Thursday, August 15, 2013

not quite ARR! numbers and symbols, as viewed by a man of letters.

these are some excerpts from the pleasures and sorrows of work by a. de botton, one of my favorite authors. he has a way of revealing the sublime aspects about everyday life.

anyway, this is his take on science ..
"Gone were the days of geniuses in their observatories and workshops, single-handedly rerouting scientific history. We had entered the sober era of the collaborative laboratory, where astrophysicists and aeronautical engineers banded themselves together for decade-long assaults on minor mysteries, resisting the media's attempts to raise any one of their number into a contemporary Galileo. A company might limit itself to perfecting the performance of silver-zinc batteries in zero-gravity conditions, rightly sensing the foolishness of expanding to address further puzzles in satellite electrics. A scientist might spend a lifetime examining the properties of titanium at high temperatures or the behaviour of hydrogen at the moment of ignition. The sum total of one's contributions to mankind might end up in an issue of the Journal of Advanced Propulsion Methods."
.. and this is his take on maths, viewed from the non-technical viewpoint:
"Noting my puzzlement, Ian told me that he was calculating the force of gravity at work on the cable, and that in his equation $l$ stood for the length of the span, $w$ for the effective weight per unit of length, and $T_H$ for the constant along the line. He explained that transmission engineers were unusually blessed in having at their fingertips a highly precise, efficient and universal vocabulary with which to convey even the most labyrinthine electrical scenarios, so that from Iran to Chile, $\psi$ referred to electric flux, $\mu$ to permeability, $\mathcal{P}$ to pereance, and $\alpha$ to the temperature coefficient of resistance.

I was struck by how impoverished ordinary language can be by contrast, requiring its user to arrange inordinate numbers of words in tottering and unstable piles in order to communicate meanings infinitely more basic than anything related to an electrical network. I found myself wishing that the rest of mankind would follow the engineers' example and agree on a series of symbols which could point incontrovertibly to certain elusive, vaporous, ad often painful psychological states -- a code which might help us to feel less tongue-tied and less lonely, and enable us to resolve arguments with swift and silent exchanges of equations.

There seemed to be no shortage of feelings to which the engineers' brevity might be profitably applied. If only a letter could have been identified, for example, with which elegantly to allude the strange desire one occasionally has to elicit love from people one does not even particularly like ($\beta$, say); or the irritation evoked when acquaintances seem to be more worried about one's illnesses than one is oneself ($\omega$); or the still vaguer sense one can sometimes have that different periods of one's life are in coexistence, so that one would have only to return to one's childhood home to find everything the same as it once was, with no one having died and nothing having changed ($\xi$). Possessed of such a notational system, one would be able to compress the free-floating nostalgia and anxiety fo a typical Sunday afternoon into a single pellucid and unambiguous sequence ($\beta + \omega | \xi \times 2$)" and attract sympathy and compassion from the friends around whom one would otherwise have grunted unhelpfully."

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