Final countdown

October 3, 2009

Frankly panicking about final OU exam, due in a couple of weeks. It all seems so obvious in tutorials or when looking at the unit handbooks, but in timed practice exams all seems to go out of the window.

Tutorials have been first-rate, and any failing are entirely due to my own stupidity. Am humbled by Hardy’s achievements in Mathematician’s Apology – only Underwood’s brilliance prevented him from scoring top marks in the tripos – and his greatest achievement, he says, was to “collaborate with Underwood and Ramanujan on something like equal terms”. (Ramanujan, of course, being the brilliant Indian mathematician who, upon being told on his hospital bed that the number of the taxi cab which had delivered his visitor to him was1729, observed this was a particularly interesting number, being the least number which could be expressed as the sum of two different cubes (1729 = 13 + 123 = 93 + 103).

This, it seems to me, is a strange and wondorous gift bestowed on a select few – the easy intimacy with numbers and their curious but necessary relationships. Feynman had it (in a sort of mathematical synesthesia), as did Riemann with his far-reaching and elusive hypothesis which to this day holds out the intruiging possibility of cracking the erratic regularity of the primes.

At times, doing maths seems akin to singing or riding the crest of a wave which perpetually falls away, falling with a dying fall; an active act of unbalance, like the Earth perpetually falling into the Sun. At other times it just seems like doing hard sums. I much prefer the former; better to be burnt in glorious flame than snuffed out by indifference.

* The Man Who Knew Infinity, by Robert Kanigel (scribners); A Mathematician’s Apology, by G H Hardy (Canto), Six Not So Easy Pieces, by Richard Feynman (Penguin).

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