Sunday, February 03, 2013

`The Delight of Such Unexpected Discovery'

All week I knew I would be, on Friday, attending a lecture given by a computational mathematician whose academic specialty is the relation between the coefficients of linear partial differential equations and their solutions. He devises algorithms to solve inverse problems. That’s our tool for learning about regions not readily accessible to humans. In other words, he helps oil companies locate petroleum deposits under the ocean. Indirectly, he makes possible the ongoing existence of civilization. Thanks to him and his colleagues, I can write this and you can read it. 

In this setting, my math is rudimentary. I know the lecturer, and he’s smart and articulate and knows how to speak to a mixed audience, but keeping up with his reasoning, even with the accompaniment of PowerPoint slides, would for me be comparable to following a lecture on Goethe in German. “Ich?” I know that. “Faust?” I know that. So I prepped for the lecture by reading Theodore Dalrymple’s “As a Matter of Interest” in the new issue of New English Review: 

“With books in existence such as Malay Poisons who can possibly be bored? It seems unfair that death should put an inevitable end to the delight of such unexpected discovery; but perhaps if there were no end to it, there would be no delight in the first place.” 

A welcome reminder. Dalrymple contrasts boredom with delight. Both are choices, not givens. How often in life have I chosen to be bored, as though to prove a point? Laziness and stubbornness conspire to ensure a mulish case of tedium. With Dalrymple’s encouragement, I entered the lecture hall with one thing in mind: What can I learn? I sat with a Russian mechanical engineer of my acquaintance. “I know nothing about geophysics,” he said. “How about you?”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"I am never forget the day I am given first original paper to write. It was on analytic and algebraic topology of locally Euclidean parameterization of infinitely differentiable Riemannian manifold.
Bozhe moi!
This I know from nothing."
- Tom Lehrer, Lobachevsky