Sunday, October 04, 2009

Mathematically speaking

This isn't my usual reading material. I only picked up Why Beauty Is Truth: A History of Symmetry because the Keats in the title intrigued me. And the blurb seemed kind of interesting -- the exploration of symmetry as a mathematical concept. Symmetry has always been key in music, art, dance -- forms that I'm familiar with -- but apparently, symmetry is also the central idea in the theory of relativity, quantum physics and string theory.

I'm no mathematician. I took Maths at AO Level in junior college and failed my first year exams with the astounding grade of 3% (at least one mark was awarded out of pity than for getting an answer correct). The Maths Head of Department hauled me up and sorrowfully pointed out that it was the lowest Maths exam score ever in the history of National Junior College. You need to understand that NJC proudly produced a President's Scholar every year. Up in the assembly hall was a plaque with the names of the scholars, one, sometimes two, a year, every year, in the history of NJC. That year, the year was already inscribed, it was only waiting for a name to go alongside it. I'm sure my record-setting math exam score had nothing to do with it, but my cohort was the only batch that failed to produce a President's Scholar. There was no name to go next to that year. How our principal must have been humiliated.

Anyway, I digress. But not far enough to emphasize that maths is just not my kinda thing. But I'm beginning to realise that it can be an interesting subject and not the dreary quadratic equations I was forced to solve. This month's National Geographic had a really eye-opening article on how origami is more than folding paper cranes, and is a mathematical puzzle involving an algorithm for folding a piece of paper into a three-dimensional object. And it was origami that helped engineers figure out how to fold an airbag into a car dashboard, how to unfold a telescope in space, and extend a heart stent implanted in an artery. Gosh, I should have paid more attention in math class.

Still, the book was hard going in places where mathematical formula were involved. Those were the bits I skipped. But still, it was amazing. For instance, I realised that in calculating frisbee trajectory, my dog was actually working out calculus -- the quickest route between two points. My stars, Rupert, that dumbo who still can't get it right where not to pee, is a mathematical genius.

1 comment:

eslow said...

It's my view the principal jinxed it by inscribing the year in advance. Cocky! I'd sure like to know if the scraping off of the numbers was done quietly in the dead of night.