The Mathematics Portal


Mathematics is the study of numbers, quantity, space, pattern, structure, and change. Mathematics is used throughout the world as an essential tool in many fields, including natural science, engineering, medicine, and the social sciences. Applied mathematics, the branch of mathematics concerned with application of mathematical knowledge to other fields, inspires and makes use of new mathematical discoveries and sometimes leads to the development of entirely new mathematical disciplines, such as statistics and game theory. Mathematicians also engage in pure mathematics, or mathematics for its own sake, without having any application in mind. There is no clear line separating pure and applied mathematics, and practical applications for what began as pure mathematics are often discovered.

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A homotopy from a circle around a sphere down to a single point.
Image credit: Richard Morris

The homotopy groups of spheres describe the different ways spheres of various dimensions can be wrapped around each other. They are studied as part of algebraic topology. The topic can be hard to understand because the most interesting and surprising results involve spheres in higher dimensions. These are defined as follows: an n-dimensional sphere, n-sphere, consists of all the points in a space of n+1 dimensions that are a fixed distance from a center point. This definition is a generalization of the familiar circle (1-sphere) and sphere (2-sphere).

The goal of algebraic topology is to categorize or classify topological spaces. Homotopy groups were invented in the late 19th century as a tool for such classification, in effect using the set of mappings from a c-sphere into a space as a way to probe the structure of that space. An obvious question was how this new tool would work on n-spheres themselves. No general solution to this question has been found to date, but many homotopy groups of spheres have been computed and the results are surprisingly rich and complicated. The study of the homotopy groups of spheres has led to the development of many powerful tools used in algebraic topology.

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animation of patterns of black pixels moving on a white background
Credit: User:Protious (animation) & Hyperdeath (original still image)

Conway's Game of Life is a cellular automaton devised by the British mathematician John Horton Conway in 1970. It is an example of a zero-player game, meaning that its evolution is completely determined by its initial state, requiring no further input as the game progresses. After an initial pattern of filled-in squares ("live cells") is set up in a two-dimensional grid, the fate of each cell (including empty, or "dead", ones) is determined at each step of the game by considering its interaction with its eight nearest neighbors (the cells that are horizontally, vertically, or diagonally adjacent to it) according to the following rules: (1) any live cell with fewer than two live neighbors dies, as if caused by under-population; (2) any live cell with two or three live neighbors lives on to the next generation; (3) any live cell with more than three live neighbors dies, as if by overcrowding; (4) any dead cell with exactly three live neighbors becomes a live cell, as if by reproduction. By repeatedly applying these simple rules, extremely complex patterns can emerge. In this animation, a breeder (in this instance called a puffer train, colored red in the final frame of the animation) leaves guns (green) in its wake, which in turn "fire out" gliders (blue). Many more complex patterns are possible. Conway developed his rules as a simplified model of a hypothetical machine that could build copies of itself, a more complicated version of which was discovered by John von Neumann in the 1940s. Variations on the Game of Life use different rules for cell birth and death, use more than two states (resulting in evolving multicolored patterns), or are played on a different type of grid (e.g., a hexagonal grid or a three-dimensional one). After making its first public appearance in the October 1970 issue of Scientific American, the Game of Life popularized a whole new field of mathematical research called cellular automata, which has been applied to problems in cryptography and error-correction coding, and has even been suggested as the basis for new discrete models of the universe.

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