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Michael Atiyah’s Birthday!

Heads up!  In  a couple of days (April 22nd) it is the 87th birthday of “Britain’s mathematical pope”, (not just Britain’s, either, IMO), otherwise known as my doctoral advisor, Professor Sir Michael Atiyah.   HAPPY BIRTHDAY MICHAEL!

To celebrate, his son David is assembling an online tribute – see    Please consider sending a tribute message to  Here’s what hes ays:

We are collecting messages of congratulations on the occasion of Michael Atiyah‘s 87th birthday Friday, April 22, 2016.

If you have the time, memory, and an inclination, please also include your favourite personal story about Britain’s Mathematical Pope*. I keep hearing every mathematician has one – it would be a shame not to collect and archive them for posterity.

Bonus points awarded for photographs, with prizes for the best MP4 video message we can share on the night.

Pls include:
– your name
– your current position, & location (if appropriate)
– when and where you first met Michael

We will keep it simple and hope to collate and publish submisssions in due course.

* = with thanks to Siobhan Roberts for the expression used in her recent biog of J H Conway – i have simply extended his Popedom from England to Britain.

If you haven’t seen it, here is a great article from Wired last week: Mathematical Matchmaker Atiyah Dreams of a Quantum Union.


Jost Bürgi’s Method for Calculating Sines

Jost Bürgi (28.2.1552 -31.1.1632) Astronom, Mathematiker, Instrumentenbauer, Entdecker der Logarithmen. aus:7523 (Rar);Frontispiz

Jost Bürgi (28.2.1552 -31.1.1632)
Astronom, Mathematiker, Instrumentenbauer, Entdecker der Logarithmen.
aus:7523 (Rar);Frontispiz

I just learned (via Facebook, no less) of a fascinating paper with the above title by Andreas Thom and coauthors.

Jost Burgi (1552-1632) was a Swiss mathematician, astronomer and clockmaker.  He worked with Johannes Kepler from 1604 and is thought to have arrived at the notion of logarithms independent of Napier.  He was also reputed to have constructed a table of sines by a brand new method, but until now the details of his Kunstweg (“artful method”) for computing sines were thought to have been lost.  The beautiful book of van Brummelen, The Mathematics of the Heavens and the Earth: The Early History of Trigonometry,  (Princeton University Press, 2009) documents how computing trigonometric ratios was  a central theoretical and practical preoccupation of ancient mathematics. We know of Burgi’s Kunstweg via a statement of his colleague and friend Nicolaus Ursus: “the calculation (of a table of sines)… can be done by a special way, by dividing a right angle into as many parts as one wants; and this is arithmetically. This has been found by Justus Burgi from Switzerland, the skilful technician of His Serene Highness, the Prince of Hesse.”  But the details are not clear and apparently nobody, starting with Kepler himself, was ever able to reconstruct Burgi’s method.

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Thermodynamics IV: entropy

In the previous post, I talked about the second law of thermodynamics: there can be do thermodynamic transformation whose overall effect is to move heat from a cooler body to a hotter one.  Since the reverse of such a transformation (moving heat from a hotter body to a cooler one) happens naturally by conduction, the second law naturally contains an element of irreversibility which it is natural to expect is expressed by an inequality.   The quantity to which this applies is the famous entropy.

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Thermodynamics III: second law

The first law of thermodynamics says that heat is a form of energy. There is a lot of heat about!  For instance, the amount of heat energy it would take to change the temperature of the world’s oceans by one degree is about \(6 \times 10^{24}\) joules.  That is four orders of magnitude greater than the world’s annual energy consumption!  So, if we could somehow how to figure out how to extract one degree’s worth of heat energy from the oceans, we could power the world for ten thousand years!  Continue reading

Thermodynamics II: gases and the First Law

Recall from the previous post that the First Law of Thermodynamics can be expressed

\[ \alpha+\beta = -dU \]

where \(U\) is the total energy of a thermodynamic system and \(\alpha,\beta\) are one-forms whose integrals along a transformation express the work done by the system on its environment, and the heat supplied by the system to its environment, in the course of the transformation. (In Fermi’s notation \(\alpha=dL\), \(\beta=-dQ\), where \(L,Q\) should be thought of as functions not on the state space but on the path space of the state space – their values depend on how you got there).  If the state space is a 2-manifold parametrized by volume \(V\) and pressure \(p\), then \(\alpha=pdV\).    The thermal capacity of the system is the derivative \(dQ/dT\), that is the marginal amount of heat absorbed for an increase in temperature.  There are two versions of the heat capacity, \(C_V\) (heat capacity at constant volume) and \(C_p\) (heat capacity at constant pressure).  For the situation we’re considering, \(\alpha=pdV = 0\) at constant volume, so

\[ C_V = \left(\frac{\partial U}{\partial T}\right)_V,\qquad C_p = \left(\frac{\partial U}{\partial T}\right)_p + p\left(\frac{\partial V}{\partial T}\right)_p \]

by standard calculations with partial derivatives. Continue reading