Group Theory in the Bedroom, and Other Mathematical Diversions

I am an enthusiastic fan of Brian Hayes' "Computing Science" column in the Sigma Xi publication, American Scientist, which is the source of most of the essays in this book. Before that, I read his articles in The Sciences, a now-defunct but beautiful little magazine once published by the New York Academy of Sciences. Hayes claims not to be a mathematician, but he brings computer tools to bear on problems that use mathematical concepts that are familiar to most students of science. The title essay is the one that is most closely related to the chemistry curriculum. Schemes that guarantee that your mattress will get its lumps evened out when your turn it every few months is an application of group theory that I will use as an example in my quantum chemistry course. Another essay discusses the location of the "continental divide", a topological problem that may have occurred to you if you have ever driven across the country and seen markers for it in places that seem odd or impossible. "Inventing the Genetic Code" looks back at the 1950's, when it was not known how DNA/RNA specifies proteins to be synthesized. Elegant schemes were proposed by Gamov, Feynman, Teller and especially Crick, whose "adaptor hypothesis" is called by Hayes "the prettiest wrong idea in all of twentieth-century science". As it turned out, evolution thought of an even prettier one.

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Pick Attribution: 

Brian Hayes

Publication Date: 
Tuesday, January 1, 2008