[Paleopsych] Guardian: Learn to love the equation
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Mon May 16 20:21:14 UTC 2005
Learn to love the equation
The thought process needed to master a mathematical formula is a skill
that can empower anyone
Marcus du Sautoy
Monday May 9, 2005
Look on the side of a bus at the moment and you might be rather
shocked to see an onslaught of mathematical symbols. The
conglomeration of cosines and Greek letters isn't the outpourings of
some disgruntled mathematician writing graffiti about his latest
discovery across the nation's bus network. This cryptic equation is
part of an advertising campaign. Mathematical equations are now so
cool - ice cool - that the drinks firm Diageo believes they can help
sell Smirnoff Ice.
The advertising brief was to increase the credibility of Smirnoff Ice
with guys. The result is Uri, the hero of the new campaign, who lives
in some frozen outback with his huskies and friend Gorb. Uri's quirky
take on life is captured by his collection of witty utterances: "Never
judge a book by its movie" or "Despite the cost of living it's still
popular". But Uri's equation is perhaps the most gnomic of all his
messages. You might think maths would only help to endear the drink
with nerds and trainspotters. But it is a mark of the subject's
changing fortunes that mathematical equations have become sufficiently
intriguing for brands to sponsor a formula.
It isn't only advertising firms that have cottoned on to the power of
an equation to promote a product. Science departments across the
country, desperate for media coverage, have mercilessly exploited the
power of an equation to make the news. However silly the research, if
it can be captured by an equation, it's sure to grab the headlines.
We've had a formula for parallel parking; a formula to predict the
future of a marriage; even a formula to help British people under
stand their fear of eating with chopsticks.
But what is the secret formula for a good equation? This year we are
celebrating the centenary of the most famous equation of all time.
Einstein's E=mc2 is probably at the top of most people's list of
memorable equations. Like all great equations, Einstein's discovery
has the quality of a magic trick: you start with something on one side
of the equation and then by mathematical magic the formula transforms
it into something that appears completely different. In Einstein's
case, the trick was to show how matter (the m in his equation) can be
transformed into pure energy (the E), a magic trick that was put to
devastating use in the creation of the atom bomb.
Simplicity is another important ingredient for the most successful
formulas. But simple formulas don't necessarily mean the outcome of
the equation is simple. Chaos theory revealed how amazing complexity
can result from some of the most innocent looking equations.
The power of prediction is also a key part of the best scientific
equations. Those scientists who first understood the equations for the
motions of the heavenly bodies wielded great power. The Spanish
invaders in South America were able to use their prediction of a solar
eclipse to defeat the indigenous armies who were terrified by the
power of their formulas.
The famous British physicist Paul Dirac came up with an equation to
predict the behaviour of electrons. His equation, now inscribed on his
memorial in Westminster Abbey, won him a Nobel prize. But as well as
describing the behaviour of an electron, it also seemed to predict the
existence of a new sort of particle called anti-matter. This strange
substance would annihilate the matter that surrounds us to produce
pure energy. Sounds like science fiction - indeed, the starship
Enterprise is fuelled on the stuff. Yet despite early scepticism by
scientists, anti-matter was in fact identified as a reality in 1932.
But in Einstein's view, the ultimate test for an equation was an
aesthetic one. The highest praise for a good theory was not that it
was correct or that it was exact, simply that it should be beautiful.
Dirac concurred with Einstein's view. When asked in a seminar in
Moscow to summarise his philosophy of physics, he wrote on the
blackboard in capital letters: "Physical laws should have mathematical
Although Einstein's tops most people's lists of great equations, it is
also likely to be the only one on the list. Shouldn't people be able
to summon up more than just Einstein's iconographical equation? What
about all those formulas we were subjected to at school? A whole
debate in parliament was dedicated recently to the delights or
otherwise of quadratic equations. One side of the house argued that
they should be scrapped from the syllabus. After all, who has ever
needed to solve a quadratic equation in real life? But that misses the
point of why they should be a core part of the curriculum.
The analytical thought process required to master an equation is a
skill that will empower anyone, from a solicitor arguing a case in
court, to a dinner lady planning the week's school dinners. Although
it probably didn't mean to support the mathematical lobby in the
debate, I think the message below Uri's equation on the number 149 bus
sums it up: "Clear thinking from Smirnoff" ... and mathematics.
· Marcus du Sautoy is professor of mathematics at Oxford University
and author of The Music of the Primes
dusautoy at maths.ox.ac.uk
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