March 22, 2007

Square Root of Wow

The Globe & Mail today has an article today that intrigued me. It's about math, and how a bunch of mathematicians finally solved a 120-year-old math puzzle. It's so convoluted and confusing, you may as well forget understanding the answer - I can't even understand the question. But it's cool. The answer would take up enough paper to cover Manhattan; it's taken 18 math nerds (I use the term lovingly - I'm a word nerd) 4 years to figure this out.

Of course the message boards are full of the usual 'quit wasting money and time - go cure cancer' arseholes that want to translate everything into money. I am a total math idiot - I tried and tried all the way through to grade 13, struggling with all of it to only get a 50. Math has always been my nemesis, until of course I went into business and lo and behold, stick a dollar sign in front of it, and I was a bit of all right.

But for the most part, me staring at a math problem is like a monkey looking at the inside of a watch (thanks, BJS, for that gem). Geometry I could love, because I could see it. But my lack of understanding never dimmed my appreciation for a science that I still think is magical.

There was a Toronto mathematician, H.S.M. Coxeter who died a few years back who was absolutely amazing. He would use math to explain the most intricate art patterns, and he would do it using a pencil. No computers, no calculators. He died at 96. I saw a magazine article a couple of years ago, and it was the drawings, like kaleidescope things, that caught my eye. Math is all around us, and you don't have to 'get' it to appreciate it. Read that last link - the old guy was truly amazing.

I think some people's brains have these little superconcentrated areas that bestow on them a gift of insight and understanding the rest of us can't readily access. It occurs in every discipline, in every field, and to believe that only those who are gifted in areas that translate into developing a bigger TV or putting a man on the moon is wrong.

As our culture fast-forwards into a dog-eat-dog mud-filled selfish ditch, we need to stop and lift our heads up. The past century didn't see unprecedented discovery and evolution because researchers and scientists and artists and philosophers yearned for riches and fame. They could see things others couldn't, and many then and now spend their lives trying to explain something as clear to them as breathing is to the rest of us. The last line in the Coxeter piece sums it up. He says "I am extremely fortunate for being paid for what I would have done anyway."

I love this idea. We all have to make our way to eat and keep the lights on, but how fabulous would it be to nurture in our children, and ourselves, the belief that some wonderful talent you have doesn't have to be valued based on how much money it makes you? Contrary to those who reflexively look for the price tag on everything, I adore those who can see in three dimensions - or more - and make me want to as well.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. You're last paragraph just sends shivers down my spine. As a mom in her mid 30s who hasn't figured out what I want to be when I grow up or when my kids do...I just revel in the ideal you put out in that paragraph. It embodies my own world, and I truly pray I find that thing that I do, and enjoy...and cherish. And pay bills....:)

March 22, 2007 9:35 PM  

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