Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Three Wise Men: Also Mathematicians?

The Three Wise Men of the East were rumored to be great mathematicians that were often perceived by their contemporaries has having "supernatural powers" over numbers. Is the truth behind the story stranger than fiction?

By: Vanessa Uy

Frequently mentioned in the Bible as The Three Wise Men of the East or The Three Magi who were led to Bethlehem by a star, scholars first theorized them to be astrologers from Mesopotamia – now present day Iraq. But there’s a growing consensus that The Three Wise Men of the East were in fact Persian (Iranian) Zoroastrians who were known for their very advanced mathematical prowess. While the gold, frankincense, and myrrh that they brought for the infant Jesus were meant at the time to be understood as a sign that they believed the birth to be a great event.

Currently, The Three Wise Men or The Three Magi of the Bible were perhaps custodians of the Sacred Flame of the Fire Temples of Baku – a sacred site of holy pilgrimage to Zoroastrians. The mere fact that they arrived at the manger were Jesus was born hundreds of miles from their starting point only hints at their ability to navigate with extreme accuracy using celestial reference points. Does this prove that they have mathematical skills way above that of their other contemporaries?

Already well known during the Classical Hellenistic period as the priests of Zoroaster who had become custodians of Mesopotamian mathematical lore under the Persian Empire, The Magi’s mathematical knowledge was often seen as mystical or the blackest of all arts by outsiders. Given that during the time specialized mathematical knowledge being practiced by the Magi was considered a very indulgent luxury that they were often considered as magicians by their less educated brethren. Even the famous Greek mathematician Pythagoras was very much intrigued by the “mystical” mathematical abilities of the priests of Zoroaster.

For early Christian historians, Iran was always above all the land of “The Three Magi”, who are guided by the Star of Bethlehem, came to worship at Jesus’ birthplace. Further, continuing Jewish tradition, the early Christian historians identified Zoroaster with Ezekiel, Nimrod, Seth, Baruch, and even with Christ himself. After the early Christian writer Justin Martyr, Zoroaster and the Magicians could be cited by Christian apologists as being among the “witnesses” from outside whom they invoked to establish the truth of Christianity in pagan eyes; Even though latter Roman era Christian historians believed that Zoroaster founded particularly abominable superstitions of astrology and magic.

Even though the very early Roman Catholic Church had a very low opinion on Zoroaster and Zoroastrians in general, the Zoroastrians’ impeccable record keeping did manage to preserve ancient mathematical knowledge dating back thousands of years. Not to mention documentation of unique celestial events like appearances of comets and supernovae. We may even owe it to The Three Wise Men of the East or the Three Magi for noticing the Star of Bethlehem, because the “Christian West” managed to ignore the great supernova of 1054 despite the Chinese and Native Americans witnessing and recording the rare celestial event. Given that the entire Christian West ever came up as an excuse for not witnessing the great supernova of 1054 was war and pestilence.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Bose-Einstein Condensate: Mathematics Made Real?

Born out of a scientific correspondence and collaboration between Albert Einstein and Indian physicist Satyendrenath Bose; Does the Bose-Einstein condensate hold promise for mankind or a mere “curiosity”?

By: Vanessa Uy

Even though we only had succeeded in confirming the existence of a new state of matter called the Bose-Einstein condensate during the second half of the 1990’s, the mathematics explaining – or modeling - the “behavior” of this strange and wonderful substance can be traced back to 1924; Which, unfortunately, is only half of the story.

In 1924, the Indian physicist Satyendrenath Bose collaborated with Albert Einstein on the Bose-Einstein theory of quantum statistics. Even though they were half a world apart – even further back then given that the jumbo jet / low-cost airlines and the Internet were yet to be invented – and never met until their work was completed. Bose was only 30 back then when, on impulse, shared some of the work he had done on quantum statistics to Einstein. The correspondence that followed resulted in the publication of their joint theory brought Bose international fame among physicists.

More than just a curio to be toyed with by theoretical / quantum physicists, Bose-Einstein condensates have very unusual physical properties which make them a potential energy source of unimaginable inexhaustibility given that they have normally zero entropy. Plus, they could serve as a foundation for quantum computing and / or quantum encryption; which could create a new data security protocol that is of several orders of magnitude better than our current ones based on Bernhard Riemann’s work on very large prime numbers.

Even more “curiouser” is the Bose-Einstein condensate cloud’s ability to slow down light from its average “airspeed” of 1 billion kilometers per hour to about the same speed of a five-year-old girl riding a bicycle with training wheels – i.e. just a few meters per second. In recent experiments, light can be slowed down even further. Given that a photon (light particles) must travel at the speed of light no matter what their energy level is to maintain a photon’s “computational” zero rest mass or there will be unfortunate “relativistic” side effects… Like time travel?!

Satyendrenath Bose and Albert Einstein had bequeathed to the scientific community a very useful mathematical tool that despite being formulated over 80 years ago had only been extensively used “practically” via the laboratory studies of the Bose-Einstein condensate phenomena. Given that ballotechnic substances like the very hot quark-gluon plasma of the early universe that existed in a superfluid state is governed – more or less – by the mathematics behind the Bose-Einstein theory of quantum statistics, is humanity’s “Holy Grail” of unlimited energy already at hand?

No Nobel Prize for Mathematics?

It may come as a shock to most of us but nobody knows for sure – even Alfred Nobel himself haven’t left any explanations on his will – on why there is no Nobel Prize for mathematics. Is it a mystery worthy of a Nobel Laureate?

By: Vanessa Uy

Sooner or later, anyone who finds out that there is no Nobel Prize for Mathematics will feel somewhat perplexed. But will later descend into astonishment when no satisfactory reasons exist. Even Alfred Nobel’s last will and testament didn’t provide any explanation on why he won’t grant any of his prestigious prizes to mathematicians. But before we proceed, here’s a review on what the Nobel Prize is all about.

When Alfred Nobel got rich after inventing a manufacturing process that made the powerful but hopelessly unstable nitroglycerin – previously discovered by Ascanio Sobrero back in 1846 – into a product stable enough for use in mining and civil engineering work. Even the military sector of every nation of the world back then became the major purchasers of Alfred Nobel’s dynamite. Shy and deeply engrossed in his work, Alfred Nobel never got married. And thus formulated his last will and testament to bequeath his vast mostly self-made fortune be invested to fund a foundation / committee – later to become the Nobel Committee. And the interest awarded annually as prizes in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, peace, and economics. Which henceforth became known as the Nobel Prizes.

Even though Nobel Laureates of the Physics Prizes – especially quantum / theoretical physicists and Economics Prize Laureate economists can be thought of as de facto mathematicians, especially true these days. Alfred Nobel had not specifically stipulated a proviso on his will whether to explicitly award or shame mathematicians. Nobel neither put into writing nor publicly expressed his own personal sentiments about mathematicians during his lifetime. Which unfortunately started a rumor within the academic world that slowly trickled down into the general public on why Alfred Nobel has not set aside a Nobel Prize for mathematicians.

The rumor states that during one of the rare periods of his life when Alfred Nobel’s “workload” became low enough to allow him to search for a prospective bride, he lost a girl to a gifted yet obscure mathematician. Thus forever harboring resentment towards mathematicians. Even though this “apocryphal” story is about as factual as the young George Washington chopping down a cherry tree, or the apple hitting Isaac Newton on the head inspiring his eureka moment on his insight on gravity.

Given that the truth behind the story of Alfred Nobel losing his girlfriend to a mathematician will probably never gonna be substantiated in the foreseeable future. Other foundations structured similarly to the Nobel Committee were established throughout the years to recognize the achievements of our tireless mathematicians. Which is very important in today’s information-based society under the hegemony of Web 2.0 and round-the-clock global stock market trading.

Monday, December 1, 2008

2008: A Good Year for Mathematics?

Year of the rat, year of the environmentally embattled frog, the year 2008 is now known by many things. Why not make it a good year to make everyone more aware of the benefits of mathematics in today’s society?

By: Vanessa Uy

Inexplicably, 2008 was arbitrarily tagged as the year of mathematics, marked by the de rigeur discussion / reiteration of the importance and indispensability of mathematics in today’s society. Like the application of advanced mathematics in credit derivatives – a financial instrument, which probably less than 10,000 people around the planet fully understand – plus the other esoteric mathematical tools to allow these instruments to be traded ubiquitously on the stock market. Not to mention the other math tools now widely utilized to lessen the impact of our current financial crisis. Plus the somewhat “overwrought” discussion on the contribution of mathematics that made cheap but powerful computers a reality and what have you. Then there’s that perennial belletristic diatribe on which likes or who is more “comfortable” with mathematics: girls or boys?

Mathematics, which can be both the queen and handmaiden of all the branches of all the sciences is indeed burdened with long-standing issues. Given mathematics’ overall decline in popularity since the end of America’s manned lunar exploration program – despite contemporary society’s utter dependence on it in order to function – any program aiming to make mathematics more popular – especially to the younger generation – should be embraced with open arms. It’s been known for sometime now that those who depend mathematics for their day jobs are somewhat “socially ignored” despite of their utter indispensability in today’s society. Even us, who are only using mathematics for “hobby” purposes should be grateful that academia is busy promoting mathematics to the general public. Maybe in the future, more people will understand why some are fascinated by mathematics – even at just a hobbyist’s level.

Year of the rat, year of the environmental degradation embattled frog, 2008 might be remembered as a pivotal year when mathematics gained widespread popularity again – like it did during the Eisenhower administration. Given that career mathematicians are now getting consultation-related work on formulating plans to end our current ever deepening global financial crisis, 2008 might indeed be a good year for mathematics.