Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Insights and inviolable laws

The thing is, I am reading this book, Fermat's Last Theorem. Someone gifted it to me. I started on it a few months ago, and gave up. Last week I felt super enthu about it and started it afresh, and have gotten through more than half and am half tempted to take the afternoon off and finish it all. Cannot remember how it is supposed to end (considering its a 'true story' much like the Drama in Real Life stories in Reader's Digest).

I have always loved math. Through school of course, despite the fact that I spent the entire year when I was in X std. in the school library during math class as punishment for being a smart aleck. Arithmetic, algebra, calculus, I adored. Geometry & trigonometry I just loved. When I came to college and met some vague Russian authored books that talked lemmas at me and did not have enough exercise problems, I lost a bit of it. Then, as an 'engineer' of sorts, I started treating math as a tool. You will hear me talk about its abstractness often. Dismiss it very often as just the means to the higher end (of technology, scientific understanding, whatever). Much of it would be sour grapes. There were those musty, yellowing books with the sonorous voice of our college teachers; and outside, the world was boiling hot; I was falling in love, there was music and acting and basketball; I was finding my niche in the world. Math took some sort of back seat.

In graduate school, I think I initially got part of it back. Grabbing the limelight in the Linear Algebra class (a subject that was, to me, so obvious, while others cursed everything in sight while doing the homework). I took this spectacular differential equations class, it was called Math II (duh!). The professor was this really old fossil of a person, but so bloody sweet. I adored him. In the final, he said, its infinite time. Wow! From Indian schooling and college-ing to this is a big step. Of course. I was SO excited about this exam, though my doubt was, what if I have to pee? (You could go out and pee and smoke and return back, no problems). It was also 'Open Book' - a concept that I had met a few times in college. In college, I had carried one text book and was busy thumbing through the index for most of the exam. One of my colleagues had brought a duffel bag full of texts. Anyway, this infinite time exam in grad school, it really was something else. I stopped in about four hours (one bathroom break) just because I got tired and was satisfied. Did not make a 100, but was really happy with the whole thing. Derived analytical solutions that when I looked at limiting cases, made my heart leap with joy. It was great.

But later I got sucked into that monster creation of our times. The computer. I started using it for every damn thing. I stopped searching for solutions, just code it in. 100 lines of FORTRAN code later, I had the answer. I must have had several routines in my folder for doing the stupidest things ever. Not to mention using 'Goal Seek' on excel. I had, of course, my pet creation, the monster 8000 lines of code that could solve for an elephant's ass (or something to do with premixed flames). I never bothered about the symmetry, the musical beauty of the equations. Just wrote them down, made them dimensionless at best, and dumped them in. Though, I do admit, the most fun I had was with those yellow papers (not yellowing this time around! Fresh crunchy yellow American stationery) where I wrote the equations first of all, discretised them and checked the algebraic form multiple times before coding it. At one point I found mistakes in the sign of the fourth term in the fiftieth equation in my dream (and no, it was not true).

Recently, I decided to give the computer-ese a skip and really do some math. These are partial differential equations. I found this spectacular paper from the 1950s that did it all so elegantly. I tried doing the same for cartesian co-ordinates (they had done it for spherical). I was partly successful, but found another paper that extended the analysis and got sucked into that, and pretty soon my time was up (although it was not an exam; in life there are no infinite time possibilities any more). But it was fun. I do think I love differential equations. I wish I could stop myself from treating them as creatures to be conquered using computers.

Anyway in Simon Singh's book (which is off in parts, his excuse probably being that he is writing for someone with a bit less math in their head than I) the historical thing he does, talking about Fermat and Pythagoras and David Hilbert and the Bernoulli Clan was so exciting for me. I also discovered Sophie Germaine, a pioneer and now my idol. But most of all I am really enjoying reading about people who love math for the sake of math. And this time around I don't mind them talking about theorems and corollaries.

But of a morning, one of lifes other inviolable truths hits me. Every mother has a daughter who embodies everything she (the mother) is not. If only some Andrew Wiles can now prove that one, I can lie down and rest, assured that there is nothing I can do to change it!!


Ludwig said...


Ars Mathematica - Dedicated to the mathematical arts
Women and Mathematics EMS Committee - European Mathematical Society stuff
This Week's Finds in Mathematical Physics
Ramblings of a Math Mom
The Math Less Traveled - Explorations in mathematical beauty
Walking Randomly - Because it's more fun than getting there in a straight line
What's new - Updates on my research and expository papers, discussion of open problems, and other maths-related topics. By Terence Tao. (Fields Medalist, God, etc.)
Wild about Math - Making Math fun and accessible

Once in about 3 weeks, I actually understand a sentence or two in these places. I am sure you'll find endless hours of entertainment. I'll stick to IRFCA.

Ludwig said...

And this. Quite heartwarming.

Laasya said...

I'm sorry I didn't know when your unmentionable day was. So a month late, here we go, Happy Bday!
And I loooooove math myself, not so much calculus, but algebra and trigonometry and geometry... even dreamt of solving lengthy probs. So I understand completely when you wax eloquent about math. :-) Proves we are related, eh?

kbpm said...

thanks ludwig!

laasya- well, the fact that we forget birthdays while our mothers remember them also proves (though not as a mathematical proof) that we are related. :-)