One of the most endlessly charming parts of the human experience is our capacity to see something we can’t describe and just make something up in order to do so, never mind whether it makes any sense in the long run or not. Countless examples have been demonstrated over the years, but the mother lode of such situations has to be humanity’s invention of counting.

Numbers do not, in and of themselves, exist- they are simply a construct designed by our brains to help us get around the awe-inspiring concept of the relative amounts of things. However, this hasn’t prevented this ‘neat little tool’ spiralling out of control to form the vast field that is mathematics. Once merely a diverting pastime designed to help us get more use out of our counting tools, maths (I’m British, live with the spelling) first tentatively applied itself to shapes and geometry before experimenting with trigonometry, storming onwards to algebra, turning calculus into a total mess about four nanoseconds after its discovery of something useful, before just throwing it all together into a melting point of cross-genre mayhem that eventually ended up as a field that it as close as STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) gets to art, in that it has no discernible purpose other than for the sake of its own existence.

This is not to say that mathematics is not a useful field, far from it. The study of different ways of counting lead to the discovery of binary arithmetic and enabled the birth of modern computing, huge chunks of astronomy and classical scientific experiments were and are reliant on the application of geometric and trigonometric principles, mathematical modelling has allowed us to predict behaviour ranging from economics & statistics to the weather (albeit with varying degrees of accuracy) and just about every aspect of modern science and engineering is grounded in the brute logic that is core mathematics. But… well, perhaps the best way to explain where the modern science of maths has lead over the last century is to study the story of i.

One of the most basic functions we are able to perform to a number is to multiply it by something- a special case, when we multiply it by itself, is ‘squaring’ it (since a number ‘squared’ is equal to the area of a square with side lengths of that number). Naturally, there is a way of reversing this function, known as finding the square root of a number (ie square rooting the square of a number will yield the original number). However, convention dictates that a negative number squared makes a positive one, and hence there is no number squared that makes a negative and there is no such thing as the square root of a negative number, such as -1. So far, all I have done is use a very basic application of logic, something a five-year old could understand, to explain a fact about ‘real’ numbers, but maths decided that it didn’t want to not be able to square root a negative number, so had to find a way round that problem. The solution? Invent an entirely new type of number, based on the quantity i (which equals the square root of -1), with its own totally arbitrary and made up way of fitting  on a number line, and which can in no way exist in real life.

Admittedly, i has turned out to be useful. When considering electromagnetic forces, quantum physicists generally assign the electrical and magnetic components real and imaginary quantities in order to identify said different components, but its main purpose was only ever to satisfy the OCD nature of mathematicians by filling a hole in their theorems. Since then, it has just become another toy in the mathematician’s arsenal, something for them to play with, slip into inappropriate situations to try and solve abstract and largely irrelevant problems, and with which they can push the field of maths in ever more ridiculous directions.

A good example of the way mathematics has started to lose any semblance of its grip on reality concerns the most famous problem in the whole of the mathematical world- Fermat’s last theorem. Pythagoras famously used the fact that, in certain cases, a squared plus b squared equals c squared as a way of solving some basic problems of geometry, but it was never known as to whether a cubed plus b cubed could ever equal c cubed if a, b and c were whole numbers. This was also true for all other powers of a, b and c greater than 2, but in 1637 the brilliant French mathematician Pierre de Fermat claimed, in a scrawled note inside his copy of Diohantus’ Arithmetica, to have a proof for this fact ‘that is too large for this margin to contain’. This statement ensured the immortality of the puzzle, but its eventual solution (not found until 1995, leading most independent observers to conclude that Fermat must have made a mistake somewhere in his ‘marvellous proof’) took one man, Andrew Wiles, around a decade to complete. His proof involved showing that the terms involved in the theorem could be expressed in the form of an incredibly weird equation that doesn’t exist in the real world, and that all equations of this type had a counterpart equation of an equally irrelevant type. However, since the ‘Fermat equation’ was too weird to exist in the other format, it could not logically be true.

To a mathematician, this was the holy grail; not only did it finally lay to rest an ages-old riddle, but it linked two hitherto unrelated branches of algebraic mathematics by way of proving what is (now it’s been solved) known as the Taniyama-Shimura theorem. To anyone interested in the real world, this exercise made no contribution to it whatsoever- apart from satisfying a few nerds, nobody’s life was made easier by the solution, it didn’t solve any real-world problem, and it did not make the world a tangibly better place. In this respect then, it was a total waste of time.

However, despite everything I’ve just said, I’m not going to decide that all modern day mathematics is a waste of time; very few human activities ever are. Mathematics is many things; among them ridiculous, confusing, full of contradictions and potential slip-ups and, in a field whose age of winning a major prize is younger than in any other STEM field, apparently full of those likely to belittle you out of future success should you enter the world of serious academia. But, for some people, maths is just what makes the world makes sense, and at its heart that was all it was ever created to do. And if some people want their life to be all about the little symbols that make the world make sense, then well done to the world for making a place for them.

Oh, and there’s a theory doing the rounds of cosmology nowadays that reality is nothing more than a mathematical construct. Who knows in what obscure branch of reverse logarithmic integrals we’ll find answers about that one…


Getting bored with history lessons

Last post’s investigation into the post-Babbage history of computers took us up to around the end of the Second World War, before the computer age could really be said to have kicked off. However, with the coming of Alan Turing the biggest stumbling block for the intellectual development of computing as a science had been overcome, since it now clearly understood what it was and where it was going. From then on, therefore, the history of computing is basically one long series of hardware improvements and business successes, and the only thing of real scholarly interest was Moore’s law. This law is an unofficial, yet surprisingly accurate, model of the exponential growth in the capabilities of computer hardware, stating that every 18 months computing hardware gets either twice as powerful, half the size, or half the price for the same other specifications. This law was based on a 1965 paper by Gordon E Moore, who noted that the number of transistors on integrated circuits had been doubling every two years since their invention 7 years earlier. The modern day figure of an 18-monthly doubling in performance comes from an Intel executive’s estimate based on both the increasing number of transistors and their getting faster & more efficient… but I’m getting sidetracked. The point I meant to make was that there is no point me continuing with a potted history of the last 70 years of computing, so in this post I wish to get on with the business of exactly how (roughly fundamentally speaking) computers work.

A modern computer is, basically, a huge bundle of switches- literally billions of the things. Normal switches are obviously not up to the job, being both too large and requiring an electromechanical rather than purely electrical interface to function, so computer designers have had to come up with electrically-activated switches instead. In Colossus’ day they used vacuum tubes, but these were large and prone to breaking so, in the late 1940s, the transistor was invented. This is a marvellous semiconductor-based device, but to explain how it works I’m going to have to go on a bit of a tangent.

Semiconductors are materials that do not conduct electricity freely and every which way like a metal, but do not insulate like a wood or plastic either- sometimes they conduct, sometimes they don’t. In modern computing and electronics, silicon is the substance most readily used for this purpose. For use in a transistor, silicon (an element with four electrons in its outer atomic ‘shell’) must be ‘doped’ with other elements, meaning that they are ‘mixed’ into the chemical, crystalline structure of the silicon. Doping with a substance such as boron, with three electrons in its outer shell, creates an area with a ‘missing’ electron, known as a hole. Holes have, effectively, a positive charge compared a ‘normal’ area of silicon (since electrons are negatively charged), so this kind of doping produces what is known as p-type silicon. Similarly, doping with something like phosphorus, with five outer shell electrons, produces an excess of negatively-charged electrons and n-type silicon. Thus electrons, and therefore electricity (made up entirely of the net movement of electrons from one area to another) finds it easy to flow from n- to p-type silicon, but not very well going the other way- it conducts in one direction and insulates in the other, hence a semiconductor. However, it is vital to remember that the p-type silicon is not an insulator and does allow for free passage of electrons, unlike pure, undoped silicon. A transistor generally consists of three layers of silicon sandwiched together, in order NPN or PNP depending on the practicality of the situation, with each layer of the sandwich having a metal contact or ‘leg’ attached to it- the leg in the middle is called the base, and the ones at either side are called the emitter and collector.

Now, when the three layers of silicon are stuck next to one another, some of the free electrons in the n-type layer(s) jump to fill the holes in the adjacent p-type, creating areas of neutral, or zero, charge. These are called ‘depletion zones’ and are good insulators, meaning that there is a high electrical resistance across the transistor and that a current cannot flow between the emitter and collector despite usually having a voltage ‘drop’ between them that is trying to get a current flowing. However, when a voltage is applied across the collector and base a current can flow between these two different types of silicon without a problem, and as such it does. This pulls electrons across the border between layers, and decreases the size of the depletion zones, decreasing the amount of electrical resistance across the transistor and allowing an electrical current to flow between the collector and emitter. In short, one current can be used to ‘turn on’ another.

Transistor radios use this principle to amplify the signal they receive into a loud, clear sound, and if you crack one open you should be able to see some (well, if you know what you’re looking for). However, computer and manufacturing technology has got so advanced over the last 50 years that it is now possible to fit over ten million of these transistor switches onto a silicon chip the size of your thumbnail- and bear in mind that the entire Colossus machine, the machine that cracked the Lorenz cipher, contained only ten thousand or so vacuum tube switches all told. Modern technology is a wonderful thing, and the sheer achievement behind it is worth bearing in mind next time you get shocked over the price of a new computer (unless you’re buying an Apple- that’s just business elitism).

…and dammit, I’ve filled up a whole post again without getting onto what I really wanted to talk about. Ah well, there’s always next time…

(In which I promise to actually get on with talking about computers)