In Pursuit of the Truth

“Have you seen this video? “, said the husband for the n-th time. He definitely sounded like a child in Disneyland glimpsing Tinker Bell, and I looked up indulgently. His face was glowing as though he was discovering Calculus for the first time.

I could understand his enthusiasm – the 3Blue1Brown videos are well explained, beautifully animated and make you appreciate Calculus in a wholly new way. The journey as well as the philosophy behind it.

I have to confess that the 3Blue1Brown videos sparked my interest, and I peeked into the childhood brain enjoying Maths classes, as I picked up a book, called A Strange Wilderness – The Lives of the Great MathematiciansBy Amir D Aczel to read about the journey of Mathematics through the ages. How did we arrive at the basic tenets of the truth that held the universe together?

A Strange Wilderness: The Lives of the Great Mathematicians – By Amir D Aczel

The book starts with examining the Greeks and their approach to understanding the world over 2500 years ago. Starting with Thales of Miletus(624 BCE) , who was often called the first philosopher (He is known for the famous saying , “Know Thyself”), it examines Mathematics as a pursuit of the truth.

I was lured in, and though I did feel the writing could have been far more intriguing, it was a well-collated narrative of mathematicians and their lives through the ages.

The next great mathematician is the renowned Pythagoras of Samos (580-500 BCE) who continued the philosophy of:

Changing Mathematics from a computational discipline into a beautiful, abstract philosophy.

For those in Academia or are students still, the philosophical bent of the pursuit of truth is probably there. But for most others, in our day-to-day lives, Mathematics has taken on a more computational role than a philosophical one.

The arc of Calculus itself is an interesting story. How close we came as a species to discovering Calculus multiple times? Progress happens in fits and starts, and for every piece of the puzzle that we decipher, world events, or simply fate intervenes and sets us back a few steps. So many mathematicians came close to the concept of Calculus including the philosopher Zeno, in Zeno’s Paradox, over two millennia ago.

The History of Calculus

Finally, it wasn’t till the late 17th century when Leibnitz and Newton arrived at Calculus independently. Mired in controversy as it was as to who discovered it first, it is still a fascinating journey.

I remembered one cold Winter evening waiting for the fireworks at Disneyland and wondering whether the Imagineers at Disney had calculated Tinker Bell’s rope coverage using Calculus, to ensure that the area under the rope display was visible from most areas in the park. They must have done – this was Disney after all.

When we dedicate some of our Calculating Mind’s time to enable the Thinking Mind, the resulting moments are truly magical.

Photo by Mohan Reddy Atalu on Pexels.com

Taking the journey with Mathematicians through the ages was also strangely comforting. After all, in spite of wars, disease, revolutions and all the horrifying things in the world, the pursuit of truth did hold its slender string through time. Ravaged, and knotted up at times, maybe, but always resurfacing with the single minded purpose of the pursuit of the truth. The pursuit of the truth is one of our basic tenets, after all.

The Paradox of Philosophy

One evening, the husband was yawning loudly. The kind of yawns where after a few of these, you worry for your loved one’s jaws. The children and I exchanged knowing smiles. “He must be reading that Philosophy Book of his!” we said in unison, and started laughing.

The husband decided that to uplift himself, he must invest in a book of Philosophy. If ever there is a soporific cure for insomnia, that seems to be it, looking at the effect it has on the husband. The Philosophy book has him floored regardless of time of day. Whether at 9 am or 10 pm, within minutes the man is snoring much like the philosophers say the man with a good life should. (Only he hasn’t got to that part yet).

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In an attempt to retain enthusiasm in the text, he has taken to explaining things to us. It hasn’t gone well so far, for we scent his Philosophy lessons from a mile away, and scuttle like that turtle Achilles is supposed to catch up with. According to Zeno, Achilles would never be able to catch up with the Tortoise since the Tortoise would always be ahead of Achilles albeit by a smaller margin.

Achilles & The tortoise
Zeno’s paradox of motion

The husband has evolved and now solicits our attention on walks and hikes. Zeno would have either been proud of us during these evening walks, or been utterly shocked at the frivolous way in which we were treating his treatise on paradoxes. Known as Zeno’s Paradox, old Zeno does not seem to be a guy known for this love of exercise. He preferred to spout philosophies on how it must be quite impossible to get to one place from another. (Hence the paradox, since we all know that we can get to one place from another in a finite amount of time).

Zeno might have been offended, but not the husband. No Sir! He ran after us trying to explain Zeno’s paradox, while we ran even faster – “See, this is why Zeno’s Paradox doesn’t work. We are running faster than you, and unless we slow down or you speed up, which seeing the state of your dinner plate is not possible, you cannot catch up with us!” we said panting. The somewhat heavy dinner protested inside us – “Hey!Hey! You said mild walks to calm the system down. This is not a mild walk. This stroll is a Paradox is what it is!”

To be fair to old Zeno, his philosophies were laid out about 2000 years before Calculus was invented.

Of course if old Zeno were to be around today, he would be shown the following you-tube video
The Essence of Calculus – (3blue 1 brown)

To which the old fellow would have said with good humor and grace, “This is so cool!” and he could go back to come up with other interesting questions in life

It is indeed refreshing to find hours of lectures, the huge books written by all and sundry summarized in a children’s book, Carl and the Meaning of Life.

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Carl, the Earthworm spends his time underground, digging, tilling and keeping the soil soft and fluffy. When asked about his purpose in life, Carl is unsure and sets out on a quest to find out his purpose in life.

Sadly he returns to where he started from after finding no answers to his purpose of being and finds that the ground has become hard and dry. Vegetation has dried up, and the rabbits are moving elsewhere in search of greener pastures. It is one of the most joyous things for the poor earthworm – he realizes then what his purpose is. He burrows underground and spends months, raking the soil and turning it upside down.The flowers start to bloom, the rabbits linger on and therefore, so do the foxes, and all of life thrives again.

I read the book out to the husband one day to save his jaws and his guffaws sent the earthworms in our backyard scuttling back to work. He flung his Philosophy book, and leapt out of bed and said his purpose just then was to not fall asleep and watch 2 hours of television in which he hoped to finish 10 different movies.

I laughed. Maybe the meaning of life comes to those of us who do not think too much, but do.

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