Bangkok, 15 May 2016
My wife and I have just seen the film “The Man Who Knew Infinity”. For those of my readers who are not up on the latest offerings from Hollywood, this is a film about two real-life mathematicians, Srinivasa Ramanujan, a brilliant, self-taught, Indian mathematician from Tamil Nadu, and G.H. Hardy, a great English mathematician, Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. I will not bore readers with a summary of the plot or my analysis of the story. My point is, it’s a story about mathematicians who love mathematics. The film is full of allusions to the beauty of mathematics, and indeed Hardy is known to the general public (if known at all) for a book he wrote on the beauty of mathematics, A Mathematician’ Apology.
The beauty of mathematics …
Neither my wife nor I are good at maths. In fact, we stink. And as can be readily imagined, we both have bad memories of maths at school. My wife still talks with dread about her last maths teacher, Mrs. Poggi. She was, according to my wife’s recounting, old, single, small, and very, very mean. She had an uncanny ability to know when my wife didn’t understand what was going on, and with a loud voice would command her to stand up and explain.
For my part, the name of my maths nemesis is now mercifully expunged from my memory. All I remember is having been moved up two classes in primary school, and finding myself going from arithmetic to geometry. There I was, staring helplessly at a triangle while my nemesis was flaying me verbally in front of the whole class, saying it was obvious that a squared plus b squared equaled c squared.
(There was also, later, the ex-colonel, who used to fling pieces of chalk at those who, like me, failed to comprehend the mathematical complexities on the board quickly enough. His name I remember: Colonel Yule)
My wife never recovered from her run-ins with maths. Even now, she begins to get nervous whenever even simple arithmetic operations are required – although she has a much better grasp of numbers in the real world than I do; she instinctively knows what the price of anything should be, whereas I have no idea: 1 euro, 10 euros for a bag of tomatoes? don’t know. For my part, I was partially salvaged in secondary school by the kindly Fr. George (my secondary school was a religious school). Fr. George took the class of the maths duds, the maths brain-dead. His job was to get us to pass Maths O-level – minimum pass was all that was required. His method was simple: to do exercises again and again, until the fear of the mathematical operation in question had passed. (he also gave very sensible advice like write your name on the answer sheet before starting, to calm your nerves, remember to turn over the exam paper to see all the questions before you start, and don’t do the questions in order – start with the questions you know you can answer). His recipe worked for me; I passed with minimum grade. (I thought I was done with maths at that point; alas not! I wanted to do science, and maths comes with science. So I struggled on with maths all the way to first year in University).
With this baggage, it’s not surprising that neither my wife nor I see any beauty in mathematics. I suppose towards the last years of my interactions with maths I faintly saw the possibilities of beauty, when the complexities which started at the top of the blackboard would resolve themselves neatly, and indeed beautifully, by the bottom of the board, but that was as near as I ever got.
I suppose, like Moses before the Promised Land, we are told that there lies before us a land flowing with milk and honey but we know we will never enter it. That will be left to the likes of Ramanujan and Hardy to enjoy.
Well, you can’t have everything in life.
Mean Italian maths teacher: http://www.studenti.it/superiori/diritti/come-fare-se-il-prof-e-pazzo.php
Teacher shouting at pupil: http://www.illustrationsource.com/stock/image/640/an-irate-teacher-shouting-at-a-boy-in-a-classroom/?&results_per_page=1&detail=TRUE&page=3
Moses before the Promised Land: http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-being-replaced-deuteronomy-341-12/