The subtext of this essay might be “word problems,” since the stream of thoughts that led to the za’irajah (zairja) began with a paper I read, while searching for potential problems for this website, on the history of word problems in high school texts in algebra in the 20th and 21st centuries. The following statement by Lorenat caught my attention:
“The newer characteristics of how word problems are treated in Long’s text  … include adding sympathetic commentary about fear of word problems. ‘And of course, there are those dreaded “Word Problems,” but I’ve solved them all for you, so they’re painless.’
[Lorenat continues,] A more extreme example of this is exhibited in the word problem commentary of Michael W. Kelley’s The Idiot’s Complete Guide to Algebra: Second Edition from 2007, in which he describes word problems as ‘a necessary evil of algebra, jammed in there to show you that you can use algebra in “real life.”’ However, Kelley makes no attempt to write ‘real life’ word problems, and criticizes the uselessness of the word problems he does include.”
This essay is an attempt to rebut such negative views of solving word problems by placing the activity in a more favorable historical context.
I was reading yet another book on the Scientific Revolution when I came across a discussion of the mathematical significance of the invention of perspective for painting in the 15th century Italian Renaissance. The main player in the saga was Leon Battista Alberti (1404 – 1472) and his tome De Pictura (On Painting) (1435-6), which contained the first mathematical presentation of perspective. Even though mathematics was advertised, it was not at the level of trigonometry I used in my post “The Perspective Map”, but rather entailed simple Euclidean plane geometry. So the discussion was largely historical rather than mathematical. Nevertheless, I became curious to learn how much Alberti was able to discover about perspective without a lot of math. This essay is the result.
An amazing publication was conceived primarily for women at the beginning of the 18th century in 1704 and was called The Ladies’ Diary or Woman’s Almanack. What made it even more remarkable was that each issue contained mathematical problems whose solutions from the readers were provided in the next issue. One particularly sharp woman was Mary Wright (Mrs. Mary Nelson). This is one of her problems:
“VIII. Question 72 by Mrs. Mary Nelson
(proposed in 1719, answered in 1720)
A prize was divided by a captain among his crew in the following manner: the first took 1 pound and one hundredth part of the remainder; the second 2 pounds and one hundredth part of the remainder; the third 3 pounds and one hundredth part of the remainder; and they proceeded in this manner to the last, who took all that was left, and it was then found that the prize had by this means been equally divided amongst the crew. Now if the number of men of which the crew consisted be added to the number of pounds in each share, the square of that sum will be four times the number of pounds in the chest: How many men did the crew consist of, and what was each share?”
What makes this problem nice is that it does have a clean answer, contrary to most of the problems in The Ladies’ Diary. See the Ladies’ Diary Problem.
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.
I have always had a tenuous relationship with the concept of angular momentum, but recently my concerns resurfaced when I did my studies on Kepler, and in particular his “equal areas law” and Newton’s elegant geometric proof. I love the fact that a simple geometric argument, seemingly totally divorced from the physical situation, can provide an explanation for why the line from the Sun to a planet sweeps out equal areas in equal time as the planet orbits the Sun, solely under the influence of the gravitational force between them. However, modern physics books invariably cite the conservation of angular momentum as the “explanation.” I indicated before in my “Kepler’s Laws and Newton’s Laws” essay that this “explanation” irritated me. In this essay I go into detail about my reservations concerning this line of argument. See Angular Momentum.
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.