September 26, 2011
Where was I? Well, last week* we established, among other oddities, that diclofenac is bad for the religion of Zoroastrianism. That post didn’t really have anything to do with mathematics (although I did at least attempt to tenuously link it chaos theory), so I will make up for it by at least mentioning some mathematicians this week, if not actual mathematics. However, I will stick with the topic of religion for the time being.
This is partly inspired by a book I’ve just read: Galileo’s Daughter, by Dava Sobel. It doesn’t really match up to Longitude, but is a good read nonetheless. It is really about the life and work of Galileo Galilei, although Sobel gives us the hard science and history in a more easily digestible form, by interweaving commentary on his relationship with his daughter. She seems to have been a quite extraordinary woman: sent to a convent at age thirteen due to her illegitimacy (and hence lack of marriage prospects), she spent her whole life in extreme poverty within those walls, but still managed to be a doctor, playwright, composer, musician and prolific correspondent in the little time she had which wasn’t dedicated to prayer, labour and general suffering.
Anyway, one of the things which struck me most about Galileo’s life was his relationship with the all-powerful Catholic church at this time. He was a very devout Catholic: publicly, of course (claiming Catholicism is, after all, preferable to torture and painful death), but more surprisingly, given the utter ignorance and persecution he suffered at the hands of the Inquisition, he remained privately devoted to the church. He even said, near the end of his life:
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April 4, 2010
When I tell people that I study mathematics they tend to have one of two reactions:
1. They make some impressed-sounding noise, or mention that they were terrible at maths at school, and then quickly make it clear that they wish to change the subject.
2. They are genuinely interested, and want me to tell them exactly what it is that I study.
The second reaction is the one that I fear most! And at this point it is usually me who tries to change the subject. I have an ongoing competition with myself to increase the length of time which I can spend explaining my research to someone before their eyes glaze over and their body language starts to say “I want to be somewhere else now”. I am currently up to about 15 seconds. And the subject I am currently working on (somewhere between graph theory and galois theory) is fairly accessible compared to some of the more exotic branches of mathematics!
The main problem in explaining pure mathematics to a non-mathematician is the level of abstraction involved in the subject. Most people’s view of mathematics is that it deals with numbers, and it is hard for people to imagine what exactly it is that mathematicians do…add and subtract really big numbers? Many seem to find it difficult to imagine how it could be that all the mathematics that could be done hasn’t been done already.* People rarely encounter abstract mathematics before university; and for good reason, as the transition from dealing with concrete quantities in a familiar setting, to treating those quantities and that setting as merely one very special case in a vast world of abstraction, can be rather bewildering.
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