A Mathematician Goes to the Beach

Like everyone else I know, when I go to the beach I think mathematics. Archimedes, my favorite mathematician, did too — his perhaps best-known work is the ‘Sand Reckoner,’ wherein he counts the grains of sand it would take to fill the universe. He must have been at the beach when he thought how to do it. I’m not sure Archimedes picked the most interesting thing about the beach for analysis, but he might be forgiven — because the ancient Greeks didn’t wear swimsuits.

Swimsuits often remind me of Carl Friedrich Gauss, a superb nineteenth-century mathematician who really understood a curved surface…