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Web life: Azimuth

29 Sep 2016
Taken from the September 2016 issue of Physics World

So what is the site about?

Azimuth is an interesting hybrid. In part, it’s the personal blog of John Carlos Baez, a mathematical physicist at the University of California, Riverside, whose current research focuses mainly on network theory. But it’s also the official blog of something called the Azimuth Project, which Baez set up “to create a focal point for scientists and engineers interested in saving the planet, and make clearly presented, accurate information on the relevant issues easy to find…we want to make it easy for any scientist or engineer to understand the whole problem and understand specialist literature in many subjects outside their particular domain of expertise”.

Who is it aimed at?

The site’s hybrid nature makes its readership hard to pigeonhole. The posts on the environment tend to be written for a general audience, in keeping with the Azimuth Project’s goal of promoting interdisciplinary working. The mathematical posts, in contrast, are often rather technical in nature, and most readers will reach a point where they can go no further. That said, even if you don’t manage to stick with Baez all the way to the end of a lengthy series of posts on (say) large finite ordinal numbers, you are guaranteed to come away having learned something fascinating, and he also provides plenty of links to help interested readers get up to speed.

What are some sample topics?

Over the past few months, Azimuth’s focus has been decidedly mathematical. Indeed, in a summer 2016 series of posts about topological crystals, Baez laments that he feels “a bit guilty putting so much work into this paper when I should be developing network theory to the point where it does our planet some good”. However, he goes on to observe that he needs “a certain amount of beautiful pure math to stay sane”, and with current environmental trends looking so un-beautiful (a recent Azimuth post on coral reefs is particularly sobering), it’s hard to begrudge him the pleasures of his topological retreat.

Can you give me a sample quote?

From a May 2016 post about an extremely long mathematical proof of the Boolean Pythagorean triples problem: “In the 1980s the mathematician Ronald Graham asked if it’s possible to colour each positive integer either red or blue, so that no triple of integers a,b,c obeying Pythagoras’ famous equation: a2 + b2 = c2 all have the same colour. He offered a prize of $100. Now it’s been solved! The answer is no. You can do it for numbers up to 7824…but you can’t do it for numbers up to 7825. To prove this, you could try all the ways of colouring these numbers and show that nothing works. Unfortunately that would require trying [a number that takes up an entire computer screen] possibilities. But recently, three mathematicians cleverly figured out how to eliminate most of the options. That left fewer than a trillion to check. So they spent two days on a supercomputer, running 800 processors in parallel, and checked all the options. None worked…This is one of the world’s biggest proofs: it’s 200 terabytes long! That’s about equal to all the digitized text held by the US Library of Congress. There’s also a 68-gigabyte digital signature – sort of a proof that a proof exists – if you want to skim it. It’s interesting that these 200 terabytes were used to solve a yes-or-no question, whose answer takes a single bit to state: no.”

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