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Quadratic Equations in a Novel Shock!


I was both surprised and delighted over the summer to come across a quadratic equation in a novel. . And not just being referred to in passing either. In fact not being 'referred' to at all - but making a full appearance in all its glory within the text.


The novel in question is 'V2' by Robert Harris - which perhaps unsurprisingly - is about the V2 rockets used by the German army during WW2. The story follows two people: one a (fictitious) engineer working on the project under the guidance of a (non-fictitious) Werner Von Braun, And the other a WAAF recruit who narrowly escapes the damage caused by a V2 in London in the early pages and goes on to play a key role in the British attempt to respond to the V2 rockets.


The key difficulty faced by those attempting to combat the rockets was that the launch pads were mobile, and therefore very hard to track down. Which is where the quadratic equation comes in. On page 143, for those interested, and pictured below. (I don't think any of this counts as a spoiler. Apologies if it does!).


If I've got it right, the plan was this:

  • the arc of the rockets was parabolic, and thus describable by a quadratic equation

  • the landing site of the rockets would obviously be known

  • RADAR could be used to spot at least one point on the V2's path soon after launch

  • these two pieces of information could be used to produce 2 equations, and simultaneous equations used to effectively graph the path of the V2s - and to therefore identify the launch site - which could then be quickly attacked.


I remember Stephen Hawking wrote in the introduction to A Brief History how his editors had insisted that he use no equations in his book, because that would immediately alienate a vast majority of potential readers. In the end they allowed one exception: they let him use E = mc2,. But the assumption presumably was that everybody hates maths and fears it - that as soon as they see any maths in a book, they will put the book down and quickly back away from it. But V2 is a huge bestseller by a popular author, and the use of quadratics - not just to indicate that something mathsy is happening - but as a key plot point in and of itself, doesn't seem to have harmed its sales too much.


Perhaps people aren't quite as maths-phobic as we're often told?


Anyway, I'm hoping to use it in a TY applied maths class this year. Maybe read that section of the book first, and then introduce the equations of motion and slowly - over a few weeks - work our way back to how the above system might have worked. And then see if we can find a launch site from a few examples given elsewhere in the text....







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