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Saturday, March 16, 2019

Humble Pi by Matt Parker review – a comedy of maths errors | Science and nature books - The Guardian

Impossible footballs, skyscrapers that shake, the next Y2K-style bug – when maths goes wrong, explains Steven Poole, Writer and author. 

 Millenium bugged … bank customers withdraw funds on 23 December 1999.
Photo: Issouf Sanogo/EPA
You might think you have a phone number, but you don’t really. It’s not a number: you’re not going to perform any mathematical operations on it, and if it starts with a zero then things will go wrong if you do what you would normally do with a number that starts with zero, ie omit it. For this reason, as the “standup mathematician” Matt Parker explains with amusing pedantry, he would really rather we call them “phone digits”.

This is an innocent example of our general fuzziness about maths, where intuitions can go drastically awry. “As humans,” Parker notes for example, “we are not good at judging the size of large numbers.” A million seconds, he points out, is less than two weeks, but a billion seconds is 31 years. And even the mathematics of professionals can fail in critical situations, if our models of how things behave are incomplete. Before the Tacoma Narrows bridge in Washington State collapsed after twisting like a ribbon in the wind, no one had foreseen that kind of “flutter” feedback loop. No one imagined, either, that a single exercise class on one floor could make a whole skyscraper shake, as one did in South Korea in 2011. (The song playing, Snap’s “The Power”, encouraged people to jump up and down at a tempo that matched a resonant frequency of the building.) There may well remain other principles yet to be discovered as we make everything bigger and longer.

In the meantime, engineers continue to make mistakes as elementary as confusing units of measurement. Parker tells the alarming story, for instance, of a passenger jet on which both engines failed midflight because the fuel had been weighed in pounds rather than kilograms. (Luckily, the pilot was able to fly the plane down like a glider and land safely.)...

Computers, indeed, are a rich source of examples of when maths goes wrong. Databases, Parker points out, are only as good as the data entered into them, and bad data can be worse than none at all. Most pragmatically, he points to a multitude of real-world threats created by the widespread habit of using Microsoft’s Excel software as an ersatz database, rather than as a simple spreadsheet manager. A lot of cell biologists use Excel, he reports, which tends to cause problems because there are genes called MARCH5 and SEP15. Type those into Excel and it will helpfully translate them into dates.
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Humble Pi:  
A Comedy of Maths Errors
Source: The Guardian