Sunday, July 17, 2011

Learning about Language & Understanding the Universe

When this video came across my desk a month or two ago, I sat up and paid attention. You should too. Give it a watch.

(For people reading this on Facebook, which doesn't like videos, click here.)

The notion that the arts and sciences are not at odds, but both ask fundamental questions about the most important things, is not news to me. But like hearing the Gospel once more and being born again for the 10,000th time, this hit me pretty heavy. Why? Two reasons.

First. I had not read any math lately. Or anything about math. Or numbers. There was a chapter about the Enigma machine I read a day or two before watching. It had quite a bit about combinations and numbers, but I glossed over that when I could have engaged it, and pressed on to the next bit of history. Now I have gone back and given Enigma a little more numerical consideration.

Second. I had been spending all day - indeed, about six weeks - deep in British archives, doing research. I was living the arts, you might say, being a good historian. But I realized that my history was often failing to ask the great questions of language and of the cosmos. Please, do not misunderstand: I was doing excellent history, with all kinds of primary sources and keen analysis. But my history was just that, and not more. And it should have been more.

One further thought comes to mind: When our video's narrator speaks of "math", what he really means is "pure math" or "philosophy of math," as opposed to "applied math". In some ways a minor detail, but oh so big. At most universities, though the Math Department is housed in a College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, it is engineers who take its classes and thereby pay its budget. So although said department may strive to consider numbers as language, as clues to the nature of the universe, it is usually reduced to calculating how heavy the truck can be before the bridge collapses. This is sad.
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