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"Mathematics in History"

October 30, 2006

From Ben Rushing, Professor of Mathematics.

I'm a mathematics professor at a publicly funded school in Louisiana. I have a passion for great music, for teaching, and for aviation.

Here's a bonus assignment I gave my students.


"Mathematics In History"

There was a tragedy.
There was a discovery of a new process.
There was mathematics.
There was an airplane.
There is music.

Answer the questions based on your research.

What tragedy occurred? Give a brief review of the events of the tragedy.

What new process was discovered? Give a brief review of what was discovered and by whom.

Outline and explain the mathematics that was involved in the analysis of the tragedy. Include information about how velocity was an important aspect of the analysis. Summarize the mathematics involved.

What airplane was involved? Outline how it was used and provide any pertinent information about the airplane. Be brief.

What about the music? Author? Lyrics? Recorded by?

Offer any additional thoughts or comments about what you discovered.

Hint: "Cold Missouri Waters"

The quality of your report will be reflected in the quantity of your bonus.


So far, one student has turned in their work. It was outstanding, by the way.

Posted by Ann VerWiebe at October 30, 2006 5:15 PM


Was that a bonus or bogus assignment? OK, time to research....

Posted by: Richard Schletty at October 30, 2006 8:53 PM

Here's a help:
I recall hearing James Keelaghan's "Cold Missouri Waters" not long ago on Folk Alley.

Posted by: JoLynn Braswell at October 31, 2006 1:56 AM

It was a bonus (not bogus) assignment. So far, I've had some excellent response from my students. Their reports are to be turned in today so I'll have a better idea about how most of the students did with this assignment.

Posted by: Ben H. Rushing at October 31, 2006 8:54 AM

Mann Gulch Disaster 1949. Fire jumping is not common in a country the size of the UK; was the escape fire to clear fuel the new process? There was an awful lot of mathematics, predicting chaotic things does generate it. The plane was a DC3.

Great lyrics and a wonderful conundrum - Googlable with JoLynns cribsheet.

Posted by: Huw Pryce at October 31, 2006 9:11 AM

I promise I'll give everyone over there the chance to wake up before I pitch in next time - it's 2.25pm over here.

Posted by: Huw Pryce at October 31, 2006 9:23 AM

Wheee! There's that song!

Posted by: Huw Pryce at October 31, 2006 10:46 AM

Wish I'd had Ben for Maths at school! I might be able to balance my chequebook!

Posted by: Huw Pryce at October 31, 2006 11:26 AM

Ditto, Huw.. wish I had had Ben for Math too!Instead of balancing my chequebook, I somehow magicaly do it in my head and have an inborne "oh no" feeling when I'm reaching the bottom of the pot.
Now days I reach the bottom before about day 12 each month, which saves on having to make all of those mysterious calculations, but makes life a bit challenging, to say the least. But I love a good challenge.
My Aunt's husband's Uncle was a Fire Jumper.

Posted by: JoLynn Braswell at October 31, 2006 11:48 AM

The impact this disaster must have had on 1950s America goes some way to explaining why all those Disney movies set in the West from that period seem to have a forest fire. My childhood seems full of memories of chequered-shirted volunteers shovelling dirt into a wall of flames.
The document I read ( is an exciting read for what is a health and safety report, but the tragedy, fear and agony of those killed is still very obvious a lifetime later.
What a great song. A tribute to foreman Dodge, who obviously bore invisible scars to his deathbed. A horrible way to be proved right, and a terrible burden to live with afterwards.

Posted by: Huw Pryce at November 1, 2006 6:57 AM

There is a excelent book about the fire
Maclean, Norman (1992). Young Men and Fire. University Of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-22-650061-6.[2]

For excerpt go to

Posted by: Arden Nelson at November 2, 2006 3:26 PM

James has mentioned in concert that his song, Cold Missouri Waters, was inspired by the Norman Maclean book.

Posted by: Doug Baker at November 7, 2006 7:13 PM

On the aside, one of my favorite mathmeticians/physicists, Richard Feynman, loved (before he died) to play the bongos and sing and to laugh with his friends and students. He was musical, a brilliant and merry man, and funny too!
You may remember Feynman as the one who discovered the problem with the Space Shuttle O-rings, by putting a piece of the material in a pair of vice grip pliers during a meeting of scientists and experts in a think tank, and while everyone was deliberating he plunged this clamped piece of O-ring material into a glass of ice water and waited... When he removed the vice grips, the piece of O-ring material stayed compressed, thus illustrating, with this simple demonstration, that the icey conditions on that fateful morning had affected the stability of the O-rings, thus contributing to the tragic Challenger disaster.

Posted by: JoLynn Braswell at November 16, 2006 7:09 AM

The plane was a C-47, not a DC-3. You can't parachute out of a DC-3, too many seats .

Posted by: Ed Weglein at November 21, 2006 8:45 PM

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