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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Friday, February 8, 2013 at 11:07 am

Today’s column marks my 200th submission of “But I Digress” to The Los Alamos Monitor.

While this might seem an astonishing feat, it doesn’t take people who meet me long to recognize that my spouting off 200 opinions is anything but surprising.

I was born with a speech defect and couldn’t talk until I was 11 years old. After an operation on my throat corrected a windpipe abnormality - Presto! I could talk!

And I haven’t shut up since.

Anyway, I asked my friends what I should write about to commemorate 200 rants. I got some great suggestions, but ultimately my wife nailed it by saying I should just write about my one true passion.

Yeah, of course. Math. What else?

And what’s not to love? The history of math reads like an epic saga of gladiatorial battles to conquer the universe of numbers. It’s full of herculean efforts by early giants to understand the geometric symmetry and algebraic aesthetics of the world around us.

Mathematics is harmony incarnate. When early mathematicians saw amazing patterns in numbers (like the sum of cubes equaling the square of the sum of the numbers), they would say,

“This can’t be a mere coincidence. The gods are trying to tell us something!”

They believed that to understand math was to hear the whispers of the gods revealing the secrets of the universe.

Maybe they were right. The sheer beauty of the mathematics behind the tautochrone and brachistochrone cyclonic relationship can make a mathematician cry. Even Melville marveled at the wonder of mathematics and wrote in “Moby Dick” (Chapter 96) about the the tautochrone - “It is a place for profound mathematical meditation ... I was first indirectly struck by the remarkable fact, that in geometry all bodies gliding along a cycloid, my soapstone, for example, will descend from any point in precisely the same time.”

Earlier in the book (Chapter 80), he sings praise to Euclidean wisdom. “If the Sperm Whale be physiognomically a Sphinx, to the phrenologist his brain seems that geometrical circle which it is impossible to square.”

You go, Herman! Call me the square root of Ismael squared.

Captain Ahab’s crew were not the first victims of enigmatic obsessions. The Pythagoreans (a truly whacked out religious group of number worshipers in the 5th century BC) professed that all numbers were rational (as decreed by god).

A fellow mathematician, Hippasus, demonstrated to his comrades that the square root of two was in fact irrational. This contradicted the laws of god.

So they killed him.

The history of mathematical development is littered with the bodies of intellectuals who dared challenge the ignorant.

Unfortunately, the ignorant had really nice sharp knives and stuff like that. When you duke it out against a Babylonian sword armed only with prime numbers and factored polynomials, you get a first hand exposure to what it feels like to be divided by zero.

Archimedes of Syracuse (287-212 BC) is best known for inventing the practice of streaking.

When he discovered the principle of buoyancy, he ran down the street naked yelling “Eureka!”

Of course, mathematicians did this all the time, so no one paid much notice.

Some time later, during a siege by Marcellus of Rome, Archimedes was killed by a Roman soldier (because he wouldn’t stop playing in his sandbox).

Math history reads like a Tarantino script. Hypatia of Alexandria, the first known female mathematician (5th century AD), was killed by a crazed Christian mob who ripped off her flesh and dismembered her.

Georg Cantor, who conquered the infinities, died in a mental institution. Alan Turing, who helped win WWII with his code breaking mathematics, was chemically castrated for being homosexual, and subsequently committed suicide.

Stanislaw Saks, who advanced measure theory, was murdered by the Gestapo. Kurt Godel, the genius of mathematical logic, died of starvation.

Evariste Galois, founder of modern abstract algebra, was killed in a duel.

You know, they should put all this stuff in comic books. Then kids might read it and learn something about the people who dared advance mathematical knowledge.

Math. It’s a dangerous job, but someone has to do it!

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