87th Carnival of Mathematics

The 87th Carnival of Mathematics has arrived!! Here’s a simple computation for you:

What is the sum of the squares of the first four prime numbers?

That’s right, it’s

Good job. Now, onto the carnival. This is my first carnival, so hopefully I’ll do all these posts justice. We had lots of great submissions, so I encourage you to read through this with a fine-toothed comb. Enjoy!


Here’s a post (rant) from Andrew Taylor regarding the coverage from the BBC and the Guardian on the Supermoon that occurred in March 2011. NASA reports the moon as being 14% larger and 30% brighter, but Andrew disagrees. Go check out the post, and join the conversation.

Have you ever heard someone abuse the phrase “exponentially better”? I know I have. One incorrect usage occurs when someone makes the claim that something is “exponentially better” based on only two data points. Rebecka Peterson has some words for you here, if you’re the kind of person who says this!

Physics and Science-flavored

Frederick Koh submitted Problem 19: Mechanics of Two Separate Particles Projected Vertically From Different Heights to the carnival. It’s a fun projectile motion question which would be appropriate for a Precalculus classroom (or Calculus). I like the problem, and I think my students would like it too.

John D. Cook highlights a question you’ve probably heard before: Should you walk or run in the rain? An active discussion is going on in the comments section. It’s been discussed in many other places too, including twice on Mythbusters. (I feel like I read an article in an MAA or NCTM magazine on this topic once, as well. Anyone remember that?)

Murray Bourne submitted this awesome post about modeling fish stocks. Murray says his post is an “attempt to make mathematical modeling a bit less scary than in most textbooks.” I think he achieves his goal in this thorough development of a mathematical model for sustainable fisheries (see the graph above for one of his later examples of a stable solution under lots of interesting constraints). If I taught differential equations, I would  absolutely use his examples.

Last week I highlighted this new physics blog, but I wanted to point you there again: Go check out Five Minute Physics! A few more videos have been posted, and also a link to this great video about the physics of a dropping Slinky (see above).

Statistics, Probability, & Combinatorics

Mr. Gregg analyzes European football using the Poisson distribution in his post, The Table Never Lies. I liked how much real world data he brought to the discussion. And I also liked that he admitted when his model worked and when it didn’t–he lets you in on his own mathematical thought process. As you read this post, you too will find yourself thinking out loud with Mr. Gregg.

Card Colm has written this excellent post that will help you wrap your mind around the number of arrangements of cards in a deck. It’s a simple high school-level topic, but he really puts it into perspective:

the number of possible ways to order or permute just the hearts is 13!=6,227,020,800. That’s about what the world population was in 2002. So back then if somebody could have made a list of all possible ways to arrange those 13 cards in a row, there would have been enough people on the planet for everyone to get one such permutation.

I think it’s good to remind ourselves that whenever we shuffle the deck, we can be almost certain that our arrangement has never been created before (since  52!\approx 8\times 10^{67}  arrangements are possible). Wow!

Alex is looking for “random” numbers by simply asking people. Go contribute your own “random” number here. Can’t wait to see the results!

Quick! Think of an example of a real-world bimodal distribution! Maybe you have a ready example if you teach stat, but here’s a really nice example from Michael Lugo: Book prices. Before you read his post, you should make a guess as to why the book prices he looked at are bimodal (see histogram above).

Philosophy and History of Math

Mike Thayer just attended the NCTM conference in Philadelphia and brings us a thoughtful reaction in his post, The Learning of Mathematics in the 21st Century. Mike wrote this post because he had been left with “an ambivalent feeling” after the conference. He wants to “engage others in mathematics education in discussions about ways to improve what we do outside of the frameworks that are being imposed on us by those outside of our field.” As a secondary educator, I agree with Mike completely and really enjoyed his post. Mike isn’t satisfied with where education is going. In his post, he writes, “We are leaping ahead into the unknown with new educational models, and we never took the time to get the old ones right.”

Edmund Harriss asks Have we ever lost mathematics? He gives a nice recap of foundational crises throughout the history of mathematics, and wonders, ultimately, if we’ve actually lost any mathematics. There’s also a short discussion in the comments section which I recommend to you.

Peter Woit reflects on 25 Years of Topological Quantum Field Theory. Maybe if you have degree in math and physics you might appreciate this post. It went over my head a bit, I’m afraid!

Book Reviews

In this post, Matt reviews a 2012 book release, Who’s #1, by Amy N. Langville and Carl D. Meyer. The book discusses the ranking systems used by popular websites like Amazon or Netflix. His review is thorough and balanced–Matt has good things to say about the book, but also delivers a bit of criticism for their treatment of Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem. Thanks for this contribution, Matt! [edit: Thanks MATT!]

Shecky R reviews of David Berlinski’s 2011 book, One, Two Three…Absolutely Elementary mathematics in his Brief Berlinski Book Blurb. I’m not sure his review is an *endorsement*. It sounds like a book that only a small eclectic crowd will enjoy.


Peter Rowlett submitted this post about linear programming and provides a link to an interactive problems solving environment.

Peter Rowlett also weighs in on the recent news about a German high school boy who has (reportedly) solved an open problem. Many news sources have picked up on this, and I’ve only followed the news from a distance. So I was grateful for Peter’s comments–he questions the validity of the news in his recent post “Has schoolboy genius solved problems that baffled mathematicians for centuries?” His comments in another recent post are perhaps even more important though–Peter encourages us to think of ways we can remind our students that lots of open problems still exist, and “Mathematics is an evolving, alive subject to which you could contribute.”

Jess Hawke IS *Heptagrin Girl*

Here’s a fun-loving post about Heptagrins, and all the crazy craft projects you can do with them. Don’t know what a Heptagrin is? Neither did I. But go check out Jess Hawke’s post and she’ll tell you all about them!

Any Lewis Carroll lovers out there? Julia Collins submitted a post entitled “A Night in Wonderland” about a Lewis Carroll-themed night at the National Museum of Scotland. She writes, “Other people might be interested in the ideas we had and also hearing about what a snark is and why it’s still important.” When you check out this post, you’ll not only learn about snarks but also about creating projective planes with your sewing machine. Cool!

Mike Croucher over at Walking Randomly gives a shout out to the free software Octave, which is a MATLAB replacement. Check out his post, here. MATLAB is ridiculously expensive, and so the world needs an alternative like Octave. He provides links to the Kickstarter campaign–and Mike has backed the project himself. I too believe in Octave. I’ve used it a few times for my grad work and I’ve been very grateful for a free alternative to MATLAB.

The End 

Okay, that’s it for the 87th Carnival of Mathematics. Hope you enjoyed all the posts! Sorry it took me a couple days to post it–there was a lot to digest :-).

If you missed the previous carnival (#86), you can find it here. The next carnival (#88) will be hosted by Christian at checkmyworking.com. For a complete listing of all the carnivals, and more information & FAQ about the carnivals, follow this link.


Funny Little Calculus Text

Dr. Robert Ghrist, professor of mathematics at U Penn is writing a Calculus text–the Funny Little Calculus Text (FLCT for short). The FLCT not your typical Calculus text. Check out his incredible, artistic, funny, and mathematically elegant work-in-progress here. He currently has completed these short little chapters, all of which are a delightful read:

Ghrist lectures in a similar style, with a tablet PC. And yes, his handwriting is really awesome.

NOTE: I’m updating this post today (1-10-2013) because I’ve just noticed that Ghrist has placed these files behind a (very low) pay-wall. They are STILL worth checking out!! Pay for them for goodness sake! 🙂

[Hat tip: Matthew Wright–my good friend, and one of Ghrist’s grad students]

Could your math teacher be replaced by video?

Before I get to the titular topic, let me share some links. I’ve been meaning to post links to a couple of online resources that are astonishingly thorough. I strongly encourage you to check all these out.

  • Drexel Math Forum — This site has been around for years, I’m just getting around to posting about it now. But if you’ve never been there, I highly recommend it. Almost any math question high school students could asked has been answered and cataloged on this site (including misconceptions about asymptotes like I posted about the other day).
  • Interact  Math — When you first link to this page you’ll be unimpressed. But select a book from the drop down menu and then pick a chapter and set of exercises. Then, click on an exercise and prepare to take an interactive tour of that problem. The site let’s you graph lines, type math equations, do multiple choice problems, and more. If you have trouble with the problem, it will interactively walk you through each step, asking you simpler questions along the way. What a fantastic resource! Unfortunately, almost none of our books are on the drop down list. That doesn’t keep it from being useful. Just find problems similar to what you’re struggling with and try those.
  • Khan Academy — A nonprofit organization started by Sal Khan, this site has 1800+ youtube instructional videos, nicely organized by course and topic. You can go learn everything from basic arithmetic to college level Calculus (and Differential Equations, Linear Algebra, Statistics, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Economics…). Sal’s mission is to provide a world class education to anyone in the world for free. It’s very exciting to see how this site will grow, and possibly change how we do education.

Math Teaching by Video

Some of these sites, especially the Khan Academy, make me wonder how long our modern American school system will remain in its present form.  Will we always have a teacher in the front of the math classroom delivering instruction?

I’m not afraid of the idea that we (teachers) could be partially replaced by video lessons. It’s actually a pretty good idea. The very best instructional practices could be incorporated into a flawlessly edited video. Teachers wouldn’t make frustrating, careless mistakes, students could replay the videos at any time, and substitute teachers could easily run the class. Every school, even the poorest and most marginalized would be able to deliver top-notch, world class instruction.

And what would teachers do, then? Qualified teachers could turn their efforts toward more of “coaching” and “discussion leading” role, concentrating on one-on-one sessions, remediation, reteaching, providing feedback, grading, seminars, open forums, field trips, and inquiry-based instruction that supplements the more formal video presentations. And don’t forget blogging! 🙂 So much of a teacher’s time is currently spent preparing lessons and teaching them that they have very little time for all those other (more?) important aspects of teaching. All this time devoted to preparation is being spent by teachers everywhere. Imagine the possibilities if we devoted the bulk of our time to these other aspects instead of preparing instruction. Sounds really great to me.

Very Nice Java Applets

I’m always on the look out for nice java applets (or flash, or javascript, or whatever) that help visualize tough math concepts. The best applets are not merely gimmick, but truly make the mathematics more accessible and invite you to explore, predict, and play with the concepts.

Most recently, my dad pointed me to this website.  At this site, you’ll find well over one hundred very nice applets that show things I haven’t seen around the web before. For instance, play around with your favorite polyhedra in 3d, then let the applet truncate or stellate the polyhedron, all with nice animation. And of course, you’ll want to mess with all the settings on the drop down menus, too! Additionally, you can see a mobius strip, klein bottle, cross cap, or a torus. Also, I was just recently blogging about complex functions. Some of these applets allow you to visualize with animation and color various complex functions. Having just completed a grad class in differential equations, I was also interested in these ODE applets. You may also have fun with fractals, like this one.

There are lots of other nice applet websites out there. As you know, I’m a huge fan of GeoGebra (free, open source, able to be run online without installation, easy to use, powerful). Someday maybe I’ll post more extensively about its merits. In the meantime, you can check it out here.  Many of these applets use GeoGebra. This site has a lot of nice applets too.  And here. This one’s rather elementary, but fun for educators. These are great, too. These are all sites I’ve used in class. Like I said, I think they’re more than just ‘cool’–they really do help elucidate hard-to-understand topics.

Feel free to share other applet sites you like.

Heat Conduction in a Rod

I’m currently taking a grad class in differential equations. I just had a homework problem that asked about the heat conduction in a long, thin rod. It inspired me to create another GeoGebra applet, and I thought I’d share. The math might be a bit inaccessible, but the results are fairly straightforward.

Image credit: http://www.citycollegiate.com/heatxa.htm

Consider a solid rod of some kind of uniform material (maybe aluminum or cast iron). Say it’s 20 cm long. And say, for whatever reason, the temperature at a given place in the bar is initially given by this distribution:

Notice the bar is 70 degrees at each end and 50 degrees in the middle. (This is arbitrary…I just picked this distribution, just for fun.)

Now, let’s say the sides of the bar are insulated, and we just apply heat to the ends. If we maintain a temperature of 10 degrees at one end and 50 degrees at the other end, after a long time, we would expect the temperature throughout the bar to be evenly distributed, ranging from 10 degrees to 50 degrees. It would look something like this:

Now, the question is, what is the temperature throughout the bar after 1 second? It should be pretty close to the original distribution still, right? Right. What about after 10 seconds? 30 seconds? 30 days? Eventually it will look like the above distribution. That’s why we call this the “steady-state” distribution.

Here’s what the temperature throughout the bar looks like after 30 seconds, for instance.

Notice that the temperature distribution is still very similar to the initial distribution, but that the ends are changing temperature. This will happen more and more over time.

The applet I constructed lets you change everything about this situation: the length of the bar, the type of material, the temperature we apply to each end, and the initial temperature distribution. Like I said, the math is a bit nasty, but the results are intuitive, I hope. If you want to see some more of the math, feel free to do some reading!