Saturday, 22 September 2007

Wherein Sir Isaac Newton Turns in His Grave

Many years ago, somewhere round the midpoint of my life thus far, I signed up for Maths Club. Maths Club was run by a couple of civic-minded mathematicians from the University of Sydney, who once a week plonked a page of problems before a roomful of empassioned teenage algebraicists. The empassioned teenage algebraicists would solve two, perhaps three, of the problems. They did this by steaming up their glasses, nibbling the overhanging tendrils of their incipient moustaches, and thinking. I, on the other hand, generally solved none of the problems, in part because I lacked the right sort of brain, in part because I never mastered the moustache trick, and in part because I spent most of the two hours of Maths Club declaiming to Bernadette and Jane up the back of the classroom.

I didn't attend Maths Club because of my mathematical aptitude. I attended Maths Club because I thought it would be good for my image. You know how it is; fourteen year old kids are constantly trying to pass themselves off as mathematicians in an attempt to impress their peers. Also, my big sister had gone to Maths Club. For the three years this sister had worn dental braces, I had tugged at my baby teeth with a bobby pin, trying to twist them out of alignment so that I too could wear dental braces. It didn't work, but the attempt at least shows that I was keen to tread where she had trodden. Maths Club had big sister prints all over it.

I developed a lot of theories at Maths Club. This is because whenever I am in the presence of thinking people, I think. I don't necessarily think about what the thinking people are thinking about, but I think about something. Their brains emit a low-pitched hum, and mine starts to resonate along. The person next to me is proving Fermat's last theorem, and suddenly I figure out why you have to put the peanut butter on the toast before the marmalade.

The best theory I ever came up with at Maths Club (a mathematical theory, no less) is the Theory of Why One TimTam is the Same as Two TimTams (and by Analogy Why Doing Half My Homework is the Same as Doing All My Homework). It goes like this:

1. One TimTam consists of an infinite number of infinitely small bits of TimTam;
2. Two TimTams consist of an infinite number of infinitely small bits of TimTam;
Therefore
3. One TimTam equals two TimTams.

Genius. Adaptations of the theory hold good for most measurable quantities. Three kilometres are divisible by an infinite number of infinitely small distances; likewise three centimetres; so three kilometres equal three centimetres.

(Anyone who's tempted to mention asymptotes can go get infinitesimalised. As the Spice Girls so memorably sung, sometime around 1997, "This is the night when two become one".)

Anyway, I mention all this by way of preempting observations that I have only written one blog post in the last week. One post consists of an infinite number of infinitely small wordments; forty posts consist of an infinite number of infinitely small wordments ...

Blah blah blah.

12 comments:

TimT said...

Adaptations of the theory hold good for most measurable quantities. Three kilometres are divisible by an infinite number of infinitely small distances; likewise three centimetres; so three kilometres equal three centimetres.

Yes, but I can't eat a kilometre now, can I? I prefer the theory as applicable to TimTams.

I applaud the audacity and alacrity with which you have applied this anecdote argumentatively, not to mention asymptotically. Amazing!

Martin Kingsley said...

Looking at it another way, the numerical, theoretical and mathematical complexity of this post equates to a system by which you merely author highly concentrated posts. By their very nature, one can make up for an entire week's worth. Evidently!

trixie said...

your very silence speaks of an infinity of existence beyond the web.

i too was a teenage algebraist, albeit sans mustachio.

to my confession, i add the following:

maths olympiad.

is there a reversal to the harlot theorem? a spell, perchance?

blue_haired_jennifer said...

I showed no aptitude for maths whatsoever until I became very bored one afternoon in ninth grade Mock Trial, and made up a theory about square numbers on the back of my notes which turned out, after a teacher spotted it, to be some famous mathematician's theorem.

The maths department started looking at me askance in corridors. I quit Mock Trial and have lived in happily unalgebraic bliss ever since.

(Mock Trial was really very boring. TimTams would not have helped.)

Mark said...

Hate to burst your bubble(s), but I believe Harlot's theorem is probably a corollary of another strange theorem dreamt up by two moustachioed fellows by the names of Banach and Tarski in the 1920s, surprisingly called the Banach-Tarski Theorem.

It says that if you take a ball, chop it up into some number of pieces, you can rearrange the pieces to form two balls, each with the same volume as the first.

Wacky but true... if you believe in the seemingly innocuous Axiom of Choice (which, and I only found this out the other day, an old maths lecturer of mine most certainly does not).

I was one of those guys chewing my pencil at Math Club. :( That reminds me, isn't there some kind of "first rule" that prohibits us from talking about this stuff?

alexis said...

Damn you, Banach and Tarski. I was going to make my name with this one. Thanks for letting me know, though, Mark. Could have gotten quite embarrassing if I'd had to return my Nobel Prize.

I'm not going to out any of my fellow Maths Clubbians, but I don't think it's anything to be ashamed of. Mock Trial, though; quelle embarrassment.

Mark said...

(Psst... Fields Medal, there's no Nobel Prize for maths).

Martin Kingsley said...

AHHHH PEDANTRY RUN AWAY RUN AWAY.

alexis said...

Ahem. Thanks, Mark. But perhaps I'd have been eligible for the Peace Prize? Applications of Harlot's Theorem in the Field of Dispute Resolution?

Miss Eagle said...

Have you heard about the mathematician from Uni of Sydney? She has developed something called the 12 Bonk Theory and is getting heaps of speaking engagements.

Blessings and bliss

Mark said...

That would be Clio Cresswell. She also pops up on the Einstein Factor and such like. She was finishing her Ph.D. at the School of Maths at UNSW while I was doing honours there.

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