Magic Numbers: Hannah Fry’s Mysterious World of Maths episode 1: In this new series, mathematician Dr Hannah Fry explores the mystery of maths. It underpins so much of our modern world that it’s hard to imagine life without its technological advances, but where exactly does maths come from? Is it invented like a language or is it something discovered and part of the fabric of the universe? It’s a question that some of the most eminent mathematical minds have been wrestling with. Dr Eleanor Knox from King’s College London believes it’s discovered, Prof Hiranya Peiris from University College London believes it’s invented, while Prof Jim Gates from Brown University believes it’s both, and Prof Brian Greene from Columbia University has no idea. The jury is very much divided.
To investigate this question, Hannah goes head first down the fastest zip wire in the world to learn more about Newton’s law of gravity, she para-glides to understand where the theory of maths and its practice application collide, and she travels to infinity and beyond to discover that some infinities are bigger than others.
Magic Numbers: Hannah Fry’s Mysterious World of Maths episode 1
In this episode, Hannah goes back to the time of the ancient Greeks to find out why they were so fascinated by the connection between beautiful music and maths. The patterns our ancestors found in music are all around us, from the way a sunflower stores its seeds to the number of petals in a flower. Even the shapes of some of the smallest structures in nature, such as viruses, seem to follow the rules of maths. All strong evidence for maths being discovered.
But there are those who claim maths is all in our heads and something we invented. To find out if this is true, Hannah has her brain scanned. It turns out there is a place in all our brains where we do maths, but that doesn’t prove its invented. Experiments with infants, who have never had a maths lesson in their lives, suggests we all come hardwired to do maths. Far from being a creation of the human mind, this is evidence for maths being something we discover.
Then along comes the invention of zero to help make counting more convenient and the creation of imaginary numbers, and the balance is tilted in the direction of maths being something we invented. The question of whether maths is invented or discovered just got a whole lot more difficult to answer.
In geometry, a golden spiral is a logarithmic spiral whose growth factor is φ, the golden ratio. That is, a golden spiral gets wider (or further from its origin) by a factor of φ for every quarter turn it makes. There are several comparable spirals that approximate, but do not exactly equal, a golden spiral.
For example, a golden spiral can be approximated by first starting with a rectangle for which the ratio between its length and width is the golden ratio. This rectangle can then be partitioned into a square and a similar rectangle and this newest rectangle can then be split in the same way. After continuing this process for an arbitrary number of steps, the result will be an almost complete partitioning of the rectangle into squares. The corners of these squares can be connected by quarter-circles. The result, though not a true logarithmic spiral, closely approximates a golden spiral.
Another approximation is a Fibonacci spiral – magic numbers, which is constructed slightly differently. A Fibonacci spiral starts with a rectangle partitioned into 2 squares. In each step, a square the length of the rectangle’s longest side is added to the rectangle. Since the ratio between consecutive Fibonacci numbers approaches the golden ratio as the Fibonacci numbers approach infinity, so too does this spiral get more similar to the previous approximation the more squares are added, as illustrated by the image.