Do the math

Today we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s General Relativity Theory and I am happy to contribute the following anecdote from my past. Einstein was a big deal for getting my early nerd on. Now I can finally tell the tale without fear of being shamed: nerds are also celebrated these days.

My very last class as an undergrad was working through the math for Einstein’s field emathpequation, that link gravity and mass and space time. For those of you interested, it looks like this:

Now, reading this explanation doesn’t really help me much, and I am sure most of you are just as lost as I am now in trying to get deeper into the actual variables that are part of this calculation. It actually depresses me somewhat, knowing that I spent weeks studying tensor calculus and differential geometry┬áto decode this thing. At the time, I remember thinking that I actually understood what was going on. Remember it took Einstein several years to come up with his theories of relatively.

This actually is the second time in about a month where I realized that I have forgotten more mathematics than I have learned, which I guess is part and parcel to growing old. Earlier, I spent some time with my daughter and her fiance, who is taking a class in mathematical economics. As he showed me some of the equations that he is trying to figure out, I realized that I took several classes as an undergrad and at one time actually knew what they meant. Now they were just as impenetrable as Einstein’s equations. It was a frustrating experience for both of us. But then, it isn’t like I have had to use this stuff in any capacity in my daily life for decades.

I don’t want to give you the impression that I didn’t have a very good education — quite the contrary. It was an important experience that shaped so much of what I ended up doing, even if I can’t do the math any longer. I was a very lucky undergraduate at Union College, a small school in upstate New York. First, I had some terrific professors who guided my learning and put up with me in general. Second, the school at the time had a very liberal independent study policy that I was able to take advantage of. Eventually, I would take an entire year’s worth of independent classes, which taught me self-study and research that would serve me well as a tech journalist. And being a small school I was able to mix and mingle and dabble in non-mathematical classes and meet non-nerds too. Finally, I even had a very geeky part-time job, rebuilding a series of antique geometric string models that the college owned: that taught me a love of mathematical modeling before we had PCs, built-in pivot tables in Excel, or ways to write math in print, such as with TeX and MathML.

But anyway, it is nice to see all the posts (including a very nice NYTimes article) on the topic. And for those of you that can do the above math, kudos to you!

8 thoughts on “Do the math

  1. Be thankful that you have “forgotten” most of your mathematics. Houston neuroscientist David Eagleman (host of “The Brain” ion PBS) argues that’s a sign of a healthy brain retaining and refining brain pathways that are useful and important to YOU and wasting little energy on pathways that are not. This is why as we humans mature, we DO things that tend to leverage our natural talents (strong brain pathways) and in turn get better at everything we do. This tends to make us more competent, confident and comfortable in our own skin. If I could have a magic wand and be 25 again, my only condition would be that I get to take my current brain with me, even though I don’t remember everyone’s name anymore!

  2. David, as usual, you have fun and thoughtful insights to share. I am trying to relearn math to help my daughter in pre-calc, and it’s fascinating to realize how much I have learned and forgotten since i was in her shoes. It’s in the muscle memory somewhere.

  3. now that we have “ways to write math in print, such as with TeX and MathML.”, why not simply display the liter TeX, with or as a replacement for the greek? Is it more ambiguous than the greek? As Descartes would say, “I think not!”

    • actually, i shud apologize. the comment was “in general”, not just for your rendition of general relativity.

      i’m suggesting eliminating the greek _anywhere_ the TeX/MathML is available. back in the day, when using [nt]roff, i used to pre-process with m4 with built-ins so the first exposure of an acronym delivered its long-hand. now, my writing instrument of choice is OrgMode in emacs. since it emits TeX, HTML, Markup, … i suspect to uncover a MathML.el before long.

  4. Hi Dave,

    For some reason I missed this email from you when you sent it. But better late than never. Thanks for your gracious and complimentary remembrances of your Union days. Needless to say, we thoroughly enjoyed having you as a student and wished we had many more with your enthusiasm and ability. On a sad note, the ranks are thinning further; Ed Gillette died last week at the age of 99. A fine individual who never had an unkind thing to say about anyone.

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