“Have you seen this video? “, said the husband for the n-th time. He definitely sounded like a child in Disneyland glimpsing Tinker Bell, and I looked up indulgently. His face was glowing as though he was discovering Calculus for the first time.
I could understand his enthusiasm – the 3Blue1Brown videos are well explained, beautifully animated and make you appreciate Calculus in a wholly new way. The journey as well as the philosophy behind it.
I have to confess that the 3Blue1Brown videos sparked my interest, and I peeked into the childhood brain enjoying Maths classes, as I picked up a book, called A Strange Wilderness – The Lives of the Great Mathematicians – By Amir D Aczel to read about the journey of Mathematics through the ages. How did we arrive at the basic tenets of the truth that held the universe together?
The book starts with examining the Greeks and their approach to understanding the world over 2500 years ago. Starting with Thales of Miletus(624 BCE) , who was often called the first philosopher (He is known for the famous saying , “Know Thyself”), it examines Mathematics as a pursuit of the truth.
I was lured in, and though I did feel the writing could have been far more intriguing, it was a well-collated narrative of mathematicians and their lives through the ages.
The next great mathematician is the renowned Pythagoras of Samos (580-500 BCE) who continued the philosophy of:
“Changing Mathematics from a computational discipline into a beautiful, abstract philosophy.”
For those in Academia or are students still, the philosophical bent of the pursuit of truth is probably there. But for most others, in our day-to-day lives, Mathematics has taken on a more computational role than a philosophical one.
The arc of Calculus itself is an interesting story. How close we came as a species to discovering Calculus multiple times? Progress happens in fits and starts, and for every piece of the puzzle that we decipher, world events, or simply fate intervenes and sets us back a few steps. So many mathematicians came close to the concept of Calculus including the philosopher Zeno, in Zeno’s Paradox, over two millennia ago.
Finally, it wasn’t till the late 17th century when Leibnitz and Newton arrived at Calculus independently. Mired in controversy as it was as to who discovered it first, it is still a fascinating journey.
I remembered one cold Winter evening waiting for the fireworks at Disneyland and wondering whether the Imagineers at Disney had calculated Tinker Bell’s rope coverage using Calculus, to ensure that the area under the rope display was visible from most areas in the park. They must have done – this was Disney after all.
When we dedicate some of our Calculating Mind’s time to enable the Thinking Mind, the resulting moments are truly magical.
Taking the journey with Mathematicians through the ages was also strangely comforting. After all, in spite of wars, disease, revolutions and all the horrifying things in the world, the pursuit of truth did hold its slender string through time. Ravaged, and knotted up at times, maybe, but always resurfacing with the single minded purpose of the pursuit of the truth. The pursuit of the truth is one of our basic tenets, after all.