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This is a quick example of how using Tracker software can generate a nice physics-related exploration.  I took a spring, and attached it to a stand with a weight hanging from the end.  I then took a video of the movement of the spring, and then uploaded this to Tracker.

Height against time

The first graph I generated was for the height of the spring against time.  I started the graph when the spring was released from the low point.  To be more accurate here you can calibrate the y axis scale with the actual distance.  I left it with the default settings.

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You can see we have a very good fit for a sine/cosine curve.  This gives the approximate equation:

y = -65cos10.5(t-3.4) – 195

(remembering that the y axis scale is x 100).

This oscillating behavior is what we would expect from a spring system – in this case we have a period of around 0.6 seconds.

Momentum against velocity

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For this graph I first set the mass as 0.3kg – which was the weight used – and plotted the y direction momentum against the y direction velocity.  It then produces the above linear relationship, which has a gradient of around 0.3.  Therefore we have the equation:

p = 0.3v

If we look at the theoretical equation linking momentum:

p = mv

(Where m = mass).  We can see that we have almost perfectly replicated this theoretical equation.

Height against velocity

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I generated this graph with the mass set to the default 1kg.  It plots the y direction against the y component velocity.  You can see from the this graph that the velocity is 0 when the spring is at the top and bottom of its cycle.  We can then also see that it reaches its maximum velocity when halfway through its cycle.  If we were to model this we could use an ellipse (remembering that both scales are x100 and using x for vy):

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If we then wanted to develop this as an investigation, we could look at how changing the weight or the spring extension affected the results and look for some general conclusions for this.  So there we go – a nice example of how tracker can quickly generate some nice personalised investigations!

Predicting the UK election using linear regression

The above data is the latest opinion poll data from the Guardian.  The UK will have (another) general election on June 8th.  So can we use the current opinion poll data to predict the outcome?

Longer term data trends

Let’s start by looking at the longer term trend following the aftermath of the Brexit vote on June 23rd 2016.  I’ll plot some points for Labour and the Conservatives and see what kind of linear regression we get.  To keep things simple I’ve looked at randomly chosen poll data approximately every 2 weeks – assigning 0 to July 1st 2016, 1 to mid July, 2 to August 1st etc.  This has then been plotted using the fantastic Desmos.


You can see that this is not a very good fit – it’s a very weak correlation.  Nevertheless let’s see what we would get if we used this regression line to predict the outcome in June.  With the x axis scale I’ve chosen, mid June 2017 equates to 23 on the x axis.  Therefore we predict the percentage as

y = -0.130(23) + 30.2

y  = 27%

Clearly this would be a disaster for Labour – but our model is not especially accurate so perhaps nothing to worry about just yet.


As with Labour we have a weak correlation – though this time we have a positive rather than negative correlation.  If we use our regression model we get a prediction of:

y = 0.242(23) + 38.7

y = 44%

So, we are predicting a crushing victory for the Conservatives – but could we get some more accurate models to base this prediction on?

Using moving averages

The Guardian’s poll tracker at the top of the page uses moving averages to smooth out poll fluctuations between different polls and to arrive at an averaged poll figure.  Using this provides a stronger correlation:


This model doesn’t take into account a (possible) late surge in support for Labour but does fir better than our last graph.  Using the equation we get:

y = -0.0764(23) + 28.8

y = 27%


We can have more confidence in using this regression line to predict the election.  Putting in the numbers we get:

y = 0.411(23) + 36.48

y = 46%


Our more accurate models merely confirm what we found earlier – and indeed what all the pollsters are predicting – a massive win for the Conservatives.  Even allowing for a late narrowing of the polls the Conservatives could be on target for winning by over 10% points – which would result in a very large majority.  Let’s see what happens!

Modelling a Nuclear War 

With the current saber rattling from Donald Trump in the Korean peninsula and the instability of North Korea under Kim Jong Un (incidentally a former IB student!) the threat of nuclear war is once again in the headlines.  Post Cold War we’ve got somewhat used to the peace afforded by the idea of mutually assured destruction – but this peace only holds with rational actors in charge of pushing the buttons.  The closest we have got to a nuclear war between 2 nuclear powers was in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis – and given the enormous nuclear arsenals of the US and the then USSR this could have pretty much ended civilization as we know it.  In that period, modelling of the effects of nuclear war was a real priority.  So let’s have a look at some current modelling  predictions for the effects of a nuclear war.  Those of a nervous disposition may wish to look away!

Nuclear blast radius

The picture at the top of the post is the nuclear blast radius calculated from this site.  It shows the effects of a 100 megaton airburst (equivalent to 100 million tonnes of TNT explosive).  This is the biggest nuclear bomb that the USSR ever tested.  If dropped on London it would have a fireball radius of 6km, an air blast radius of 33 km (destroying most buildings) and a thermal radiation radius of 74km.  The site estimates that this single bomb would cause 6 million deaths and another 6 million injuries.  And remember this is a single bomb – there are collectively around 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world (the majority shared between the US and Russia).

Nuclear Winter

Whilst the effects of a single bomb would be absolutely catastrophic for both a country and also for the global economy, it would not be an extinction event for humanity – however scientists have modelled the consequences of a nuclear war which would effect the climate to such an extent that it could lead to global mass extinctions.

Let’s have a look at one of those papers – the pessimistically titled:

Nuclear winter revisited with a modern climate model and current nuclear arsenals: Still catastrophic consequences.

In this paper the authors look at 2 scenarios – the long term climate effect of (a) the detonation of 1/3 of the world’s arsenal of nuclear weapons and (b) the detonation of the full arsenal of the world’s nuclear weapons.  Let’s leave to the side that this would almost certainly end civilisation as we know it – but what would be in store for those lucky (?) enough to survive such an event?

Changes to global temperature and rainfall

This above graphic is a double line graph – with the red lines relating to changes in temperature and the black line corresponding to the changes in precipitation.  The middle 2 lines relate to case (a) and the bottom 2 lines  relate to case (b).  The y axis relates to years.  You can see from this graph that a large nuclear war where 1/3 of the nuclear arsenal was released would have a significant effect on both global temperatures and rainfall.  5 years after the detonations you would have a global temperature 3-4 degrees lower than normal, and even a decade later it would still be a degree lower than normal.  For the full nuclear arsenal case the effects would be catastrophic – a average global drop in temperature of close to 9 degrees 2-3 years after the event.  To put this in context – the last ice age had global temperatures around 5 degrees lower than present.   Meanwhile the average rainfall would drop by around 1.6mm/day equivalent to a 45% global drop in rainfall.

Localised effects of changes in precipitation 

This above graphic shows the distribution of the effects of precipitation following the detonation of the full nuclear arsenal one year on.  You can see that not all parts of the globe are equally effected. The countries near the equator see a massive drop in rainfall (more than 3.5mm/day) along with large parts of North America and Western Europe

Localised effects in the change in temperatures:

This above graphic shows the distribution of the effects of temperature following the detonation of the full nuclear arsenal one year on.  As with the rainfall, you can see startling changes – parts of North America would be 20-30 degrees colder than average, parts of Russia 30-35 degrees colder.  You can see the misleading nature of global temperature averages here.  The global average temperature drop after 1 year was “only” 5 degree – but the parts where the majority of people live see temperature drops many times this.  The global average is brought up by the relatively small change in global ocean temperatures.

Results of a nuclear winter

These changes to the climate alone would be sufficient to destroy agricultural production for the global food chain for a number of years.  One gloomy assessment in 1986 referenced in the paper is that the majority of people who had somehow survived the nuclear bombs and radiation would in any case die in the following years of starvation as crops failed across the globe.  So in short given have the ability to cause our own extinction event, let’s hope those with their fingers on the nuclear buttons are rational enough never to press them.

traffic simulation

Simulations -Traffic Jams and Asteroid Impacts

This is a really good online Java app which has been designed by a German mathematician to study the mathematics behind traffic flow.  Why do traffic jams form?  How does the speed limit or traffic lights or the number of lorries on the road affect road conditions?   You can run a number of different simulations – looking at ring road traffic, lane closures and how robust the system is by applying an unexpected perturbation (like an erratic driver).

There is a lot of scope for investigation – with some prompts on the site.  For example, just looking at one variable – the speed limit – what happens in the lane closure model?  Interestingly, with a homogenous speed of 80 km/h there is no traffic congestion – but if the speed is increased to 140km/h then large congestion builds up quickly as cars are unable to change lanes.   This is why reduced speed limits  are applied on motorways during lane closures.

Another investigation is looking at how the style of driving affects the models.  You can change the politeness of the drivers – do they change lanes recklessly?  How many perturbations (erratic incidents) do you need to add to the simulation to cause a traffic jam?

This is a really good example of mathematics used in a real life context – and also provides some good opportunities for a computer based investigation looking at the altering one parameter at a time to note the consequences.


Another good simulation is on the Impact: Earth page.  This allows you to investigate the consequences of various asteroid impacts on Earth – choosing from different parameters such as diameter, velocity, density and angle of impact.  It then shows a detailed breakdown of thee consequences – such as crater size and energy released.   You can also model some famous impacts from history and see their effects.   Lots of scope for mathematical modelling – and also for links with physics.  Also possible discussion re the logarithmic Richter scale – why is this useful?

Student Handout

Asteroid Impact – Why is this important?
Comets and asteroids impact with Earth all the time – but most are so small that we don’t even notice. On a cosmic scale however, the Earth has seen some massive impacts – which were they to happen again today could wipe out civilisation as we know it.

The website Impact Earth allows us to model what would happen if a comet or asteroid hit us again. Jay Melosh professor of Physics and Earth Science says that we can expect “fairly large” impact events about every century. The last major one was in Tunguska Siberia in 1908 – which flattened an estimated 80 million trees over an area of 2000 square km. The force unleashed has been compared to around 1000 Hiroshima nuclear bombs. Luckily this impact was in one of the remotest places on Earth – had the impact been near a large city the effects could be catastrophic.

Jay says that, ”The biggest threat in our near future is the asteroid Apophis, which has a small chance of striking the Earth in 2036. It is about one-third of a mile in diameter.”

Task 1: Watch the above video on a large asteroid impact – make some notes.

Task 2:Research about Apophis – including the dimensions and likely speed of the asteroid and probability of collision. Use this data to enter into the Impact Earth simulation and predict the damage that this asteroid could do.

Task 3: Investigate the Tunguska Event. When did it happen? What was its diameter? Likely speed? Use the data to model this collision on the Impact Earth Simulation. Additional: What are the possible theories about Tunguska? Was it a comet? Asteroid? Death Ray?

Task 4: Conduct your own investigation on the Impact Earth Website into what factors affect the size of craters left by impacts. To do this you need to change one variable and keep all the the other variables constant.  The most interesting one to explore is the angle of impact.  Keep everything else the same and see what happens to the crater size as the angle changes from 10 degrees to 90 degrees.  What angle would you expect to cause the most damage?  Were you correct?  Plot the results as a graph.

If you enjoyed this post you might also like:

Champagne Supernovas and the Birth of the Universe – some amazing photos from space.

Fractals, Mandelbrot and the Koch Snowflake – using maths to model infinite patterns.


Maths of Global Warming – Modeling Climate Change

The above graph is from NASA’s climate change site, and was compiled from analysis of ice core data. Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) drilled into thick polar ice and then looked at the carbon content of air trapped in small bubbles in the ice. From this we can see that over large timescales we have had large oscillations in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. During the ice ages we have had around 200 parts per million carbon dioxide, rising to around 280 in the inter-glacial periods. However this periodic oscillation has been broken post 1950 – leading to a completely different graph behaviour, and putting us on target for 400 parts per million in the very near future.

Analysising the data


One of the fields that mathematicians are always in demand for is data analysis. Understanding data, modeling with the data collected and using that data to predict future events. Let’s have a quick look at some very simple modeling. The graph above shows a superimposed sine graph plotted using Desmos onto the NOAA data.

y = -0.8sin(3x +0.1) – 1

Whilst not a perfect fit, it does capture the general trend of the data and its oscillatory behaviour until 1950. We can see that post 1950 we would then expect to be seeing a decline in carbon dioxide rather than the reverse – which on our large timescale graph looks close to vertical.

Dampened Sine wave


This is a dampened sine wave, achieved by adding e-x to the front of the sine term.  This achieves the result of progressively reducing the amplitude of the sine function.  The above graph is:

y = e-0.06x (-0.6sin(3x+0.1) -1 )

This captures the shape in the middle of the graph better than the original sine function, but at the expense of less accuracy at the left and right.

Polynomial Regression


We can make use of Desmos’ regression tools to fit curves to points.  Here I have entered a table of values and then seen which polynomial gives the best fit:



We can see that the purple cubic fits the first 5 points quite well (with a high R² value).  So we should be able to create a piecewise function to describe this graph.

Piecewise Function


Here I have restricted the domain of the first polynomial (entered below):


Second polynomial:



Third polynomial:



Fourth polynomial:



Finished model:


Shape of model:


We would then be able to fit this to the original model scale by applying a vertical translation (i.e add 280), vertical and horizontal stretch.  It would probably have been easier to align the scales at the beginning!  Nevertheless we have the shape we wanted.

Analysing the models

Our piecewise function gives us a good data fit for the domain we were working in – so if we then wanted to use some calculus to look at non horizontal inflections (say), this would be a good model to use.  If we want to analyse what we would have expected to happen without human activity, then the sine models at the very start are more useful in capturing the trend of the oscillations.

Post 1950s


Looking on a completely different scale, we can see the general tend of carbon dioxide concentration post 1950 is pretty linear.  This time I’ll scale the axis at the start.  Here 1960 corresponds with x = 0, and 1970 corresponds with x = 5 etc.



Actually we can see that a quadratic fits the curve better than a linear graph – which is bad news, implying that the rates of change of carbon in the atmosphere will increase.  Using our model we can predict that on current trends in 2030 there will be 500 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere.

Stern Report

According to the Stern Report, 500ppm is around the upper limit of what we need to aim to stabalise the carbon levels at (450ppm-550ppm of carbon equivalent) before the economic and social costs of climate change become economically catastrophic.  The Stern Report estimates that it will cost around 1% of global GDP to stablise in this range.  Failure to do that is predicted to lock in massive temperature rises of between 3 and 10 degrees by the end of the century.

If you are interested in doing an investigation on this topic:

  1. Plus Maths have a range of articles on the maths behind climate change
  2. The Stern report is a very detailed look at the evidence, graphical data and economic costs.

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