Archive for the ‘10 Biggest mathematical Disasters in the World’ Category


10 Biggest Mathematical Disasters in the World

October 20, 2009

tulip graph CorrectionThe millennium bug or the Y2K bug was going to cause planes to fall from the sky, bank accounts to be wiped out, electricity grids to cease functioning, trains to crash, cars to collide as stop lights stopped functioning, life support units to malfunction and computers to crash around the globe. For years leading up to midnight on New Years eve 1999 consults were paid extraordinary amounts of money to solve the problem.  When the clock ticked over to 1st Jan 2000 nothing much happened. It was, indeed, a non-event, an error in logic.y2k (Pic from, appropriately, 

y2k2The Maths Error: Guessing the Answer.

Computer programmers represented the year in the date of many programs using two digits but claimed logical errors would arise upon “rollover” from x99 to x00.

While consultants claimed their advice saved the world from catastrophe countries that spent very little on the Y2K bug problem (eg. Italy and South Korea) experienced as few problems as those who had spent a good deal of money on the bug eradication namely USA and UK. The solution: Don’t guess. Test parts of system by plugging in x00.


2 Tulip Mania

October 20, 2009

180px-TulipomaniaTulip Mania represents all economic bubbles. This bubble began in Holland in November 1636 when the price of tulip bulbs started to rise. Tulips became fashionable with fashionable names ( eg. Alexander the Great). Bulbs were sold before they had been dug up.  Like all bubbles it ‘popped’.  (See Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, written by British journalist Charles Mackay in 1841.)

There have been many over the years from the Railway Bubble (1840s USA) to the property bubble (2007).  A stock market bubble brought about the Great Depression in the 1930s. There have also been bubbles in mining shares, computer shares (Dot Com Bubble),  art and the growing or breeding of llamas, ostriches and aloe vera. 


The Maths Error: Assuming a Graph is Linear!!!!

 tulip graph

People look at graphs and assume they straight-line graphs.  But many graphs are not based on a rule or formula but rather hope. And when hope crashes so does the value of the stock.

Take note mathspigs is because Sports Cards, comics, collectibles (eg. Bean Kids) and memorabilia (eg. Signed shirts etc) can also be prone to crashes in the school yard.  If the price for any product is unbelievable … don’t believe it!!!! There will be kids or others out there trying to tell you ‘Don’t worry. The prices are still rising.’


3 The Millennium Bridge UK

October 20, 2009

millennium bridgeThe Millennium Bridge a suspension footbridge across the Thames River in the heart of London costing $Aus 32 million opened on 10th June 2000. It closed half an hour later as pedestrians were being knocked off their feet by the swaying bridge.

The Maths Error: Designing 3D Bridge in 2D

The three big mistakes, often catastrophic, in engineering are maths, materials or human error (ie. Hitting the pylon of a bridge with a ship. Tasman Bridge Collapse Hobart.. 1975). The Millennium Bridge was a maths problem. The bridge was designed in 2D. The engineers allowed for up and down movement but not sideways movement. Any kid running across suspension bridge in a playground knows that as you run it wobbles sideways! The bridge’s movements were caused by a ‘positive feedback’ phenomenon, known as Synchronous Lateral Excitation or wobbles. It cost $Aus 9 million to dampen the bridge wobble.millennium bridge 2

A similar maths problem with suspension bridge design involves harmonics. If the wind keeps adding an extra nudge each time the bridge sways and the bridge has not been designed to dampen this effect it can break apart. (See Galloping Gertie. 1940 Bridge Tacoma Narrows Bridge Collapse. Watch for guy who saves dog from car. )


4 NASA Mars Climate Orbiter

October 20, 2009

Mars_Climate_Orbiter_during_testsThe unmannedNASA Mars Climate Orbiter reached Mars and executed a 16 minute 23 second main engine burn on 23rd September 1999 to establish an orbit around Mars at 150km. It orbited behind Mars and was never heard from again.

The Maths Error: Oops! Muddled Units of Length!

The Mars Climate Orbiter, which cost $Aus 136 million, disappeared because a Lockheed Martin engineering team used Imperial measurements while the JPL (Jet Propulsion Lab) team used the more conventional metric system. The wrong navigation information was sent to the Mars Climate Orbiter. It most likely burnt up in the atmosphere.

Mars_Polar_Lander_undergoes_testing2nd NASA DISASTER: On 3rd December 1999, the Mars Polar Lander, the sister spacecraft to the Mars Climate Orbiter, crashed on Mars. Units were not believed to be the problem. Total cost of the Mars Program: $ Aus358 million.


After burning up almost $0.5 billion in crashed/ashed Mars probes, NASA finally hit pay dirt. Unfortunately, the final cost of landing Curiosity on Mars blew the budget $0.9 billion over the budget estimates.


UPDATE: $2.5 Billion Eagle has Landed

On 6 Aug 2012 NASA landed the plutonium-powered rover the size of a small car called CURIOSITY (pic)  on Mars. According to the New York Times the original cost of landing Curiosity on Mars was estimated to be $1.6 billion. But following technical delays and further costs of $0.9 Billion, the rover was finally launched successfully. You can gain an idea of the size of the Mars rover Curiosity from the pic shown from Cosmos Magazine.


5 The Superconducting Super Collider

October 20, 2009

ssupercollider_tunnelThe USA Superconducting Super Collider was to be the forerunner to the Large Hadron Collider, which has been built near Geneva, Switzerland. The two colliders send proton beams hurtling in opposite directions at speeds approaching the speed of light to smash into one another. Physicists have a mathematical model for the atom called the Standard Model. It predicts the existence of such particles as the Higgs Boson. The Hadron experiments could confirm predictions made by the Standard Model.

The Maths Error: Assuming Mathematicians Can count!

How can we, the public, have faith in mathematical models put forward by mathematicians who cannot add up a few dollars to arrive at realistic costs? The initial cost of the US Superconducting Super Collider was $Aus 4.35 Billion in 1987. When the project was cancelled in 1993 the cost had blown out to $Aus 13.0 Billion. 22 km of tunnel had been constructed near Fort Worth Texas when the Congress cancelled the project. The end result was a big hole in the ground costing  $Aus 2.2 Billion. (Expensive Hole in the Ground pic LEFT)

COLLIDER TRAGEDY 2: The Large Hadron Collider (Pic BELOW) started up on 10th September 2008 and was shut down on 18th September 2008. It is due to restart in Nov 2009. It final cost is estimated at $Aus 20 Billion.collider_2009



UPDATE: 4 JUL 2012


On the 4 July 2012 CERN announced that they had the proof (It is a statistical likelihood) that the Higgs Boson particle exists.

Forbes magazine estimates the cost of finding the Higgs Boson particle to be $13.25 billion so far. The running costs for the Big Hadron Collider at CERN are $5.5 billion annually. The electricity costs for the Large Hadron Collider are a staggering $23.5 million a year.
But many ask is the Large Hadron Collider a luxury we can no longer afford? The Guardian 22 Sept 2009


6 Air Canada Flight 143

October 20, 2009

Boeing767On 23rd July 1983 Air Canada Flight 143, a Boeing 767 ran out of fuel at 41,000 feet (12,000m) altitude, about halfway through its flight from Montreal to Edmonton. The crew managed to glide the aircraft safely to an emergency landing at Gimli Industrial Park Airport, a former airbase at Manitoba. This was some challenge. No fuel means no engines. No engines means no electronics, no steerage, no navigation. An emergency propellor driven dynamo ( similar to that used to produce light on bikes) dropped down on an arm under the plane to produce basic power for steerage. Navigation had to be by sight or calculation of speed etc. That involved some maths, mathspigs. There were no fatalities.

The Maths Error: Oops again! Muddling units of volume!

The first error was that the fuel tank gauge wasn’t working. It was to be replaced in Edmonton. The second error was a maths error. The ground crew filled the tanks according to their records. The fuel requirements were assumed to be in litres but they had been recorded in gallons.quart(Pic Right : Quarter of a Gallon)

Here it is the metric Vs Imperial problem again. This incident was shown on Air Crash Investigation (or Mayday) Season 5, Episode 6.


7 Conviction By Maths Error

October 20, 2009

sally 3On 9 November 1998 at Chester Crown Court Sally Clark, a Cheshire solicitor, was convicted, by 10-2 majority, of smothering her two baby boys.Clark’s first son died suddenly within a few weeks of his birth in 1996. In 1998, when her second son died in similar circumstances she was arrested and tried for the murder of both sons. The prosecution used paedeatrician Prof Roy Meadows as a expert witness. He had discovered Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (MSbP) which every student will have seen in some cop show. It relates to an adult, often the mother, inflicting injury or medicating a child to make them sick and to get attention. Sally Clark was found guilty and spent 3 years in jail.

The Maths Error: Not Understanding Statistics!

Prof Roy Meadows testified that the chance of two children from an affluent family suffering sudden infant death syndrome was 1 in 73 million. He arrived at this number by squaring 1 in 8500 for likelihood of a cot death in similar circumstances.

Multiplying the probability of two events only works if the events are independent like flipping a coin. But a Cot Death gene, for instance, would dramatically increase the likelihood of 2 Cot Deaths in one family.

 observer Sally clarkThe Royal Statistical Society later issued a public statement concerning the “misuse of statistics in the courts” and arguing that there was “no statistical basis” for Meadow’s claim. The journalist Geoffrey Wansell called Clark’s experience “one of the great miscarriages of justice in modern British legal history”. Prof Meadows was struck off the medical registrar in 2005. Sally Clark died of acute alcohol poisoning in her home in 2007. (Ref: BMJ )

Article Left: The Observer UK