Mathematical Sciences Research Institute

Home > Pages > Journalist in Residence Program > Cones and Comets

Cones and Comets

Cones and Comets

Cones and Comets

One of the great mysteries of science is why something as abstract as mathematics should be so good at explaining natural-world phenomena. We'll talk with a mathematician about the mysterious connection between math and science - after this on Earth and Sky.


DB: This is Earth and Sky, talking with Dr. Robert Osserman at Berkeley's Mathematical Sciences Research Institute about an example of the mysterious connection between math and the natural world:

(Tape 0:01:13-0:02:23) One of the oldest examples, the Greeks got interested in studying what's called "conic sections." And they took a cone, an ordinary cone like the shape of an ice cream cone. And they thought if you cut it with a plane, what kind of shape curve do you get? And if you cut it across the bottom, you get a circle, if you do it at an angle, you get an ellipse, and so on - all these things are called "conic sections." And they were studied in great detail several thousand years ago, with no obvious applications at all. And then, almost two thousand years later, Kepler discovered that it is exactly these shapes that planets and comets and so on, these are the paths that are followed by all of these astronomical objects. And as I said, conic sections had been studied for literally thousands of years without any thought that this was a physically interesting thing and then this great discovery was made.

DB: Thanks to Dr. Robert Osserman of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute for speaking with us. And with thanks to the National Science Foundation, I'm Deborah Byrd, for Joel Block, for Earth and Sky.

Author: Beverly Wachtel

Thanks to the following individual for aiding in the preparation of this script:

Dr. Robert Osserman
Mathematical Sciences Research Institute
Berkeley, CA

If you enjoyed this program, you may be interested in the following:

Poetry of the Universe, by Robert Osserman. NY: Anchor/Doubleday, 1996.

Mathematical Sciences Research Institute website:



Return to Index