the heart thrills

there is beauty all around us

Month: May, 2016


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:
Teacher shouting at pupil:
Moses before the Promised Land:


Bangkok, 7 May 2016

It’s hot here in Bangkok at the moment, very hot.

And it’s humid, very humid.

We drag ourselves through the day, stumbling from one air-conditioned space to another.

We scout the horizon for clouds. Will the cooling rains ever come?

We sweat, we’re thirsty. We go to the fridge to get that bottle of cold, cold water. We pour ourselves a glass. A film of water immediately forms on it.
We drink. Aaaah, sooooo good …

In her garden, my French grandmother had a water pump which looked like this.
When we were children, half a century ago, my cousins and I would amuse ourselves by pumping the handle vigorously till the water poured out. Watching us one day, my mother told us that when she had been a child our age, so some time in the late 1920s, early 1930s, before refrigerators were common, on hot summer days she was sent out by various uncles and aunts who were visiting to get a glass of water from that pump. But she was not to take the first water to gush out, no, she was to pump and pump until the water was “bien frapp√©”, well chilled, enough to form a film on the glass …

That pump stopped pumping 30 years ago. As ever more water was sucked from the aquifer the level dropped, until one day it dropped so far that the pump ran dry. It never pumped a drop of water again.

At my old primary school in Somerset, whose halls I graced half a century ago, there was a bubbling little stream that ran along the edge of the playing fields. We played for hours on it, floating sticks and leaves, building dams, and generally mucking about. It looked like this, minus the horses.
30 years ago, when I visited one summer, it was gone, dried up. The aquifer had dropped too far.

A larger stream ran along the valley floor not too far from my French grandmother’s house. It was a quick bike ride away, and my cousins and I would often go there to catch freshwater crayfish in its clean, clear waters and bathe in a deep, blue pool that had formed in the middle reaches. 20 years later, when I visited, it was turgid and scummy, with froth floating on it.

Bangkok is a water city. It sits on a river and is laced with canals. It should be lovely to travel on its waterways. Instead, it’s like cruising along stinking, fetid sewers. We take a water bus from time to time, when the traffic is really bad, from the Golden Mount Temple to the modern downtown.
Instead of enjoying the passing scenery, I live in dread of spray from the canal landing on my face; God knows what viruses and bacteria populate the water. I always scrub my face vigorously when I get off. As for the river, from our apartment terrace we look down on the rubbish of the city which floats by every day.
Recently, we visited Halong Bay, in Viet Nam, a World Heritage Site. We gazed on the unutterable beauty of the surroundings. But we also gazed at the rubbish floating around us and at the locals’ pathetic attempts to get rid of it.
Are we mad? We guzzle water like there was no tomorrow and treat it like a rubbish dump. Yet we need water, it’s vital to our lives. How can we treat so badly something we absolutely cannot do without?

Glass of water:
Old water pump:
Small stream:

Bangkok canal:

Rubbish in Chao Praya River:

collecting rubbish in Halong bay: