Maths is a different country

25 11 2010

Usually when commuting by train to either Glasgow and Edinburgh I sit opposite business man and women, people heading to shopping trips in the city or sometimes families on a day trip. Yesterday I say opposite a talk, very lean man with disheveled hair, fashionably distressed leather jacket and designer stubble. Not that remarkable but it was what he was doing that caught my attention.

As soon as he sat down he took out a thin blue notebook and a single mauve sheet covered with mathematical problems. He opened the book and looked at the sheet for a few moments before copying a line of symbols onto a clean page of the notebook. For several minutes he looked at the equations, His expression was one of concentration and puzzlement.

After a short time he started to write and quickly covered the page with a range of numbers and symbols. Throughout this process he didn’t look up. His expression changed little. He was totally absorbed in finding an answer to this problem.

I was a salesman in one of my earliest business incarnations and developed the skill found in all great salespeople – the ability to read upside down – but the sheet of maths was totally incomprehensible to me. I had absolutely no idea what the sequences of numbers and symbols meant. It wasn’t even clear to me whether it was a question or a statement. Was the young man trying to find a solution to a problem or seeking to prove a premise? And was there a right solution or could there have been more than one answer?

I’m a zoologist, by degree, so I am used to scientific terminology, most of which can be explained in words as well as symbols. It is a relatively simply process to convey in words what is mean by E=MC2. Understanding the implications and ramifications of the equation is another matter but it is easy to describe the symbols in a few words.

But a whole sheet of symbols, with no words, no other explanation. The question and answer both being presented in terms completely beyond my ken. Maths is a different language,

I found myself wondering if there are mathmetical equivalents of linguistic nuances. When a question is posed, for example, concerning the role of women in the novels of DH Lawrence there may be some wrong answers but there will certainly be more than one right answer. It’s a matter of observation and interpretation. I wonder if maths at it’s most complex is the same or whether it is always a search for a single, ultimate truth? I rather hope it’s the latter.

Very few things in life are clear cut, most are open to interpretation and discussion. It would be nice to think that at least the young man doing maths on the train can find a single answer to his problem.