Ireland's other liberator, of algebra
SMALL PRINT:DANIEL O’CONNELL may have been known as The Liberator, but another important figure in 19th-century Ireland earned a similar title – mathematician William Rowan Hamilton (right) is considered to have liberated algebra.
In 1843, Hamilton defied convention and developed a new system of four-dimensional numbers called quaternions. His mould-breaking insight was that algebra didn’t have to conform to the rules of arithmetic – in other words, X times Y didn’t have to equal Y times X.
Inspiration struck on October 16th of that year as Hamilton walked beside the Royal Canal in Dublin, and he scratched the rebellious quaternions into a bridge in Cabra.
Hamilton’s insights are still used today and have an impact in the gaming industry and special effects as well as space travel.
“Hamilton really did open up algebra from the shackles of arithmetic,” says Dr Fiacre Ó Cairbe, a lecturer in the department of mathematics and statistics at NUI Maynooth. “Modern algebra was born on the banks of the Royal Canal.”
Ó Cairbre will retrace Hamilton’s route in the annual Hamilton Walk this coming Tuesday, October 16th, as part of Maths Week. The walk is now in its 23rd year and attracts hundreds of participants. Anyone who is interested should call 01-7083763.
The same evening at 7.30pm, the Royal Irish Academy will host its annual Hamilton Lecture. Prof Yuri Manin from the Max Planck Institute of Mathematics will give a talk on “Silver lining: Codes and Clouds” in Gleeson Hall Theatre, Dublin Institute of Technology, Kevin Street. Admission is free, but booking is essential. ria.ie
Crafty crow has a bird’s eye view
THE NEW Caledonian crow has a neat trick. The tropical bird can fashion a stick or the edge of a leaf into a tool to fish out prey from dead wood or other vegetation.
How is the New Caledonian crow (Corvus moneduloides) so expertly deft when it comes to getting some grub? Extreme binocular vision and a straight bill could be secrets to its success, according to a new study in Nature Communications.
The research compared binocular vision across several related bird species, and found that the New Caledonian crow has a relatively wide zone where both eyes could see.
The study also looked closely at how three wild New Caledonian crows used sticks – the birds were allowed to forage in a tube and the researchers used hidden infra-red video cameras to track them as they used tools.
And what they saw was that the birds held the sticks against their straight bills in a way that meant they could look down and see what they were doing.
“Having hands that we can move independently of our eyes gives humans a big advantage when using tools.
Tool-using birds face a much more difficult problem because they hold the tool in their bill: imagine having your eyes located on your hands when using a screwdriver,” says researcher Dr Jackie Chappell from the University of Birmingham in a release.
“Our research has shown that – uniquely among crows – New Caledonian crows’ bill shape and wide binocular field helps them to overcome these problems and to hold the tool steady while being able to see what they are doing with it.
“As far as we know, this is the first evidence for tool-use-related morphological features outside of the human lineage.”