Goodbye Aberration: Physicist Solves 2,000-Year-Old Optical Problem

This was a nice write-up (with some entertaining interspersed snark) of the solution of the the Wasserman-Wolf problem concerning the construction of a perfect lens (like a camera lens). Some quotes:

[L]enses are made from spherical surfaces. The problem arises when light rays outside the center of the lens or hitting at an angle can’t be focused at the desired distance in a point because of differences in refraction.

Which makes the center of the image sharper than the corners…

In a 1949 article published in the Royal Society Proceedings, Wasserman and Wolf formulated the problem—how to design a lens without spherical aberration—in an analytical way, and it has since been known as the Wasserman-Wolf problem…

The problem was solved in 2018 by doctoral students in Mexico. For those fluent in Spanish, the university press release can be found here. As an added bonus, here’s the answer:


Significant Digits and Useless Digits

A pet peeve of mine is measuring things to far too many decimal places. For example, notice that the thickness of these trash bags is 0.0009 inches (0.9 mil) but is 22.8 microns in metric. There are two mistakes:

  • While the conversion factor is correct, there’s no way that the thickness is known within only 0.1 microns, or 100 nanometers. That’s significantly that a typical cell nucleus.
  • Less importantly, if they rounded correctly, it should be 22.9 microns, not 22.8.

My favorite example that I’ve personally witnessed — that I wish I had a picture of — is measuring student’s perceptions of a professor’s teaching effectiveness is 13 decimal places.

This webcomic from xkcd illustrates the point both cleverly and perfectly.


Engaging students: Vectors in two dimensions

In my capstone class for future secondary math teachers, I ask my students to come up with ideas for engaging their students with different topics in the secondary mathematics curriculum. In other words, the point of the assignment was not to devise a full-blown lesson plan on this topic. Instead, I asked my students to think about three different ways of getting their students interested in the topic in the first place.

I plan to share some of the best of these ideas on this blog (after asking my students’ permission, of course).

This student submission comes from my former student Sarah McCall. Her topic, from Precalculus: vectors in two dimensions.

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What interesting (i.e., uncontrived) word problems using this topic can your students do now?

For such an applicable topic, I believe that it is beneficial to have students see how this might apply to their lives and to real world problems. I selected the following word problems because they are challenging, but I think it is necessary for students to be a little frustrated initially so that they are able to learn well and remember what they’ve learned.

1. A DC-10 jumbo jet maintains an airspeed of 550 mph in a southwesterly direction. The velocity of the jet stream is a constant 80 mph from the west. Find the actual speed and direction of the aircraft.

2. The pilot of an aircraft wishes to head directly east, but is faced with a wind speed of 40 mph from the northwest. If the pilot maintains an airspeed of 250 mph, what compass heading should be maintained? What is the actual speed of the aircraft?

3. A river has a constant current of 3 kph. At what angle to a boat dock should a motorboat, capable of maintaining a constant speed of 20 kph, be headed in order to reach a point directly opposite the dock? If the river is ½ a kilometer wide, how long will it take to cross?

Because these problems are difficult, students would be instructed to work together to complete them. This would alleviate some frustrations and “stuck” feelings by allowing them to ask for help. Ultimately, talking through what they are doing and successfully completing challenging problems will take students to a deeper level of involvement with their own learning.



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How could you as a teacher create an activity or project that involves your topic?

I believe vectors are fairly easy to teach because there are so many real life applications of vectors. However, it can be difficult to get students initially engaged. For this activity, I would have students work in groups to complete a project inspired by Khan Academy’s videos on vector word problems. Students would split off into groups and watch each of the three videos on Khan Academy that have to do with applications of vectors in two dimensions. Using these videos as an example, students will be instructed to come up with a short presentation or video that teaches other students about vectors in two dimensions using real world applications and examples.




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How has this topic appeared in pop culture (movies, TV, current music, video games, etc.)?

Immediately when I see vectors, I think of one specific movie quote from my late childhood that I’ll always remember. The villain named Vector from Despicable Me who “commits crimes with both direction AND magnitude” is a fellow math nerd and is therefore one of my favorite Disney villains of all time. So of course, I had to find the clip (linked below) because I think it is absolutely perfect for engaging students in a lesson about vectors as soon as they walk in the door, and it is memorable and educational. I would refer back to this video several times throughout the lesson and in future lessons because it is a catchy way to remember the two components to vectors. This would also be great to kick off a unit on scalars and vectors, because it would get kids laughing and therefore engaged, plus they will always remember the difference between a scalar and a vector (direction AND magnitude!).  



My Favorite One-Liners: Part 94

In this series, I’m compiling some of the quips and one-liners that I’ll use with my students to hopefully make my lessons more memorable for them. Today’s edition isn’t a one-liner, but it’s still one of my favorites.

When constructing a mathematical model, sometimes certain simplifying assumptions have to be made… and sometimes these simplifications can be less than realistic. If a student complains about the unreasonableness of the simplifications, I’ll share the following story (taken from the book Absolute Zero Gravity).

Once upon a time, a group of investors decided that horse-racing could be made to pay on a scientific basis. So, they hired a team of biologists, a team of physicists, and a team of mathematicians to spend a year studying the question. At the end of the year, all three teams announced complete solutions. The investors decided to celebrate with a gala dinner where all three plans could be unveiled.

The mathematicians had the thickest report, so the chief mathematician was asked to give the first talk: “Ladies and gentlemen, you have nothing to worry about. Without describing the many details of
our proof, we can guarantee a solution to the problem you gave us — it turns out that every race is won by a least one horse. But we have been able to go beyond even this, and can show that the solution is unique: every race is won by no more than one horse!”

The biologists, who had spent the most money, went next. They were also able to show that the investors had nothing to worry about. By using the latest technology of genetic engineering, the biologists could easily set up a breeding program to produce an unbeatable racehorse, at a cost well below a million a year, in about two hundred years.

Now the investors’ hopes were riding on the physicists. The chief physicist also began by assuring them that their troubles were over. “We have perfected a method for predicting with 96 percent certainty the winner of any given race. The method is based on a very few simplifying assumptions. First, let each horse be a perfect rolling sphere… “