AMITIAE - Monday 9 April 2012

Minds of Modern Mathematics: IBM History app for the iPad

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By Graham K. Rogers

The Bayeux Tapestry, now displayed in Normandy, is a depiction of events surrounding the Norman conquest of England. Like an extended cartoon, with its timeline it tells a story on cloth using a timeline. IBM have produced the story of mathematics in the form of a timeline, but in the more modern form of an app for the iPad.

Minds of Modern Mathematics

The inspiration for the Minds of Modern Mathematics app is a 50-foot installation, entitled "Minds off Modern Mathematics" by Charles and Ray Eames conceived for the 1961 exhibition Mathematica: A World of Numbers . . . and Beyond it covers almost 1,000 years of mathematical developments.

The app is set up so that the information can be viewed in several ways. The basic timeline, extending from the year 1,000 until the 1950s and a "Millenium View". Clicking on any part of this, brings down the timeline, displaying the period that was selected in the Millenium View.

Modern Mathematics

With the timelines, as well as significant events and persons shown, there are also items of Art displayed to put the whole in a historical context: zeitgeist. More context is available using icons above the screen, when in landscape mode. A calendar icon brings down a parallel timeline with historical events, while beside this an icon (like a circle with an arrow through it) that displays a timeline of historical persons: from Oma Kayyam to John on Neumann.

Modern Mathematics

Items in the main timeline are displayed in two ways: as image icons or as time bands (white, green or blue). Clicking on the image icons brings up a panel with a larger picture and a text explanation. The green bands are related to the images. Pressing these brings up the same panel with information and the image. The white bands are references to historical people connected in some way to mathematics.

Modern Mathematics

Tapping on any of these brings up an information panel. This does not appear when the historical persons timeline is used, so is only available in the main timeline. Blue bands contain historical factlets. Some have + con at the bottom right and when the band is tapped these reveal a pop-up panel with a small text description, such as "1646 Rinieri, improving a device of Galileo's, invents the thermometer. Mercury will be substituted for water in 1670."

At the bottom of the timeline in landscape mode is a slider. Users may move it left or right to advance (or go back) along the timeline. Below are 5 icons. The timeline is the center icon and is blue when pressed. To the far left is an icon that reveals a facsimile of the original display. Although the entries look too small to read on the iPad, using the two finger "pinch" gesture enlarges them (as much as full screen) so they may be examined better.

Modern Mathematics

An "i" icon displays an introductory screen for the app that precedes the timeline, while a star icon shows the screen after the timeline: Acknowledgements. A final icon opens a panel that accesses 9 videos of an older vintage, including Exponents (1971) by Charles and Ray Eames and a short film on Babbage's Difference Engine (1968).

If the iPad is held in portrait mode, each of the entries in the app is displayed as a separate panel. These can be scrolled through using left and right arrows at the bottom of the screen. The scrolling bar can also be used to run through the panel series fairly quickly.


There are some omissions, particularly Einstein and Turing from the last century and there is no mention of the development of Colossus, arguably the first analytical computer while ENIAC is included. While Einstein was a physicist and Turing one of the pioneers of computing, their influences on thinking and their use of maths were considerable.

The IBM press release tells users that there are "more than 500 biographies, milestones and images of artifacts culled from the Mathematica exhibit" included in the app which is released as part of the centenary celebrations of Ray Eames' birth.

The full display of data is a little less easy to read because of the size at which it is displayed. There is a good case here for one of the Apple connectors so that the screen may be projected onto a larger (HDTV or projector) screen. As such this would make an excellent series of lessons in a classroom or by individual access.

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs.



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