It is a bit presumptuous to think I could reduce the universe of mathematics to some succinct essence, but ever since I first saw a column in Martin Gardner’s Scientific American Mathematical Games in 1967, I thought his example illustrated the essential feature of mathematics, or at least one of its principal attributes. And he posed it in a way that would be accessible to anyone. I especially wanted to credit Martin Gardner, since the idea resurfaced recently, uncredited, in some attractive videos by Katie Steckles and James Grime. (This reminds me of the Borges idea that “eighty years of oblivion are perhaps equal to novelty”.) See the Essence of Mathematics.
Years ago during one of my many excursions into the history of mathematics I wondered how Mercator used logarithms in his map projection (introduced in a 1569 map) when logarithms were not discovered by John Napier (1550-1617) and published in his book Mirifici Logarithmorum Canonis Descriptio until 1614, three years before his death in 1617. The mystery was solved when I read a 1958 book by D. W. Waters which said Edward Wright (1561-1615) in his 1599 book Certaine Errors in Navigation produced his “most important correction, his chart projection, now known as Mercator’s.” Wright did not use logarithms explicitly but rather implicitly through the summing of discrete secants of the latitude as scale factors. But what really caught my attention in the Waters book was this arresting footnote: “Wright explained his projection in terms of a bladder blown up inside a cylinder, a very good analogy.” This article recounts my exploration of this idea. See Mercator Projection Balloon.
I have long been fascinated by Newton’s proof of Kepler’s Equal Areas Law and wanted to write about it. Of course, others have as well, but I wanted to emphasize an aspect of the proof that supported my philosophy of mathematics.
Before I get to Newton, however, I wanted to discuss how Kepler himself justified this law, since his approach has a number of fascinating historical aspects to it. I have previously discussed Kepler’s ellipse and in the process of doing that research, I came across a number of articles about how Kepler arrived at his equal areas law. One notable result is that even though now we call the idea that a planet orbits the Sun in an elliptical path with the Sun at one focus, Kepler’s First Law, and the idea that the line from the Sun to the planet sweeps out equal areas in equal times, Kepler’s Second Law, Kepler actually discovered these laws in reverse order. See Kepler’s Equal Areas Law
I had been exploring how Kepler originally discovered his first two laws and became fascinated by what he did in his Astronomia Nova (1609), as presented by a number of researchers. Among the writers was A. E. L. Davis. She mentioned that the characterization of the ellipse that Kepler was using was the idea of a “compressed circle,” that is, a circle all of whose points were shrunk vertically by a constant amount towards a fixed diameter of the circle. I did not recall ever hearing this idea before and tried to track down its origin together with a proof — futilely, Davis’s references notwithstanding. I then tried to prove it myself. It was easy to do with analytic geometry. But in the spirit of the Kepler era (before the advent of Fermat’s and Descartes’s beginnings at fusing algebra and geometry) I tried to prove it solely within Euclid’s plane geometry. Some critical steps seemed to come from the great work of Apollonius of Perga (262-190 BC) on Conics. But for me a final elegant proof was not evident until 1822 when Dandelin employed his inscribed spheres. See Kepler’s Ellipse.
In the process of exploring the compressed circle idea I acquired an immense appreciation and regard for Kepler and his perseverance in the face of the dominant paradigm of his era, namely, the 2000 year old idea that the celestial motions were all based on the most perfect motion of all, that of circles. The kinds of extremely laborious calculations he went through (just prior to the invention of logarithms by John Napier) were daunting, especially considering the trials he was undergoing in his personal life (trying to survive the religious destruction between Catholics and Protestants, along with defending his mother against charges of witchcraft).
Years ago (1963) I got the paperback The Calculus:A Genetic Approach, by Otto Toeplitz, which presented the basic ideas of the differential and integral calculus from a historical point of view. One thing Toeplitz did at the end of his book that I had not seen in other texts was to show the equivalence of Kepler’s Laws and Newton’s Law of Gravity. (Since 1963 David Bressoud has developed this theme in his excellent 1991 text.) I thought I would try to emulate Toeplitz’s approach with more modern notation (vectors) and arguments in hopes of extracting the essential ideas from the clutter.
A by-product of this effort was to reveal strongly the different paths that physics and mathematics follow in understanding physical reality. The mystery is that the mathematics ends up describing the physics so well. I will return to this theme a number of times in other posts. See Kepler’s Laws and Newton’s Laws.
This is a mildly pointless 2015 article about Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous drawing of the Vitruvian Man spread-eagled and inscribed in a circle and a square. I started wondering about the positions and whether they over-determined the circle and square. What hidden constraints were being assumed? One assumption turned out to be famous, namely, that the height of a man equaled the distance between his finger tips when he holds his arms straight out to either side of his body. I had been told this in childhood, and I never knew where it came from. Also, I don’t think it is true in every case (what about women?), though it does appear to be close (and is true in my case). See the Vitruvian Man Problem.
This 2011 article gives some thoughts I had after reading Michael Dirda’s review in the Washington Post of Larrie D. Ferreiro’s Measure of the Earth. The book described the 1735 Geodesic Mission, whose purpose was to resolve the question of the shape of the earth, that is, whether it was a sphere, or like an egg with the poles further from the center than the equator, or like an oblate spheroid with the equator further from the center than the poles, as Newton averred due to centrifugal force. In the review Dirda said, “A team, sympathetic to Newton’s view, would travel to what is now Ecuador and measure the exact length of a degree of latitude near the equator. This would then be compared with the same measurement taken in France. If the latter was larger, Newton was right.” I wondered at first if Dirda got it right. It turned out my confusion stemmed from a mistaken definition of a degree of latitude. See Degree of Latitude.
Probably the most satisfying article I have put together is a recent one on point set topology. An old friend of mine, who studied math and physics in college but ended up getting a doctorate in English, asked me, what was topology? Knowing that there were two main branches of topology (general or point set topology and algebraic topology), I chose to describe point set topology first, especially since it was what I was most familiar with and had worked with most in my graduate work.
The essay turned out to have a surprising structure more like a musical theme and variations. The theme was the geometric series. I found it to be a wonderful medium to show the evolution of ideas (acting as variations) from the early Greeks (Zeno’s Paradoxes) through the development of calculus, decimal expansions of real numbers, to power series, metric spaces, and finally general topologies.
There was an additional benefit to this series of transformations of an initial idea: one of the major aspects of true mathematics became evident, namely, the extension of an idea into new territories that reveal unexpected connections to other forms of mathematics. Treating complicated functions as points in a topological space was a wonderful idea developed over the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries and became the basis of the field of functional analysis. See Point Set Topology.