Author Archives: adamvicioushoward

About adamvicioushoward

I do Mathematics for fun. Also, I am a cat enthusiast.

Infinite Series and the Riemann Hypothesis

I was fascinated by studying infinite series in calculus; the idea of adding up infinitely many elements and possibly having a finite number was not intuitive for me at first. These problems can help in bridging the gap between philosophical and practical aspects of mathematics. For instance, the famous Zeno’s paradox argues the impossibility of movement based on the infinite divisibility of space. With this paradox and assuming you have a certain distance to travel, you must first travel half that distance and then you must travel half the remaining distance, and then again half of the remaining distance and so on forever. So looking at this problem it seems as if we might not ever be able to get anywhere. However, if you were to stand a certain distance away from a wall and then attempt to do this, at some point you would undoubtedly walk yourself right into the wall. So is mathematics lying to us?

The answer no, this problem can be represented as an infinite series, 1/(2n) from n = 1 to n = infinity, which represents adding up the following elements (1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + 1/16 …). The problem is that we could never physically add up the infinitely many terms on a piece of paper, or even in all the books filling a library. What we can do is add up a portion of the sum, called a partial sum, to some nth element. Once we find the partial sum we can use calculus to take the limit as n grows increasing larger to infinity and see if we arrive, or converge, to a finite number. So for the series above, the partial sum can be represented as  1 – 1/(2n), and after taking the limit as n approaches infinity the second term goes to 0 and we are left with 1, a finite number. Even though you are adding up infinitely many elements, after traveling deep into your series, the elements that you are appending to the sum become so small that they are negligible to the total sum. These types of problems appear often in mathematics and especially integral calculus. In order to find the area under a curve in calculus we end up taking Riemann sums, drawing rectangles under the curve to approximate the area. Then we examine these sums when we take more and more smaller rectangles (infinitely many) that better approximate the area and eventually our our approximation turns into the actual solution. Infinite series appear all over in mathematics.

Perhaps the most famous mathematical problem is the unsolved Riemann Hypothesis. This problem deals with finding the roots of the Riemann Zeta Function which itself is an infinite series. This function maps a complex number s to the series (1/1s + 1/2s + … + 1/ns) from n = 1 to n = infinity, or more formally written as:

RiemannZeta This function is defined for all complex numbers where the real part is greater than 1. This means that plugging in a complex number with real part greater than 1, the series will add up to, or converge to, a finite number. The mathematician for which the Zeta function was named after, Bernhard Riemann, was able to prove an analytic continuation of this function so that it is defined for all complex numbers s, except s = 1.

An analytic continuation is a technique used in complex analysis to extend the domain of an analytic function. The method is to find a new function which is defined over a larger domain. If the new function equals the old function on the intersection between the original function’s domain and the new function’s domain, then the new function is called an analytic continuation of the original function. So in the case of the Riemann Zeta function, an analytic continuation would be a new function which is defined exactly the same as the Zeta Function for complex values where the real part is greater than 1. However, the analytic continuation would also be defined on a larger domain, where complex values with real part less than one also have a value. For instance, plugging in the value s = -1 into the original Riemann Zeta Function would result in the series 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + … off to infinity, which most of us will clearly recognize as being a divergent series. However, it is often said, especially in physics and string theory, that 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + … = -1/12. This is because by use of Riemann’s analytic continuation, ζ(-1) = -1/12. Using this technique, all complex numbers besides s = 1, are defined for the Riemann Zeta Function. For s = 1 the function outputs the harmonic series, 1/1 + 1/2 + 1/3 + 1/4 + 1/5 + … This series is not always clear to those who are first learning about convergence and divergence. The function 1/n tends to zero as it grows, but using methods in calculus we are able to prove that it is actually a divergent series and that it sums to infinity. Riemann was not able to account for this series in his analytic continuation, so the value s = 1 is a single pole, or singularity, where the function is undefined.

Some of the roots of the Zeta function are obvious to mathematicians, such as all of the negative even integers. Riemann conjectured that all other non-trivial roots would have a real part of 1/2, meaning on the complex plane all nontrivial roots would fall on the line Re[1/2]. However, while we have found many roots on this critical line (millions) this conjecture has yet to be proven. This is one of the Millennium Problems, so whoever does end up proving or disproving this will receive a prize of one million dollars awarded from the Clay Mathematics Institute. This problem is not simply about finding where a function equals, but has deep connections with number theory and specifically with the distribution of prime numbers where other proofs are yet to be complete without it.

Convergent infinite series are really interesting and not necessarily intuitive upon a first learning about them. Sometimes you can worry yourself thinking about the notion of infinity or the infinitesimal, it is hard to relate to something so large or small. The idea of zero is a little easier because we are more comfortable with the idea of nothing, but “a number smaller than any other number” is hard to wrap your mind around. So adding up these numbers that are practically nothing, but still something, seems like such an incredible mathematical achievement to me.


Boyer, Carl B., and Uta C. Merzbach. A History of Mathematics. 3rd ed. Hoboken, NJ: Jon Wiley and Sons, 2010. Print.

Davis, Philip J., and Reuben Hersh. The Mathematical Experience. Birkhauser Boston, 1981. Print

Sondow, Jonathan and Weisstein, Eric W. “Riemann Zeta Function.”


Transition from Euclidean to Non-Euclidean Geometry

Euclidean geometry is the geometry that everyone learns and uses throughout Middle School and High School. In general, geometry is the study of figures, such as points, lines and circles in space. Euclidean geometry is specifically any geometry in which all of Euclid’s postulates and axioms hold. Axioms and postulates are the beginning of reasoning, they are simple statements that are believed to be true without proof. Assuming Euclid’s axioms and postulates found in his book Elements, the rest of Euclid’s classical geometry could be deduced. However, Euclid’s fifth postulate, the parallel postulate, was disconcerting because it was lengthy compared to the rest and not necessarily self evident. Many other ancient mathematicians were dissatisfied with Euclid’s fifth postulate. They thought that it was presumptuous and tried to prove it using lesser axioms or replace it altogether with something they thought to be more intuitive. But their proofs always included an assumption equivalent to the parallel postulate, so for centuries the postulate was assumed to be true.

Centuries passed and the postulate remained unproven; however, development to understand Euclid’s postulate continued into the eighteenth century. Perhaps the most well-known equivalent to the parallel postulate is Playfair’s Axiom, which states “through any point in the plane, there is at most one straight line parallel to a given straight line.” Arguably one of the most influential mathematicians, Carl Friedrich Gauss became interested in proving Euclid’s fifth postulate. After attempting to prove the postulate, he instead took Playfair’s Axiom and altered it, creating a completely new postulate. Gauss’ new postulate stated “Through a given point not on a line, there are at least two lines parallel to the given line through the given point.” With this Gauss had unearthed a completely new space that today is called hyperbolic geometry. However, he chose not to publish any of his results, wishing not to get caught up in any political strife. The work was later published  by Johann Bolyai and Nikolay Lobachevesky, who both had academic ties to Gauss.

Shortly after this discovery another type of Non-Euclidean geometry was discovered by Gauss’ student Georg Friedrich Bernhard Riemann. Riemann looked at what would happen when you altered Playfiar’s Axiom in the opposite direction than Gauss. Riemann’s alternate postulate is stated as follows, “through a given point not on a line, there exist no lines parallel to the line through the given point.” With this, what is known as elliptical or spherical geometry was discovered.

Spherical geometry. Image: Anders Sandberg via Flickr.

Spherical geometry. Image: Anders Sandberg via Flickr.

Spherical geometry provides a somewhat simpler model then hyperbolic geometry. Anyone who has ever attempted to wrap a basketball in paper understands that there are some discrepancies between the two surfaces. For instance, triangles behave quite differently than they do in Euclidean geometry. In hyperbolic space, the angles of a triangle add up to less than 180 degrees, and in spherical space, they add up to more than 180 degrees. Spherical geometry also has other inconsistencies with Euclid’s initial assumptions other than the parallel postulate. In Leonard Mlodinow’s book Euclid’s Window, the author describes how Riemann’s space was inconsistent with other of Euclid’s postulates. For instance, Euclid’s second postulate states that “any line segment can be extended indefinitely in either direction.” In spherical space this is not true; the lines, or great circles, have a limit to their space, namely two pi times the radius of the sphere. Mlodinow describes how Riemann saw this postulate as “only necessary to guarantee that the lines had no bounds, which is true of the great circles.” Also, Euclid’s first postulate became less clear, “Given any two points, a line segment can be drawn with those points as its endpoints.” This postulate can be used to easily describe whether a point is between two other points. However, on the globe, choosing two points on the equator such as Ecuador and Indonesia it is difficult to say whether a third point, Kenya, is “between” them. The problem is that there are two ways to connect the points, one passing over North America and another passing over Africa.

For much of our day to day lives Euclidean geometry works great, because on a local scale we appear to live on a flat world. I can go to a soccer field and trust that it will take four 90 degree turns to walk around the perimeter, or that the Pythagorean theorem will work to describe the path between opposite corners. But looking at a larger scale, the surface that we live on is spherical and has different properties than the flat plane. It is interesting to see how Gauss and Riemann, going against the grain of conventional mathematics, led to new and vast fields of undiscovered mathematics. To me, this shows how mathematics is just as much an experimental science as physics or engineering. These new discoveries of mathematical spaces made possible Einstein’s physical description of the space in which we live. Mlodinow closes his section on Gauss and Riemann saying, “though thoroughly remodeled, geometry continued to be the window to understanding our universe.” Even though the properties of these new geometries differ from classic Euclidean geometry and may have more or less practical use, they are just as important. From Euclid up until Gauss, mathematics was largely pragmatic, but the discovery of these new geometries highlights how math can be appreciated for its own sake.


Case, William A. Euclidean vs. Non Euclidean Geometries. Web.

Boyer, Carl B., and Uta C. Merzbach. A History of Mathematics. 3rd ed. Hoboken, NJ: Jon Wiley and Sons, 2010. Print.

Mlodinow, Leonard. Euclid’s Window. Touchstone New York, 2001. Print

Weisstein, Eric W. “Non-Euclidean Geometry.”

Mathematical Mindset

Image: Tom Blackwell, via flickr.

Image: Tom Blackwell, via flickr.

Upon discussing ancient Indian math, the point was brought up about whether or not it would be beneficial learn Vedic-Math, involving various techniques to do rapid mental calculations. The basic argument is that it provides quick arithmetic tricks and may be able to get more people interested in mathematics. However, with these techniques only the computation gets mastered and the idea behind the computation is lost. Again I was reminded of this while studying about Diophantus and his book, Arithmetica, because the text is largely computational and gives many worked out examples while forgoing formal proofs. Mathematics is such a broad and universal subject, and as such everyone has a unique experience and mindset when it comes to math. Some people gravitate more towards formal proof and generality, while others gravitate towards computation and specific solutions. The fact that Arithmetica was more a collection of problems in Algebra’s applications instead of an Algebra textbook shows how ancient the dichotomy of mathematical mindset is. This is especially evident among different professions. An accountant and an electrical engineer or a physicist and a mathematician may see the same problem in a completely different light.

From a physicist’s viewpoint mathematics is a model. Philip Davis and Reuben Hersh’s book, The Mathematical Experience, devotes a section to a physicist’s viewpoint towards mathematical rigor. In the section they interview one anonymous physicist to which they considered his scientific feelings to be general. I found this physicist’s thoughts on mathematical proof to be interesting. “To him, proofs were relatively uninteresting and they were largely unnecessary in his personal work. […] Proof is for cosmetic purposes and also to reduce somewhat the edge of insecurity on which one always lives.” The physicist also describes how questions of generality and truth are not important to him because all scientific work is “of provisional nature.” Physicists and engineers simply view mathematics as a toolkit to move them from one end of their problem to the other. It doesn’t need to be rigorously proven and generalized so long as the answer makes sense in the specific circumstance. Computation is critical when dealing with problems of a physical nature, but how important is it when it comes to teaching and learning difficult concepts?

Perhaps the most important aspect of having different mathematical mindsets is how they affect those that we teach. Communicating a mathematical idea can be just as difficult as learning it in the first place, so it is critical to understand how effective imposing one mindset or the other is. These different frames of mind are brilliantly presented in a paper written by Frederick Reif from the University of California at Berkeley titled, Interpretation of Scientific or Mathematical Concepts: Cognitive Issues and Instructional Implications. Reif discusses various ways to interpret a scientific concept and the advantages and disadvantages each have.

The mindset that involves generality for all solutions of a problem Reif refers to as declarative specification. Declarative specification relies on stored knowledge that defines a concept explicitly by its characterizing features, which could be shown as a proof of a theorem. Reif states that while declarative specifications can be precise and general, the disadvantage lies in translating the interpretation because it may be ambiguous and lead to faulty intuition. An example of this would be interpreting the concept acceleration as the rate of change in velocity with respect to time, written more compactly as dv/dt. While this example is explicit and seems elementary towards an expert, it is important to look at this objectively and consider how others might interpret it. Someone who is just learning calculus or physics may not fully understand earlier concepts such as derivatives or vectors and this new concept can then be misinterpreted.

Reif refers to the interpretation process based on computation and example as procedural specification. The interpretation involves “implementing [a] procedure in the particular instance of interest.” Procedural specifications provide more detailed and explicit specifications for a problem and often an easier starting point. In the example of interpreting the concept of acceleration, one would implement specific steps to break down the general idea into smaller problems. They would measure velocity at different points in time, take the difference in velocity, take the difference in time, and then take the ratio of the differences. Some of the disadvantages of this type of interpretation are that it is often more lengthy and certain aspects of the general case may be brushed over.

My own experience involves both of these mindsets. During my first semester at the University I had a teaching assistant in my calculus class that insisted that if I was able to understand the general case I would be able to solve any problem. This turned out to be true for many of the topics in my math classes. However, this was not the case for my physics courses, where if I had not had significant practice working through specific examples I would not have understood the concept at hand. Experts often teach solely towards the general case because that is how they were taught to view a problem. I think it would be beneficial to incorporate both ways to view a problem to appeal towards all mindsets.  Elaboration toward specific examples with specific solutions may cause others who get lost by the generality and abstraction to further understand and see the larger picture. Both viewpoints have their benefits and together they provide a good balance while working to solve problems. It could also be beneficial for someone who is entirely engrained in their viewpoint to try and understand a topic from another perspective. Computation and theory are equally important and each provide meaning for the other.


Bellos, Alex. “Nirvana by Numbers.” BBC Radio. British Broadcasting Corporation, 28 Oct. 2013. Web. 1 Sept. 2014.

Boyer, Carl B., and Uta C. Merzbach. A History of Mathematics. 3rd ed. Hoboken, NJ: Jon Wiley and Sons, 2010. Print.

Davis, Philip J., and Reuben Hersh. The Mathematical Experience. Birkhauser Boston, 1981. Print

Reif, Frederick. Interpretation of Scientific or Mathematical Concepts: Cognitive Issues and Instructional Implications. Cognitive Science, Volume 11, Issue 4. Oct. 1987. Online.