A piece of Pi for the innumerate; or, physics can be phun
Today, Monday, was March 14th, which you could write as 3.14. Yes, it’s that date beloved of fun-loving mathematicians everywhere, Pi Day! By a happy coincidence, it was also Albert Einstein’s birthday. It seems an appropriate day, therefore, for Dancing Beastie to touch briefly on topics normally alien to these pages: maths and physics. Don’t go away, it won’t take long. Everything I know about these subjects could be written on the back of an envelope – which is sort of the point of this post.
When I was a post-grad student, a friend of mine tried to introduce me to the joy of maths. (No sniggering at the back there.) We were both researching doctoral theses, but while mine was in history, his was in pure mathematics. Each of us was fired with enthusiasm about the wonders of our respective subjects and each of us enjoyed sharing our enthusiasm, via seminars and lectures, with academics and interested lay people alike. Unlike some mathmos I encountered at university, my friend was (is!) a, dare I say it, ‘normal’ guy and a good communicator. Yet he just could not explain his subject to me. It’s not that I was unwilling to learn, nor that he was a bad teacher: quite the opposite. I knew that there was a whole world of knowledge there that I was missing out on, and I was delighted to have the door held open for me by a sympathetic guide. For whatever reason, however, I was simply unable to follow him. To use another metaphor, he was speaking a foreign language, whose grammar and alphabet I could not begin to comprehend. Listening to his bright-eyed explanations and looking at his pages of indecipherable equations, I knew that I would have more hope of learning ancient Aramaic than I ever would of grasping the principles of mathematics. And I’m not much of a linguist, either.
Now, doctoral level pure mathematics may not be the best place for the numerically-challenged to start, I do realise. I had tried to get in at beginners’ level. But maths was the subject I most disliked at school – physics came a close second – not because I found it boring but because I was simply baffled by it. I was supposed to be bright: I was in the top divisions in all subjects. (I wonder how many of them I could manage now.) But I would sit in maths and physics classes almost in tears of frustration sometimes, as I watched the cogs in my classmates’ heads whirr and click and all the equations fall neatly into place for them. I could see that there was a symmetry and logic to the subjects which must be immensely satisfying – indeed beautiful – if you could grasp them. I wanted to grasp them, I tried, but what others found intuitive I found absolutely impenetrable. My brain just doesn’t seem to have a maths setting. Even now, I feel panicky at the sight of an accounts sheet, and the closest I can get to understanding the beauty of mathematics is to select some Bach on the iPod.
The point of mentioning my own numerical incompetence is not to flaunt it, for it’s nothing to be proud of. It is at best questionable whether one can consider oneself educated – however au fait one might be with Bach or Shakespeare (or indeed ancient Aramaic) – without a general knowledge of maths and science. The point is that I am one of many, many people who, lacking the ‘maths setting’, were put off maths and physics at school, and who came to think that these entire areas of human knowledge were beyond their grasp or their interest. This morning I was listening to a discussion programme on the radio, in which physicist Brian Greene put the problem very neatly. To paraphrase, schools teach facts, because knowledge of facts can be tested. Fair enough. What inspires children though, as he went on to say, is the bigger picture. Is physics about mathematical equations, or about the extraordinary, multiplicitous wonders of the universe? Well, it’s about both, of course, but many’s the child whose early fascination with the starry heavens has been withered by having to work out forty applications of Ohm’s Law before break. The connection between the beauty ‘out there’ and the work ‘in here’ is lost. Whereas, if you encourage the fascination with the cosmos, you give children a reason to learn more of the detail within it. Without applicability, facts and equations are so much dust under the desk.
To be fair to my school teachers, I do think that it was less their teaching than my ability (or lack of it) that led me down a mathematical dead end. It is pretty self-evident that some people have a facility for numbers which others lack, irrespective of innate intelligence; just as some people are musical and some are not. And I studied history not because it was easier than physics or maths (although to me it was), but because I found it more interesting. I have no hope of being a mathematician and no great wish to be a scientist. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want to learn about them, though, or at least how they apply to the world around us. There must be so many of us who wish we were better acquainted with these subjects, who are interested in a general way, but who find it almost impossible to teach ourselves.
It’s cheering, then, to see overtures being made from both sides of the great arts/science divide these days. The media, long dominated by humanities students, is coming to recognise the fundamental importance of the sciences, and there are scientists – Brian Cox being a shining example on television at the moment – who are doing their best to make the wonders of science evident to us lay people. Einstein tried it as far back as 1916: his book on the Special and General Theory of Relativity was specifically aimed at intelligent readers ‘who, from a general scientific and philosophical point of view, are interested in the theory, but who are not conversant with the mathematical apparatus of theoretical physics.’ Well, I am ashamed to admit that I have had the book for three years and have not yet got beyond chapter five. (He does also say that the work ‘presumes…a fair amount of patience and force of will on the part of the reader.’ Note to self: must try harder.)
For those of us too impatient, weak-willed or (sorry, Professor Einstein) just plain tired to sit down at the end of the day and try to decipher books on quantum mechanics, television is a gift. Currently showing on BBC2, Brian Cox’s hour long programmes explaining crucial subjects like entropy, gravity and the periodic table are refreshingly accessible (and beautifully filmed). He makes the most of the visual medium, ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’. I remember numbingly dull hours spent trying to learn the periodic table of the elements in school chemistry lessons, never guessing that it all had such thrilling relevance to the structure of the universe. Programmes like these, simplifying without patronising, are just what we inquisitive non-scientists have been waiting for. Professor Cox, you are the apple of my Pi.
There are no other posts (yet) about science on Dancing Beastie! But you might enjoy ‘You know that dreaded question at parties? I have an answer! No, wait, I have two.’