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At Victoria University of Wellington, mathematician Dr Dillon Mayhew explains that maths is different to other sciences as it doesn’t rely on experimentation and observation. Maths provides knowledge through logical deduction. He discusses how the natural world seems to run on maths and, in turn, how maths is useful for modelling the natural world.

Key content

Key content

Maths modelling the natural world

At Victoria University of Wellington, mathematician Dr Dillon Mayhew begins by telling John that maths is the most special of sciences. He explains that maths is different to other sciences as it doesn’t rely on experimentation and observation. Maths provides knowledge through logical deduction. Using a whiteboard and marker, Dillon uses a simple example to illustrate this to John. He discusses how the natural world seems to run on maths and, in turn, how maths is useful for modelling the natural world. John and Dillon then head outside with a tape measure, stopwatch and apple to do some basic physics, revisiting Sir Isaac Newton’s theory and seeing a mathematical formula working in action.

Things to think about

Things to think about

In conjunction with this episode of Ever Wondered?, your students may enjoy these activities that use maths to find out more about our natural world.

In this activity, students use real-time data from Argo scientific floats to study ocean currents.
Using Argo data

In this activity, students explore the transit method of searching for planets. They plot graphs of light measurements from stars, searching for dimming that indicates the presence of a planet, and calculate its size.
Hunt the planet

Your students may also be interested to find out more about DNA sequencing and evolutionary biology. In this video clip, students can see how DNA sequencing is being used to understand fern evolutionary history.
Using DNA analyses for classification

DNA sequencing is now routinely undertaken in a huge range of research projects. In this animation on the Biotechnology Learning Hub, students can watch a step-by-step guide to sequencing DNA in the lab.
www.biotechlearn.org.nz/themes/dna_lab/sequencing_revealing_the_dna_codeexternal link

Transcript

Transcript

DR JOHN WATT

This week, we meet the unsung hero of the science world – mathematics. It’s the drive behind the engineering that makes the world tick.

VOICE-OVER

From construction sites to traffic lights to air traffic control. But this week, we’re looking at how maths governs how nature works as well and can even be used to predict how we as human beings behave. First, I’m off to Victoria University to meet mathematician Dillon Mayhew. He’s going to try to convince this chemist that maths is the most special of sciences.

DR JOHN WATT

Dillon, what is the difference between mathematics and other sciences?

DR DILLON MAYHEW

Mathematics doesn’t rely upon experimentation, so we don’t get our knowledge from running experiments and making observations. We get our knowledge from making logical deductions. So I can illustrate the difference between experimentation and deduction with an example. Let’s do some sums. What’s 1 + 2?

DR JOHN WATT

Three.

DR DILLON MAYHEW

Yes, that’s very good. And what’s 1 + 2 + 3?

DR JOHN WATT

Six.

DR DILLON MAYHEW

Excellent! And 1 + 2 + 3 + 4?

DR JOHN WATT

That’s 10.

DR DILLON MAYHEW

You’re really very good at this.

DR JOHN WATT

Yes, I am.

DR DILLON MAYHEW

But what if I asked you to add up 1 + 2 + 3 all the way to 100. What would you do then?

DR JOHN WATT

I’d look to you.

DR DILLON MAYHEW

Yeah, and you would hope that there’s a formula.

DR JOHN WATT

Yeah.

DR DILLON MAYHEW

And there is. Let’s see if we can figure out what it is. So 3 is equal to 2 times 3 divided by 2.

DR JOHN WATT

Right.

DR DILLON MAYHEW

Six is equal to 3 times 4 divided by 2, and 10 is equal to 4 times 5 divided by 2.

DR JOHN WATT

Right.

DR DILLON MAYHEW

And notice that the first number here is always the last number in the sum. So that lets us predict that the general formula, if I take the numbers 1 + 2 + 3 all the way up to some unspecified number, which I’ll just call n, the answer is going to be that last number, n, times the next number, n + 1, divided by 2. Do you want to try it out?

DR JOHN WATT

All right, let’s do it. So what shall we go to?

DR DILLON MAYHEW

Let’s say n is equal to 7.

DR JOHN WATT

So 1 + 2 is 3, + 3 is 6, + 4 is 10, + 5 is 15, + 6 is 21, + 7 is equal to 28. So using that 7 times 8 divided by 2 is equal to 56, divided by 2 is equal to 28. So you’ve got 28.

DR DILLON MAYHEW

It’s like magic, isn’t it?

DR JOHN WATT

Voila! So how do you know this is always going to work?

DR DILLON MAYHEW

If mathematics were an experimental science, all we could do is test the first 100 cases or maybe test the first 1 billion cases. But would that be enough?

DR JOHN WATT

Well, it tells you that it’s always true for those numbers.

DR DILLON MAYHEW

Right. But how would we know that it works for 1 billion and 1?

DR JOHN WATT

I’d look to you.

DR DILLON MAYHEW

Yeah, exactly. Experimentation cannot tell us that this always works. Instead, we have to use deductible logic. So here’s how we can show that it always works. I’m going to take these numbers, 1 + 2 + 3 all the way up to n, and I’m going to write the same series of numbers underneath, but in reverse order. So I’ll write n + (n - 1) +  (n - 2) all the way down to 1.

Now notice that this top row adds to exactly the same quantity as the bottom row. They’re the same numbers, just in a different order. So now I’m going to add the top and the bottom row together, and I’m going to do it column by column. What’s the sum of these two numbers?

DR JOHN WATT

n + 1.

DR DILLON MAYHEW

n + 1.

VOICE-OVER

In fact, every single column adds to n + 1.

DR DILLON MAYHEW

OK, so what’s this total? I’ve got how many collections of n + 1?

DR JOHN WATT

Well the amount of numbers, so whatever n is.

DR DILLON MAYHEW

Exactly, whatever n is. So I’ve got n, lots of n + 1, so that’s n times n + 1. But the sum of the top row is equal to half the sum of the bottom row, so I take that quantity and divide by 2, which is that one. It’s exactly the formula we predicted. So now we know that it’s always going to work.

DR JOHN WATT

Dillon, this is great for a bunch of numbers, but what does this tell me about the real world?

DR DILLON MAYHEW

A mathematician can do mathematics for exactly the same reasons that an artist can do art – to make something beautiful to add to our heritage. So if you think this is beautiful, well, that’s enough. But of course, mathematics is also useful, and it’s useful because we can use it to model the natural world. For reasons that I don’t really understand, it seems as though the natural world runs on mathematics. So, if we want to model the process in the natural world, then mathematics is the best language to do it.

DR JOHN WATT

So what kind of examples can you give me?

DR DILLON MAYHEW

Well, suppose that I want to drop an object from a height and I want to figure out how long it’s going to take to hit the ground. How can I do that?

DR JOHN WATT

You’d have to know a few things first.

DR DILLON MAYHEW

You need to know the formula, and it’s a mathematical formula because the natural world seems to run on mathematics. So here’s the formula. So the time it takes for the object to fall is equal to the square root of 2 times the height you drop it from divided by 9.81.

DR JOHN WATT

Which is nice and simple. Shall we test it?

DR DILLON MAYHEW

I don’t see why not. Let’s go.

DR JOHN WATT

It’s cold.

DR DILLON MAYHEW

Well it’s cold and windy.

DR JOHN WATT

But in the name of science, I guess …

DR DILLON MAYHEW

In the name of science. So what we’re going to do in honour of Isaac Newton is drop this apple from this balcony and I’m going to use that formula to predict how long it takes to hit the ground.

DR JOHN WATT

Right. What do we need to know?

DR DILLON MAYHEW

We need to know a couple of things. We need to know how high the drop is. To figure that out, I need you down there with a tape measure.

DR JOHN WATT

All right, done!

VOICE-OVER

The mathematical truths that Newton discovered in the 17th century are just as true today and will remain true forever – a certainty that is seldom achieved in any other field.

DR JOHN WATT

All right, 9.6 metres.

VOICE-OVER

Now we have the height of the drop, Dillon can solve his equation.

DR DILLON MAYHEW

Take the square root … 1.4 seconds. So you’re ready?

DR JOHN WATT

Yeah, go for it!

DR DILLON MAYHEW

This is the moment of truth.

DR JOHN WATT

OK.

DR DILLON MAYHEW

On 3.

DR JOHN WATT

OK.

DR DILLON MAYHEW

1, 2, 3.

DR JOHN WATT

I got 1.36 seconds.

DR DILLON MAYHEW

Well I predicted 1.4.

DR JOHN WATT

So that’s close as!

DR DILLON MAYHEW

That’s pretty good.

DR JOHN WATT

That was a little bit of physics to get us started, but up next, we meet a brave mathematician taking on the terrifyingly complex world of biology in an attempt to answer some of evolution’s biggest questions.

Go to Part 2

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