There seems to be quite a lot of maths in popular media these days. Certainly it is prevalent in the many casual science programmes on television that explore the various wonders of physics, engineering, astronomy and so on. Brian Cox is one of many scientists who have captured the imagination of the general public, and there are so many stories going around this weekend celebrating the achievements of Stephen Hawking, now that he has reached the remarkable age of 70 years. These stories are often accompanied by attempts to explain some of the maths behind the discoveries. Not very good attempts, in many cases. Last night I watched a recorded repeat of a programme on BBC 4 by Matt Collings called Beautiful Equations that left me puzzled the last time I saw it. I’m still puzzled. Not by the math, of course, but by the suggestion that one can understand equations through some mystical sensory mechanism, an ability to find beauty within the maths. Of course, what the scientists call beauty is probably better characterised as simplicity, symmetry, minimalism or brevity. The idea of beauty in equations was reinforced in the programme via the most compressed form of Dirac’s equation, with parts of the equation being referred to (almost poetically) as spinners. No doubt Pauli was spinning in his grave. [Pun definitely intended.]

Maths is not simple. It’s not art, though it is perhaps an art. Sadly, painting equations does not a mathematician make. The equations and representations conjured up by maths can be visually appealing, something I experienced intensely last year through an explorations of fractals. Maths encourages us to explore, to seek to understand. Maybe being able to appreciate the undefinable beauty as well as the rigours of real maths is the best one can hope for. Collings’ thesis still puzzles me, but that’s also why I enjoyed it.

Categorised as: LUE

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