Saturday, 28 November 2009

The Mathematics of Rivers



Dave Richeson, who writes the Division by Zero blog is an Associate Professor of Mathematics at Dickinson College and also the author of a really good math book, " Euler's Gem: The polyhedron formula and the birth of topology" from Princeton University Press.


He also just introduced me to a word I didn't know, potamology, from the Greek ποταμός, river. The word is the technical name for the study of Rivers. Incredibly, there is some really cool math and statistics involved in the study of rivers. For one thing, they are sort of fractal, or as Dave explained it, " the size of a river cannot be determined by its shape on a map. In particular, if you looked at an aerial snapshot of a meandering river, you would not be able to tell whether it is the Amazon or a small neighborhood stream!"

Dave goes on to relate how a the distance between two meanders in a river are related to its width. If we let the width be w, and lamda be the distance between the beginning and ending of one not-quite-sinusoidal period of the meander, then lamda = 11w.
For stats kids, he also posts a regression plot of the actual ratio between meander length and channel width....stats in action baby.

Go to Dave's site and read the whole thing.... he has cool pictures for examples also, including the one above.
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