Live Tweets from Ancient Egypt: Part 14
Tweeting the Meeting: Week of May 3, 2021

Mathematics and Everything: From Hannah Fry to Stephen Fry. Part 3

For continuity, start with Part 1.

Now—what about Hannah Fry’s TV presentation—“Magic Numbers?” Are they really magic? Or are they like when my gushing business typing teacher from high school days said, “Today we are going to learn how to use the magic margins!” and I said to myself, “This guy really thinks they are magic.”

Remember, Harley—you don’t want to be a donkey here. Remember how you were with Meg, working on her dissertation involving the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle, and the only one who could grade it was her U of R professor because he was the only one who knew what she was talking about? Don’t make the same faux pas with Fry that you made with her—saying something to show that you’re not exactly ignorant about her subject, and in so doing conveying that you are. Don’t be like Ed Norton, trying to impress the financier, casually letting it slip that he is in the “sewer game” himself.

Okay, now. Turn on the TV. What do you notice about math? Yikes! The first thing I notice has nothing to do with math. It is about Fry. She is one attactive woman!

Harley, you gauche slob! That’s even worse! Go back to saying something stupid about math! Nobody cares about physical appearance! It is only the mind we care about! If you didn’t have such a perfect face for radio, you wouldn’t come all unglued when you see one for television!

It made a mixed initial impression on me, and not all of it good. “We cannot be certain of this and we cannot agree on that,” she more or less said, and I added, “but can we all agree that my flowing and flaming red hair is beautiful?” I mean, don’t go telling me that her producer doesn’t know the power of outward appearance. He showcases her as though a model on Vogue Magazine.

And in fact, once I adjusted to it, all was well. It was my bad. Most things are. I had expected some drab and dry old hen chalking formulas on the board. It’s not her. My bad. You use whatever you have to best present your topic. Lord knows I do. Go for it. When they strap Hannah Fry into a zip line harness to show she speeds up just like Galileo said she would, instead of her dull professor of yesteryear dropping a marble and bowling ball simultaneously—well, why not? He wanted to ride a zip line, too, but it wasn’t allowed back then. Now it is.

It may be that the scientists and mathematicians have never been dull, and only now is the stereotype breaking that says they are. It may all be a carryover from my school days, when they would roll into the classroom a towering TV for some “educational television” and the only thing you knew for sure was that it would be BORING.

It’s not that way now. The two Great Courses archeologists I follow present almost as Indiana Jones. One of them was even inspired by Indiana Jones, for he relates how his mom dropped him off as a boy at the multiplex, the movie subtitle said. “Somewhere in South America,” and he said to himself: “There’s a South America?” Who says they have to be dull? It’s a good gig—why not behave as though it is? Paul Halpern may have the largest cache of physicist photos on the planet—all the time he is posting them, showing the good ‘ol (usually) boys of brilliance having a ball. And just yesterday he posted a cartoon with the quantum computer diagnosis: “broken in every way possible, simultaneously.” I added: “And the relativity computer looks broken when they pass it one way, but okay when they pass it the other way.”

So Hannah Fry begins to narrate her program. “Look hard enough to at anything, mathematics is lying beneath,” she says at the show’s outset. Is math all in our heads, invented? she poses the question. Or is it an eternal physical reality, something existing out there, waiting to be discovered?

Then she dives into the same chronology that they all dive into, but it is such a rich chronology that every presentation is different. Farmelo wrote in his book how he was struck in high school that the formula for gravity took the exact same form as the formula for magnetism, different only in that you can reverse the latter. Why should that be? I was struck by it, too. He also said he didn’t recall any of his teachers ever commenting on that peculiarity. Neither do I.

“How could something we invented in our brain have the power to reveal the workings of the universe?” she says, and then inserts clips of a few mathematicians who say confirming things, like how it’s “shocking that mathematics makes predictions about the world around us.”

“It seemed inconceivable that math could be anything other than something we discover,” Fry says, but then she ventures that in the 19th century, people began to wonder if everyone was really as it seemed. “The problem for humans is overriding our instincts, trusting in our intuition,” another guest math-whiz says. Aristotle, clever though he was, got a lot of things wrong. It’s intuitive that heavy lands before light [is it?], so Aristotle stated that it did. Galileo figured it didn’t, wrote the formula to govern falling things, and said the feather falls slower only due to friction with the air. Whereupon, Hannah splices in Apollo moon footage in which they attempted just that experiment—take out the air— and sure enough, they do both land at the same time! She could have done it in some drab school experiment where they pump the air out of some container, but she did it on the moon! Don’t tell me she doesn’t know how to use the modern medium.

Breaking free of Euclid makes it more complicated—now Fry will try to serve up some sympathy with the ‘inventors of math’ view. (But it won’t work with me—I’m on to her—and it’s not clear where she stands herself.) Cantor pours fuel on the fire with his infinites, some of which are greater than others! You would think that an infinity is an infinity is an infinity, but it turns out that some “are more equal than others.” And don’t get me going about that “proof” (Hannah didn’t cite this one—I just threw it in myself) that the sum of all natural numbers is -1/12.

Then there is Descartes, who invented imaginary numbers. They correspond to nothing real in themselves, but they have been used to build bridges from one real place to another, places that otherwise seem to be “you can’t get there from here,” places. The only thing I know for sure about imaginary numbers (always based upon the square root of -1) is that Hobbes, Calvin’s stuffed tiger, helping the boy with his homework, declared that an especially hard arithmetic problem would require their use—the kid’s hair stood on end and his eyes bugged out at the thought.

Okay, so maybe we don’t have to run the “inventors” completely off the planet, but to suggest that anything can be accounted for by what some smart-alek math whiz will concoct is just too much.

Why can’t it just be acknowledged what Job acknowledged? “Look! These are the fringes of his ways, And what a whisper of a matter has been heard of him!” Why should humans assume that they will figure it all out, then come all unglued when they can’t, and somehow work that into a scenario that God doesn’t exist, whereas it should do just the opposite? It reminds me of a old buddy who would overturn the gameboard whenever he saw he was not going to win.

As to Fry being attractive—sorry—maybe I should not have said anything about that. It’s not the thing to focus on. On the other hand, there was a smiling young women, always posing with her motorbike, chalking up hundreds of likes from social media users in Japan. But some sharp-eyed users smelled something amiss. Mirror reflections didn’t look so pretty. Sometimes her arms were hairy! They pushed an investigation and, sure enough, it was a 50-year old guy playing with photoshop! The fellow wasn’t overly repentant. “Who’s going to click on tweets of a 50-year-old guy?” he said.

Exactly. I’ll bet Hannah is a 60-something, pot-bellied, balding slob like me!


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