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Thursday, 11 June 2015

The Number Revolution: How math explains our world

Russian physicist Igor Tamm won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1958. During the Russian revolution, he was a physics professor at the University of Odessa in the Ukraine. Food was in short supply, so he made a trip to a nearby village in search of food. While he was in the village, a bunch of anti-communist bandits surrounded the town.The leader was suspicious of Tamm, who was dressed in city clothes. He demanded to know what Tamm did for a living. He explained that he was a university professor looking for food. “What subject?,” the bandit leader asked. Tamm replied “I teach mathematics.”“Mathematics?” said the leader. “OK. Then give me an estimate of the error one makes by cutting off a Maclaurin series expansion at the nth term. Do this and you will go free. Fail, and I will shoot you.”Tamm was not just a little astonished. At gunpoint, he managed to work out the answer. He showed it to the bandit leader, who perused it and then declared “Correct! Go home.” Tamm never discovered the name of the bandit.

From “Calculus makes you live longer”, in “100 Essential Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know”, by John Barrow

Nobody can promise that math may save your life but it can certainly change it. Almost everyone who takes one math class or the other usually ends up describing the class as a collection of obscure symbols and gibberish.  Many of the younger students even end up developing a feeling of hatred towards the subject.  Maybe if given a different perspective of the subject they may have a different outlook on it altogether.

Would you like to know the future? How life started or something as trivial finding out what’s on tomorrow’s routine test? How could anyone possibly know that? What if there was something that contained all the information that was, is or will ever exist?

Pi knows it all. 

Pi is omniscient. The number contains a never-ending sequence of all possible digit permutations. Using an elementary computer program one can convert Pi to its ASCII equivalent and that data contains all the information you’d ever want. Doesn’t it sound like the treasure from Robert LouisStevenson’s Treasure Island? The universe and everything in it contained in one never ending trail of digits. Simply ingenious. That’s just the glimpse of the power of numbers. But the ability to yield such power only comes with understanding.

Numbers have been an integral part of humanity since millennia. The need for numbers appeared when man wanted to quantify things; from the cattle he owned, the berries he foraged to the quantification of light.

Math is known for the intrinsic aesthetics. Simplicity and generality are valued. Artists like da Vinci used math for making masterpieces while others used it to find rigorous proofs for things that thrilled them.

One thing led to another. A never ending chain reaction initiated. Along came Aryabhatta (one of the first to use shunya or the zero), Isaac Newton(needs no introduction; key figure in the scientific revolution) , Leonhard Euler (infinitesimal calculus and calculus), John von Neumann (quantum logic, computer architecture and a really long list of equally important achievements), George Boole (pioneer behind Boolean algebra) and a huge group of geniuses that changed our outlook on the world forever. They believed that 'no idea was small'.

There was such a revolutionized way of thinking that numbers were no longer just used to count the dozen bananas you bought or to keep track of the money you spent. Numbers meant more than that. An image is nothing but a sequence of numbers arranged in a particular pattern; numbers could tell if you had cancer by just looking at you, they could compromise a strategic enemy position without spilling any blood. Math can tell you whether tomorrow is a good day to go for a family picnic to Central Park. Numbers can even talk to you and give advice.

Such is the power of mathematics and numbers.

Math has become a really powerful tool. Just as the Neanderthals had their hand-axes, we have math. Math and logic have crept into our daily lifestyle without our noticing and are influencing this planet in a way bigger than we can imagine. With each passing day scientists and scholars are pushing mathematics and taking it to the next level. Almost everything in the world is moving towards digitization. A day will come when the world will be represented by 0's and 1's and numbers shall takeover. This revolution has been taking shape since centuries. Only a question remains. 

Do you want to be a part of the biggest revolution in the history of mankind?

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