Maths and astronomy

for me, I have always been extremely interested in space, the universe and the stars and have always enquired about what more there is to find and what actually happens outside of the earths little bubble. Following the discovering mathematics module has enlightened me about many applications of maths that I had previously never thought about, and our discussion with Simon Reynolds (science learning manager, Dundee science center) was no exception.


I always knew that the observable universe was unfathomably big, and that the amount of stars that can be seen is around 10 to the power of 22. However seeing this number written out of the short form was truly amazing as it comes to 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, and that is only the amount of stars we can see! Using exponentiation (the power of) here is clearly extremely important as writing out a number with twenty two zeros can be a very strenuous task, so instead mathematicians looked to create exponents (the number to the right of the base) to create a shorthand for large numbers. In this case instead of Writing a 23 character number out, astronomers and mathematicians alike need only four, 10^22. This makes it easier for people to denote what they mean when writing and talking and is clearly a vital component when dealing with really really big numbers.


As most prominently portrayed in films, light-years are a  measure of distance, specifically, the distance light can travel in one year (6 trillion miles). The use of light-years here provide us with a relative understanding of how far that is and gives people a rough understanding of the sheer size of the universe. However 20th century astronomer  20th century astronomer Robert Burnham Jr created an ingenious way to portray the distance of one light-year and ultimately of expressing the distance scale of the universe, in understandable terms. He did this by relating the light-year to the astronomical unit (AU) – the Earth-sun distance. One Astronomical Unit, or AU, equals about 93 million miles (150 million km). Burnham noticed that, quite by coincidence, the number of astronomical units in one light-year and the number of inches in one mile are virtually the same. There are 63,000 astronomical units in one light-year, and 63,000 inches (160,000 cm) in one mile (1.6 km) (Mclure, 2016). This enables us to have a relative understanding of the distance between our planets in the Solar system and beyond.

Maths and astronomy are clearly closely linked together and the use of abbreviations or creating new number systems is vital in understanding and clearly expressing astronomical things. Reynolds lecture showed me that space isn’t anywhere near as confusing as first thought as he was able to give me examples that I could relate too, such as Burnhams earth-sun distance. this once again highlights the importance of having multiple perspectives and connectedness when teaching mathematics as he was able to explain to us an idea that we wouldn’t have thought of in a way that we were able to link back to what we previously knew.

McClure, B. (2016) How far is a light-year? Available at: (Accessed: 1 December 2016).

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