What Does Being Correct Mean?

In class, we were discussing the Parallel Postulate by Euclid. Basically it says that if you draw a straight line on top of two other lines so that they intersect, and if the angles on the same side of the first line are less than 2 right angles (180o), the two lines will intersect at some point on the same side.

Image: 6054, via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s weird learning about proving something that feels so elementary that I assumed it was just true by definition. I mean I can just look at the picture and it certainly looks like it should be correct just by careful inspection. But I guess that doesn’t really prove it without a shadow of doubt. What if what I was looking at was 179.999o and I just said they would never touch even though they would intersect given enough space. Granted, I would assume it was 180o so I would be correct based on the assumption being true.

When I look at this problem, I can’t help but reflect on the lessons, experiences, and “truths” that have instilled within me from previous mentors and teachers. It becomes very hard to try and think about other approaches or ideas other than “duh that true”.

What allowed me to think about this Postulate was learning about how other people through out history thought about the Parallel Postulate and created their own “new math”; their own pseudogeometry; their own imaginary geometry. Here I am unable to think “outside the lines”, but these other people created whole new systems from looking at the problem from a different angle. I have no problems creating weird parallels with my jokes and puns but can’t seem to do the same thing with math. (Yes, I love bad puns).

Poincare and Lobachevski were both people that worked in this pseudogeometry, which is now called hyperbolic geometry. (The former or “normal” geometry is considered “Euclidean Geometry”). In hyperbolic geometry it’s possible to have lines that would normally intersect in Euclidian space be considered parallel and non-intersecting in hyperbolic space. I think looking at the picture below will really help. I know it wasn’t until I built a hyperbolic plane by hand that it really sunk in for me. ( Make your own at http://www.math.tamu.edu/~frank.sottile/research/subject/stories/hyperbolic_football/index.html )

A hyperbolic triangle. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Reflecting on the on hyperbolic plane I began to try to remember a time when what the instructor was teaching conflicted with something I already knew. As I thought I remembered something an art teacher told me about vanishing points. So imagine you’re standing on some railroad tracks that stretch straight forward for miles. As you look down the tracks, as you would if you were actually a train, at some point the individual components would become one whole line. Instead of seeing the left rail, the right rail, and everything else you would see a railroad track. At that point, the left and right rails have effectively become one, unable to tell them apart. Now what would happen if a train went down those rails that look like they became one? The train becomes smaller, or at least, it looks like the train is shrinking. At the time I could only think about how the teacher lost her mind. It wasn’t until I looked down a straight road that I realized how right she was.

After thinking about how perspective is everything I began to wonder what other things are different than they appear? I asked a friend, and she mentioned she actually had to unlearn some thing to be able to Fence (as in the sport) correctly. She told me that she had to change the way she extended her arm in order to be able to obtain the longest reach possible.

It turns out that a straight line with your arm is not the best way to have the longest reach. In all my learning, I had been taught that you to get the longest linear distance with line segments are to put each line segment end to end along the same axis. But in fencing, doing just that with your arm is not the longest. Why is fencing different?

When hold the sword in your hand, it seems that your muscles tighten to hold the load and your arm up. By tightening your muscles, you shorten your reach by as much as 2 inches for some people. When your muscles are relaxed, the joints can loosen allowing more space between the bones, which lengthens your arm. So by relaxing your arm a bit so it’s not parallel with the ground, your sword can reach just a little bit further.

Is math wrong when it comes to the physics of people and fencing? Absolutely not! In my case, it’s the model that the math was used on that was wrong. I assumed the arm was a rigid object with hinges at the shoulder, elbow, and wrist. Since I had modeled the arm in this fashion any math done to the model would never take into account the possibility of expansion of the hinges. Assumptions are the downfall of many people.