As an infinite number of people have emailed in to tell me over the past 15 minutes, there’s a maths professor in Reading who reckons he’s been teaching schoolchildren to divide by zero. I’m not saying this is necessarily unbridled nonsense, but it’s interesting, for starters, that this spectacular breakthrough has only been picked up by a local TV newshound, and is being peer reviewed by schoolchildren.
It mainly seems to involve saying that the answer to a sum where you divide by zero is “not a number”, which is, as several people have pointed out, “not a breakthrough”. Computers can tell when they’re about to get a divide by zero error, and they are generally programmed to catch it. Even Excel has this feature. Planes do not drop out of the sky. Pacemakers do not stop firing. Anyway, not entirely my field but some entertaining commentary coming in. The BBC news story is archived below (they do have a tendency to change their stories after they appear on badscience…):
1200-year-old problem ‘easy’
Schoolchildren in Caversham have become the first in the country to learn about a new number – ‘nullity’ – which solves maths problems neither Newton nor Pythagoras could conquer.
Dr James Anderson, from the University of Reading’s computer science department, says his new theorem solves an extremely important problem – the problem of nothing. “Imagine you’re landing on an aeroplane and the automatic pilot’s working,” he suggests. “If it divides by zero and the computer stops working – you’re in big trouble. If your heart pacemaker divides by zero, you’re dead.”
Watch a video report from BBC South Today’s Ben Moore, then let Dr Anderson talk you through his theory in simple steps on the whiteboard:
[you can play Realplayer video without installing Realplayer: www.codecguide.com/about_real.htm ]
Computers simply cannot divide by zero. Try it on your calculator and you’ll get an error message.
But Dr Anderson has come up with a theory that proposes a new number – ‘nullity’ – which sits outside the conventional number line (stretching from negative infinity, through zero, to positive infinity).
The theory of nullity is set to make all kinds of sums possible that, previously, scientists and computers couldn’t work around.
“We’ve just solved a problem that hasn’t been solved for twelve hundred years – and it’s that easy,” proclaims Dr Anderson having demonstrated his solution on a whiteboard at Highdown School, in Emmer Green.
Highdown pupils: ‘confusing at first’
“It was confusing at first, but I think I’ve got it. Just about,” said one pupil.
“We’re the first schoolkids to be able to do it – that’s quite cool,” added another.
Despite being a problem tackled by the famous mathematicians Newton and Pythagoras without success, it seems the Year 10 children at Highdown now know their nullity.
Ian Jackson writes:
I haven’t done a detailed comparison but this marvellous new theory
which is going to revolutionise mathematics and computation bears a
striking resemblance to the theory underlying IEEE floating point
specification. IEEE floating point already contains a value `NaN’ aka
`Not a Number’, which is used (for example) for the result of division
by zero, and programs can choose to continue processing rather than be
interrupted (with the NaNs spreading through the computation).
Reading University’s staff page for him is this:
with a bunch of hyped-sounding stories under `In the News’.
But I wanted to read about this marvellous new mathematics, which
wasn’t listed there, so I looked at what is described as
“Dr. Anderson’s personal web page”
which is really quite nutty.
At least there’s a link to the marvellous division by zero `paper':
if you’re interested, division by zero does seem to have attracted eccentrics around the world over the years, most notably the excellent Theodore Rout (“And the law is their set of dividing and multiplying by zero… as long as they maintain their incorrect dividing and multiplying by zero, then they enable me to cause things to cease to exist, and that is why I have the power to do so”). Court transcripts for Rout below, they’re fantastic. And a prize for anyone who can get me the audio of the Rout hearing!
The BBC page now has this extra entry:
UPDATED: 11:50 GMT, 8 December 2006
“Given the, er, light-hearted mathematical debate Dr Anderson’s theory has generated, we’re delighted to announce he will join us on Tuesday 12 December to answer questions and discuss some of the criticisms levelled against his theory of ‘nullity’. You will be able to hear in more detail from Dr Anderson on this page later on Tuesday. Many thanks for your comments.”
Some great commentary below, the bottom line seems to be that this is not particularly new, that planes don’t drop out of the sky through divide by zero errors, that it’s a bit odd that he’s teaching this to children, and that it’s a bit odd that the BBC made it into a TV story.
For my own part, I would say I don’t think it’s very surprising that there are people like this academic out there who are, let’s say, very enthusiastic about their work. What is odd, to me, is not one man with a very slightly unusual take on their own idea: what is odd is a reporter, editor, producer, newsroom, team, cameraman, soundman, TV channel, web editor, web copy writer, and so on, all thinking it’s a good idea to cover a brilliant new scientific breakthrough whilst clearly knowing nothing about the context. Maths isn’t that hard, you could even make a call to a mathematician about it.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that it’s all very well for the BBC to think they’re being balanced and clever getting Dr Anderson back in to answer queries about his theory on Tuesday, but that rather skips the issue, and shines the spotlight quite unfairly on him (he looks like a very alright bloke to me).
I think from reading the commentary here and elsewhere that a lot of people might feel it’s reporter Ben Moore, and the rest of his doubtless extensive team, the people who drove the story, who we’d want to see answering the questions from the mathematicians.