Thursday, 25 September 2014

So Desperate So

  Give credit to Melvyn Bragg - he tried. To kick off the new series of "In Our Time" (BBC Radio 4) he tackled "e" or "Euler's Number". And he had three women mathematicians on his panel. But it proved only one thing to me: you can't really do maths on radio. You need a black- or whiteboard at least.

 He bravely tried to pin them down as to what "the number represented by e" was. The more they tried to explain, the more they introduced new ideas, complexities and longer equations, which we couldn't follow on radio. To cover this, they used "So" more and more often, sounding more and more concerned, if not desperate, to get the idea across and to pretend to logical argument.

 But - aha! moment - what came out was that it is all a pretence. You have to pretend certain things for maths to work. 1/3 seems exact but you can't represent it in an exact decimal: 0.333 recurring for ever! Or any number to the power of zero is one - what? Not in the real world, but you need to pretend it is true for maths to work: remember Lewis Carroll's having to practise believing impossible things before breakfast, almost like his creed?

When I suggested at school that maths might be based on pretence, I got a clip round the ear and a detention. Bertrand Russel got awed praise and a university maths professor brought in for him as a private tutor!

 Still, well done Melvyn. You did your best.


  1. Lovely to know you were listening too! I've never heard so much silence and so little 'yes butting' from Melvyn! ;-)

  2. Interesting but frustrating. Needed a pencil & piece of paper. Do I know you from somewhere else?