Hi, I’m Rachel, the Astronomer here at the Space Centre.
Mathematics is the language of the universe. Much like reading words in a book, we use numbers, symbols, and equations to translate what we see, into a language that we can understand (and quantify). Using math as a translator, we can describe how nature works, but not why nature works the way it does. One way to learn about nature, and more importantly to appreciate it, is to understand it through math.
Through experiments and theories, researchers study natural phenomena and share their findings in academic papers. For researchers around the world to understand each other, we have to agree on definitions and how we measure things. We can define universal quantities – like Coordinate Universal Time (UTC), how long a second is, or how much 1 kilogram weighs – and how to convert from one system to another, like switching between the imperial and metric systems. These are all defined and measured in the language of math.
While math may not be one of your languages, you probably recognize Albert Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2. This equation describes the relationship between energy (E) and mass (m). Einstein also used math to describe gravitation with his geometric theory of general relativity. He theorised that gravity is the result of massive objects curving spacetime. In the framework of math, Einstein was able to communicate his ideas in the form of equations – Einstein’s field equations. He also predicted a number of astrophysical phenomena – such as gravitational waves and black holes – before they had been observed and experimentally verified. This is just one example of using math as a predictive tool to describe how nature behaves.
Mathematical models can be used to solve a number of challenges when describing astrophysical phenomena and processes – for example, not being able to travel to these distant objects. Since we (unfortunately) can’t travel faster than light or teleport, we can’t take in situ measurements. This is different from a dissection in biology class, where you can touch and study your specimen directly. Astronomers use mathematical models to formulate a hypothesis and clever tactics using light or gravity waves to obtain data to test how well their hypothesis matches with what we observe in nature. A good example of a mathematical model is spacetime, which is how we describe the three spatial dimensions and one temporal dimension. Mathematical models can be used to build simulations. One example is the Illustris Project ;cosmological simulations which show the formation and evolution of galaxies, and even the evolution of the universe from its birth to present day.
Although mathematics is loved by some and hated by others, its versatility makes it one of the most useful languages in the world. We use it everywhere – in construction, counting change, or putting humans on the Moon and sending rovers to Mars...the list is endless. Besides utility, there is also a beauty to math – in the spirals of nautilus shells and the arms of galaxies, the unique patterns of snowflakes, or the cosmic web of galaxies in the universe.
Time | Activity |
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60mins. | Find out more about Albert Einstein and his theory of general relativity (the equation shown above). Ask yourself: How do Einstein’s theories affect your life? |
40mins. | Find out more about what data from gravity waves looks like in this article Ask yourself: Do you have what it takes to analyze gravity wave data? Join the Gravity Spy citizen science project and help scientists with their data. |
60mins. | Find out more about the beauty of math in nature. Read about the golden ratio and listen to an interview about the Fibonacci sequence in nature. Ask yourself: Can you find examples of the golden ration and the Fibonacci sequence around you? |
30mins. | March 14 is Pi day. Pi, symbolized by π, is a mathematical constant defined as the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. Pi is most commonly written as 3.14 but it is a number that has no end. Find out more about how many decimal places NASA engineers use when Pi is part of their equations. Ask yourself: The world record for reciting the digits of Pi from memory is 70030. How many can you remember? |