent to saying that Ag = 0 for a nonzero vector g =f_1-f_2, or, in other words, that a matrix with fewer rows than columns has a nontrivial null space.

Metamerism is not always welcome. If you have ever printed your photographs on an inkjet printer you may have observed that a print that looked fine when viewed indoors under tungsten lighting can have a color cast when viewed in daylight.

LAB Space: Separating Color from Luminosity

In digital imaging the term channel refers to the grayscale image representing the values of the pixels in one of the coordinates, most often R, G, or B (for red, green, and blue) in an RGB image. It is sometimes said that an image has ten channels. The number ten is arrived at by combining coordinates from the representation of an image in three different color spaces. RGB supplies three channels, a space called LAB (pronounced “ell-A-B”) provides another three channels, and the last four channels are from CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black), the color space in which all printing is done.

LAB is a rather esoteric color space that separates luminosity (or lightness, the L coordinate) from color (the A and B coordinates). In recent years photographers have realized that LAB can be very useful for image manipulations, allowing certain things to be done much more easily than in RGB. This usage is an example of a technique used all the time by mathematicians: if we can’t solve a problem in a given form then we transform it into another representation of the problem that we can solve.

As an example of the power of LAB space, consider this image of aeroplanes at Schiphol airport.


Original image.

Suppose that KLM are considering changing their livery from blue to pink. How can the image be edited to illustrate how the new livery would look? “Painting in” the new color over the old using the brush tool in image editing software would be a painstaking task (note the many windows to paint around and the darker blue in the shadow area under the tail). The next image was produced in
just a few seconds.


Image converted to LAB space and A channel flipped.

How was it done? The image was converted from RGB to LAB space (which is a nonlinear transformation) and then the coordinates of the A channel were replaced by their negatives. Why did this work? The A channel represents color on a green–magenta axis (and the B channel on a blue–yellow axis). Apart from the blue fuselage, most pixels have a small A component, so reversing the sign of this component doesn’t make much difference to them. But for the blue, which has a negative A component, this flipping of the A channel adds just enough magenta to make the planes pink.

You may recall from earlier this year the infamous photo of a dress that generated a huge amount of interest on the web because some viewers perceived the dress as being blue and black while others saw it as white and gold. A recent paper What Can We Learn from a Dress with Ambiguous Colors? analyzes both the photo and the original dress using LAB coordinates. One reason for using LAB in this context is its device independence, which contrasts with RGB, for which the coordinates have no universally agreed meaning.

Higham jacketThe Princeton Companion to Applied Mathematics

Nicholas J. Higham is the Richardson Professor of Applied Mathematics at The University of Manchester, and editor of The Princeton Companion to Applied Mathematics. His article Color Spaces and Digital Imaging in The Princeton Companion to Applied Mathematics gives an introduction to the mathematics of color and the representation and manipulation of digital images. In particular, it emphasizes the role of linear algebra in modeling color and gives more detail on LAB space.