For a number of years I have collected excerpts that portray mathematical ideas in a literary or philosophical setting. I had occasion to read a few of these on the last day of some math classes I was teaching, since there was no point in introducing a new subject before the final exam.
I thought it might be interesting to present some of these excerpts now. They roughly fall into three categories: logic, infinities (Zeno’s Paradoxes, infinite regress), and permutations.
I was really trying to avoid getting pulled into more addictive geometric challenges from Catriona Shearer (since they can consume your every waking moment), but a recent post by Ben Orlin, “The Tilted Twin (and other delights),” undermined my intent. As Orlin put it, “This is a countdown of her three favorite puzzles from October 2019” and they are vintage Shearer. You should check out Olin’s website since there are “Mild hints in the text; full spoilers in the comments.” He also has some interesting links to other people’s efforts. (Olin did leave out a crucial part of #1, however, which caused me to think the problem under-determined. Checking Catriona Shearer’s Twitter I found the correct statement, which I have used here.)
I have to admit, I personally found the difficulty of these puzzles a bit more challenging than before (unless I am getting rusty) and the difficulty in the order Olin listed. Again, the solutions (I found) are simple but mostly tricky to discover. I solved the problems before looking at Olin’s or others’ solutions.
This is another problem from the Math Challenges section of the 2000 Pi in the Sky Canadian math magazine for high school students.
“Problem 4. From a point P on the circumference of a circle, a distance PT of 10 meters is laid out along the tangent. The shortest distance from T to the circle is 5 meters. A straight line is drawn through T cutting the circle at X and Y. The length of TX is 15/2 meters.
(a) Determine the radius of the circle,
(b) Determine the length of XY.”
One of the books that has stuck with me over the years is Carl Becker’s The Declaration of Independence (1922, reprint 1942), not only for its incredibly clear and beautiful writing but also for its emphasis on the impact of the revolution most prominently caused by Isaac Newton, which was later subsumed under the term Scientific Revolution covering the entire 17th century. A consequence of this remarkable period was the so-called Enlightenment that followed in the 18th century and became the soil from which our nation’s founding ideas and documents sprang. Both these centuries have been further optimistically called the Age of Reason.
Our current times, awash in lies, corruption, and such terms as “alternative facts”, have been characterized as an assault on the rationalism and Enlightenment that shaped our founding. Any revisiting of these origins would seem to be a valuable endeavor to see if they still have validity. What makes Becker’s essay particularly relevant to me is the current pervasiveness of the mathematical view of reality that was launched by Newton some 300 years ago. Becker shows how this new way of thinking spread far beyond the bounds of mathematics and engendered a new “natural rights” philosophy that formed the foundation for the Declaration of Independence. Essentially the idea was that if the behavior of the natural world was based on (mathematical) laws, then so must the behavior of man be based on natural laws.
This problem from the 1987 Discover magazine’s Brain Bogglers by Michael Stueben apparently traces back to 1770, though the exact reference is not given.
“Here’s an arithmetic problem taken from a textbook published in Germany in 1770. Three people are gambling. In the first game, Player A loses to each of the others as much money as each of them had when the game started. In the next game, B loses to each of the others as much money as each had when that game began. In the third game, A and B each win from C as much money as each had at the start of that game. The players now find that each has the same sum, 24 guineas. How much money did each have when play began?”
I found this problem from the Math Challenges section of the 2002 Pi in the Sky Canadian math magazine for high school students to be truly astonishing.
“Problem 4. Inside of the square ABCD, take any point P. Prove that the perpendiculars from A on BP, from B on CP, from C on DP, and from D on AP are concurrent (i.e. they meet at one point).”
How could such a complicated arrangement produce such an amazing result? I didn’t know where to begin to try to prove it. My wandering path to discovery produced one of my most satisfying “aha!” moments.
The September 2019 Special Issue of Scientific American is a must read. Unfortunately it is behind a paywall, so you should purchase a copy at a store or digitally online. All the articles are fascinating and relevant, and address basic questions of epistemology—how do we know what we know? The first section, “Truth”, is the most pertinent to my thinking, as it covers three subjects I have been pondering for years.
Physical Reality. The first article in the section is “Virtually Reality: How close can physics bring us to a truly fundamental understanding of the world?” by George Musser. I have addressed this issue of physical reality in my article Angular Momentum, with an emphasis on the role of mathematics. Musser cites the difficulties of trying to understand quantum mechanics after almost one hundred years or the failure to marry quantum mechanics with Einstein’s theory of gravitation as possible indications that there might be limits to our human endeavor to comprehend physical reality. This frustration is not new:
Over the generations, physicists have oscillated between self-assurance and skepticism, periodically giving up on ever finding the deep structure of nature and downgrading physics to the search for scraps of useful knowledge. Pressed by his contemporaries to explain how gravity works, Isaac Newton responded: “I frame no hypotheses.”