Archive for July, 2012

The Two Cultures

The Two Cultures

Of course I’ve heard of Beethoven, but who is this guy Gauss?

The “Two Cultures”, introduced by the British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow in an influential Rede Lecture in 1959, are still relevant.

Ludwig von Beethoven and Carl Friedrich Gauss were at the height of their creativity in the early nineteenth century. Beethoven’s music, often of great subtlety and intricacy, is accessible even to those of us with limited knowledge and understanding of it. Gauss, the master of mathematicians, produced results of singular genius, great utility and deep aesthetic appeal. But, although the brilliance and beauty of his work is recognized and admired by experts, it is hidden from most of us, requiring much background knowledge and technical facility for its true appreciation.

There is a stark contrast here. There are many parallels between music and mathematics: both are concerned with structure, symmetry and pattern, but music is accessible to all while maths presents greater obstacles. Perhaps it’s a left versus right brain issue. Music gets into the soul on a high-speed emotional autobahn, while maths has to follow a rational, step-by-step route. Music has instant appeal; maths takes time.

It is regrettable that public attitudes to mathematics are predominantly unsympathetic. The beauty of maths can be difficult to appreciate, and its significance in our lives is often underestimated. But mathematics is an essential thread in the fabric of modern society. We all benefit from the power of maths to model our world and enable technological advances. It is arguable that the work of Gauss has a greater impact on our daily lives than the magnificent creations of Beethoven.

Irish Times Articles

“That’s Maths”,  a new series of articles on mathematics and its importance in society, will be published in the Irish Times, starting on 19 July 2012.

The initial article, at TM001, looks at the statistics of Usain Bolt’s performance in the 100m and the prospects for a new record at the London Olympics.

The column draws on an article,  What is the Speed Limit for Men’s 100 Meter Dash, by Prof Reza Noubary of  Bloomington University, Pennsylvania, available here (PDF).


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