NUMBERS

One of the most endlessly charming parts of the human experience is our capacity to see something we can’t describe and just make something up in order to do so, never mind whether it makes any sense in the long run or not. Countless examples have been demonstrated over the years, but the mother lode of such situations has to be humanity’s invention of counting.

Numbers do not, in and of themselves, exist- they are simply a construct designed by our brains to help us get around the awe-inspiring concept of the relative amounts of things. However, this hasn’t prevented this ‘neat little tool’ spiralling out of control to form the vast field that is mathematics. Once merely a diverting pastime designed to help us get more use out of our counting tools, maths (I’m British, live with the spelling) first tentatively applied itself to shapes and geometry before experimenting with trigonometry, storming onwards to algebra, turning calculus into a total mess about four nanoseconds after its discovery of something useful, before just throwing it all together into a melting point of cross-genre mayhem that eventually ended up as a field that it as close as STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) gets to art, in that it has no discernible purpose other than for the sake of its own existence.

This is not to say that mathematics is not a useful field, far from it. The study of different ways of counting lead to the discovery of binary arithmetic and enabled the birth of modern computing, huge chunks of astronomy and classical scientific experiments were and are reliant on the application of geometric and trigonometric principles, mathematical modelling has allowed us to predict behaviour ranging from economics & statistics to the weather (albeit with varying degrees of accuracy) and just about every aspect of modern science and engineering is grounded in the brute logic that is core mathematics. But… well, perhaps the best way to explain where the modern science of maths has lead over the last century is to study the story of i.

One of the most basic functions we are able to perform to a number is to multiply it by something- a special case, when we multiply it by itself, is ‘squaring’ it (since a number ‘squared’ is equal to the area of a square with side lengths of that number). Naturally, there is a way of reversing this function, known as finding the square root of a number (ie square rooting the square of a number will yield the original number). However, convention dictates that a negative number squared makes a positive one, and hence there is no number squared that makes a negative and there is no such thing as the square root of a negative number, such as -1. So far, all I have done is use a very basic application of logic, something a five-year old could understand, to explain a fact about ‘real’ numbers, but maths decided that it didn’t want to not be able to square root a negative number, so had to find a way round that problem. The solution? Invent an entirely new type of number, based on the quantity i (which equals the square root of -1), with its own totally arbitrary and made up way of fitting  on a number line, and which can in no way exist in real life.

Admittedly, i has turned out to be useful. When considering electromagnetic forces, quantum physicists generally assign the electrical and magnetic components real and imaginary quantities in order to identify said different components, but its main purpose was only ever to satisfy the OCD nature of mathematicians by filling a hole in their theorems. Since then, it has just become another toy in the mathematician’s arsenal, something for them to play with, slip into inappropriate situations to try and solve abstract and largely irrelevant problems, and with which they can push the field of maths in ever more ridiculous directions.

A good example of the way mathematics has started to lose any semblance of its grip on reality concerns the most famous problem in the whole of the mathematical world- Fermat’s last theorem. Pythagoras famously used the fact that, in certain cases, a squared plus b squared equals c squared as a way of solving some basic problems of geometry, but it was never known as to whether a cubed plus b cubed could ever equal c cubed if a, b and c were whole numbers. This was also true for all other powers of a, b and c greater than 2, but in 1637 the brilliant French mathematician Pierre de Fermat claimed, in a scrawled note inside his copy of Diohantus’ Arithmetica, to have a proof for this fact ‘that is too large for this margin to contain’. This statement ensured the immortality of the puzzle, but its eventual solution (not found until 1995, leading most independent observers to conclude that Fermat must have made a mistake somewhere in his ‘marvellous proof’) took one man, Andrew Wiles, around a decade to complete. His proof involved showing that the terms involved in the theorem could be expressed in the form of an incredibly weird equation that doesn’t exist in the real world, and that all equations of this type had a counterpart equation of an equally irrelevant type. However, since the ‘Fermat equation’ was too weird to exist in the other format, it could not logically be true.

To a mathematician, this was the holy grail; not only did it finally lay to rest an ages-old riddle, but it linked two hitherto unrelated branches of algebraic mathematics by way of proving what is (now it’s been solved) known as the Taniyama-Shimura theorem. To anyone interested in the real world, this exercise made no contribution to it whatsoever- apart from satisfying a few nerds, nobody’s life was made easier by the solution, it didn’t solve any real-world problem, and it did not make the world a tangibly better place. In this respect then, it was a total waste of time.

However, despite everything I’ve just said, I’m not going to decide that all modern day mathematics is a waste of time; very few human activities ever are. Mathematics is many things; among them ridiculous, confusing, full of contradictions and potential slip-ups and, in a field whose age of winning a major prize is younger than in any other STEM field, apparently full of those likely to belittle you out of future success should you enter the world of serious academia. But, for some people, maths is just what makes the world makes sense, and at its heart that was all it was ever created to do. And if some people want their life to be all about the little symbols that make the world make sense, then well done to the world for making a place for them.

Oh, and there’s a theory doing the rounds of cosmology nowadays that reality is nothing more than a mathematical construct. Who knows in what obscure branch of reverse logarithmic integrals we’ll find answers about that one…

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Let the cats bounce

No mini-essays planned out today, so instead my sense of humour/inquisitiveness has led me across the web looking at… random stuff that makes me laugh basically. None of it really needs my plugging, as all are pretty successful, but good humour should never go wasted. I thought I might share some of it with you- I won’t post links, but Google should set you straight

XKCD
The first webcomic I ever read, and possibly the best known. Written by an ex-NASA consultant, it describes itself as “A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math[s] and language”, which is a pretty good description. The split is about 5:15:70:10 (if we include physics, science and computing under mathematics), and hits exactly the right level of nerdiness about its various subjects: about pre-University level, not so nerdy that it can’t be understood by an intelligent GCSE student (much less its target audience of smart, bored people with a basic interest in science and a scientist’s sense of humour), but nerdy enough to make you feel smart and semi-elitist. Always a good source of some obscure but funny humour

Dead Cat Bounce
A comedy band, included here thanks to their YouTube fame. Although most of their songs aren’t that good (my personal opinion, still worth checking out), the have two gems in ‘Rugby’ (how I heard of them) and ‘Golf’- both are parodies of the people who play the various sports, and both are superb. Most of their songs aren’t sporting related, but these two are especially good.

Weebl and Bob
Not something I watch much of, but absolutely hilarious when I do. An animated series about two egg-like objects who speak as though their lips are incapable of movement (and are thankfully subtitled) . It’s all just more random funny stuff, mainly centred around pie and creme eggs. Some are parodies, some are tributes, some are just plain random. And all are funny (favourite episode? CSI: Pie-ami)

Cyanide and Happiness
Another webcomic, but this one could hardly be more different to XKCD. In a recent strip, one artist described himself as ‘making borderline-offensive jokes’. I would counter this, and say that the borderline got left about 5 miles back and that offensive is starting to sound tame. Inappropriate- yes. Outrageous- yes. Funny? Definitely- this is the one thing online that can be relied upon to get me wetting myself laughing. Their shorts are my personal favourites, ranging from the supremely well-done ‘Ted Bear’ parody, to the Family Guy-style ‘Speed Racist’, to the stupidly hysterical ‘Barbershop Quartet Hit On Girl From Taxi’

Zero Punctuation
The last on this list is series of video game reviews, made by Yahtzee Croshaw, are what made the game site ‘The Escapist’ as big as it is- there is a lot of stuff I watch on that site, but ZP is what first drew me and countless others there (while you’re there, I particularly suggest looking at MovieBob’s two series’). To describe Zero Punctuation’s videos as reviews is to be rather generous- what it basically consists of is 5 minutes of Yahtzee intricately insulting every possible flaw he can find in a game, particularly anything beige and containing the words ‘cover-based’, with some of the most intricate similes and metaphors you are likely to find anywhere. If you are easily insulted, or do not wish to see your favourite game being slaughtered, then move on. If, however, you want to give your sense of humour an airing to giggle like a maniac, then hit the archives