Terry Tao’s MoMath Talk Part 2: Clocks and Mars

Last week I wrote about finding Terry Tao’s incredible public lecture delivered at the  Museum of Math and how that lecture provides many great examples you can use to talk about math with kids:

Terry Tao’s MoMath Lecture Part 1: The Earth and the Moon

for ease, the direct link to the Terry Tao lecture  is here:

Today I wanted to use a second example from that lecture for a little math talk with the boys.  This topic comes from approximately 42:30 into the video when Tao discusses Copernicus’s calculation of how long it took Mars to orbit the sun.   This calculation is an incredible scientific achievement, especially when you consider that telescopes hadn’t even been invented yet!

In the lecture Tao describes the remarkable story behind the calculation, but does not go into the details of the calculation itself.  To be clear, that’s not a criticism – the point of his lecture was to tell the story not to dive into the details.  Exploring the details of this particular calculation is a great topic to discuss with kids, though.  The only background material required is some basic knowledge about fractions.

We began this morning by watching the (approximately) 5 minute portion of the talk in which Tao describes how Copernicus calculated the time it took for Mars to Orbit the sun.  Following that we went to the whiteboard to talk about what we learned, and to head down the path of understanding the calculation in detail.   The starting point I chose for understanding the calculation is asking questions about the angles formed by the hands of clocks.

I will say at the start that it was a little harder for my kids than I was expecting.  The discussion and the explanations below are not at all flawless and have several false starts.  As I’ve said many times, that’s what learning math (and, in this case, a little physics) looks like.  Watching the films of this discussion prior to publishing this post has reinforced my feeling that Tao’s lecture  is a great spring board to talking math with kids.

Having looked at a few examples of when the angles between the hour hand and minute hand of a clock would be zero, in the next part of the talk we began to try to drill down on the math.  The starting point for the discussion here was the observation by my older son that the minute hand moves 12x faster than the hour hand.    In this video we try to write down some expressions that describe how fast the two hands of the clocks are moving:

The next step was writing down an equation that told us how far the hour and minute hands would move in “t” minutes.  In retrospect I wish I would have made a different choice in the approach here since jumping directly to the algebra made a simple idea a little harder than it needed to be.   If I could do it again I’d probably cover the ideas in this video nearly in reverse (and I’m annoyed with myself for getting frequency and period reversed, too.  Can’t get everything right . . . .)

However, even with the little bit of extra time that introducing the algebra at the wrong moment led to, the discussion here did get us to an equation that looked a lot like the equation Terry Tao had written down in his presentation slides.

At the end of the last video we got to an equation that helps us understand when the hands of a clock are exactly on top of each other – now we solve it!  Solving this equation is a great exercise for kids who have a little familiarity with fractions.  We sort of stumble out of the gates with the solution, but once we get on the right track we actually get to the end in sort of a neat way.

With all of this background out of the way we can return to the equation that Terry Tao had in his presentation.  We being this part by briefly talking about difference between our clock equation and the equation that Copernicus solved..  After that introduction we solve the equation and determine how long it takes for Mars to orbit the Sun!

I’m really excited about using more examples from Terry Tao’s lecture to talk math with kids.  There are so many great things about this lecture – for instance the incredible historical information and the great opportunity to see Terry Tao speak on an accessible topic – but for me the new examples the talk contains for talking  about some basic school math with kids is the best thing about this public lecture.    Who would have thought that calculating the orbit of Mars just boiled down to simple fractions?!?


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