Once Works Well was pure technology. Now it seeks merely to divert.
Pansy subjects - Verse! Opera! Domestic trivia! - are now commonplace.
The 300-word limit for posts is retained. The ego is enlarged

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

How not to court popularity

My mention of simultaneous equations in a recent post caused Avus to groan, adding it wasn’t his subject at school. I sympathise. Also, I know full well such references lay me open to charges of showing off and poncy-ness.

Maths wasn’t my subject at school either. An essay I wrote on my preferred career admitted to journalism because it was distant from that old bromide about life being based on mathematics. Apart from the previously mentioned “techno-epiphany” my interest in maths developed much later. And even then I have added little in the way of technical competence.

No great mystery. I see maths – utterly unoriginally – as a language. As such it’s quite stunted. Beware those who talk flossily about its beauty (unless they’re Paul Dirac and he’s entitled): they’re usually poseurs. Maths is a language stripped of nuance and would be a poor basis for a poem. It’s far too clear. Lack of immediate clarity is often at the heart of great poetry.

On the other hand, clarity can taste like chilled sauvignon blanc. It’s sharp and it engages your senses. Take the social device: “How are you?” It’s not at all clear. It could mean: “I’m saying this because I’m passing you in the street.” Or (among Brits): “Don’t for goodness sake tell me about your aches and pains.” If it could be expressed mathematically we could ensure it meant, quite specifically: “I’m getting in first with this meaningless formulation because I’ve forgotten your name.”

Not a kinder world but an unambiguous one. There is no other meaning to “One over two-pi root el-cee, is the resonant frequency.” And I hope everyone’s thankful for that.

9 comments:

marja-Leena said...

Then there's Square Root Day for the math buffs: http://www.boston.com/news/odd/articles/2009/03/02/3309_math_fans_to_celebrate_square_root_day/

Barrett Bonden said...

Reported in Boston (which pleased me) but initiated in Redwood City, Calif (which disappointed me). Because I'm much more of a Red Sox/MIT fan than I am a Dodgers/Berkeley fan. I was also disappointed that Boston found it necessary to toss a sop to the mathematically challenged and explain that three is the square root of nine. In fact the date sequence 3/3/09 can, given the insertion of parentheses, be regarded as a pair of divisions giving the answer 0.11111 (as many ones as you like) provided that 09 is not 0.09 in which case the answer is 11.111. You see how easy it is to get yourself disliked by showing an interest in maths (which the Americans call "math" and which I've always felt made it seem a simpler proposition).

Julia said...

My brother-in-law (a geometric topologist) would agree, though he might add that this is true as long as philosophy doesn't get involved. See below for evidence:

"Number is therefore simply the unity of synthesis of the manifold of a homogeneous intuition in general, a unity due to my generating time itself in the apprehension of the intuition."

Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant

Barrett Bonden said...

I don't want to be a smarty-boots, Julia, given that yet again you've raised the tone of my blog, but is there any other kind of topologist? But then as I pose the question, the answer rises unbidden. Given that present-day science consists of studying more and more about less and less there's probably a group of topologists at Woods Hole who do it underwater.

I've read the Kant quote ten times and find myself laughing (rather hollowly) at the word "simply". A great joker, old Immanuel.

Julia said...

This is what happens when I try to avoid using the word math/s by being specific ;-).

Upon enquiry, I've been informed that there are in fact several branches of topology (algebraic was tossed out as an example).

I believe that I prefer geometric, as it contains knot theory. Who could argue against the unknot, the wild knot and the Borromean ring? Also, these knots seem to have the ability to writhe and may even quandle. (My apologies to anyone who actually understands knot theory. I admit I am a fan for language alone!)

Barrett Bonden said...

I'm an ex-journalist which means I know one, or sometimes two, things about everything - enough to get me started in an interview. The only thing I knew about topology was it concerned itself with the maths (You say tomater, I say tomato) of complex, usually curved, surfaces. The minute I'd commented on your comment I regretted it since it could only be construed as showing off - a growing tendency which may force me to give up blogging for good.

However since you rode my punch and gave as good as you got I am now delighted. There's a good chance that knot theory may appeal to others (ie, non-crypto maths fans) on purely semantic grounds. Gosh, we're a long way from Rondo all turca. Anyway, thanks

Julia said...

I'm an ex-journalist too, can't you tell? So don't apologize and please don't give up blogging!

Barrett Bonden said...

Good grief, Julia, when are these revelations going to end? No I didn't realise you were an ex-journalist but then I didn't need to. I'd already established you were (are) a polymath so that covered you for all other occupations (diamond polisher, incunabulist, teacher of Polish-as-a-foreign-language, etc, etc) as well as membership of The Fourth Estate.

What I was really apologising for (and I promise to stop doing this) is that in written exchanges it's more difficult to judge the resilience of the recipent to something teasing than it would be, face to face, in conversation. There have already been blogging occasions where I have offended and I didn't want to add to them. On the other hand I don't want to cramp what I laughingly refer to as my style. Exeunt to The Prisoners' Chorus from Fidelio and thanks for the benediction.

Lucy said...

Don't know how she's managed it all really, and she's only a slip of a thing, you know, looks about 22, even with two nippers at foot...