Simply Science, Column number one

Editor’s note: Look for Simply Science every Saturday in The Daily Sentinel. Gary McCallister was one of the previous Speaking of Science writers and has agreed to continue on his own. We hope you find his column as insightful, educational and entertaining as we do.

They say I ought to write my first column about this being my first column. I guess that means I hope that this is to be the first column of many columns, making it No. 1. The other columns don’t exist yet, of course. I am not sure how many there will end up being. But it doesn’t really matter until you have one, the first one. So I thought it would be good to write about the number one.

Actually, it doesn’t matter what number of columns I end up with. It will always be as many as I have previously written plus the last one. Let’s say I wrote 5,721 columns. I would just write the first one, then add the second, and then add the third, until I reach 5,721. If I write the columns on a weekly basis I would then be one 175 years old. (You figure it out.) So the number one can be pretty interesting, even if my first column isn’t.

But instead of adding columns, it could be more interesting if I could multiply them. If I multiply one column by one column I just get one column. But if I multiply 11 columns by 11 columns, I get 121 columns. And if I multiply 111 times 111 I get 12,321; and 1,111 times 1,111 equals 1,234,321. These are like palindromes, words that spell the same front and back, except they are numbers.

Another thing you can do with the number one is add it to zero. But 0 + 1 = 1.  However, if you add the last two numbers together, 1 + 1 = 2.  Then if you add the last two numbers together again you get 1 + 2 = 3. This series is called the Fibonacci Series after Leonardo Fibonacci, who lived a thousand years ago. He discovered that if you continue this operation you get a series of numbers that would look like this: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144 . . . . OK, I’m bored.

It turns out that this kind of series shows up a lot in biology. For example, sunflower seeds are set in spirals to the right and left within the blossom. And the number of spirals is always one of the Fibonacci series. This arrangement apparently keeps the seeds uniformly packed no matter how large the seed heads are. The number of spirals in pine cones is usually a Fibonacci number. Most flowers have petals that are Fibonacci numbers.

It’s not hard to bring science into mathematics, although some would say that mathematics has brought science into it. Because mathematics is the study of quantity, structure, space and change, (that’s what it says on Wikipedia, so it must be true) it has been a handy tool for the sciences. Scientists and mathematicians alike examine the world for patterns and try to draw conclusions from those patterns to predict events, or help us control our world.

Of course, there are always basic assumptions that are agreed upon by all, and then reason is applied to those basic axioms, definitions and assumptions to arrive at what scientists and mathematicians hope is the truth. But it is best to remember that reason, for all of its value, is only as good as the basic assumptions on which it is based. This means that if you change the assumptions, the truth can change also. Sometimes scientists forget that their reasoning is based on their assumptions.

Well, I don’t expect my columns to multiply or follow the Fibonacci Series, but they may be related to mathematics in one last manner. Einstein once said about mathematics, “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”

Hmmmm. Thanks for reading my first column.

Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Mesa State College.

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