Curiosity is the mother of invention: A letter

Curiosity is the mother of invention

A letter to the Bragg Fellows of the Royal Institution of Australia.


              The number was written on a t-shirt underneath a cute cartoon of an alien. The wearer was a mathematics academic in for a radio chat. It was a puzzle.

              I started looking for more data and noticed that the alien had three fingers – puzzle solved. 

              “Pi”, I offered.

              “Correct”, he replied.

              Since the number has only 0s, 1s and 2s, it may well be to the base 3 rather than our familiar base 10. Hence what appears as a ten is, in fact, a three. If we had three digits instead of five then that’s how we would count.

              Like a jackdaw, what I have treasured in the 50 years after tertiary mathematics, is a collection of baubles.

              ∫ 1/(cabin) d(cabin)        =            log(cabin) + C

                                                     =            houseboat

              Curiously, Pure Mathematics was a subject in the Arts faculty. The progenitor of all disciplines?

              Eschewing the vocational areas of physics and chemistry, the closest I got to something of practical use in the outside world was “Theory of Statistics” as it announced itself to the students. With this subject I could have become enthroned as an actuary – a bookmaker employed by an insurance company to bet on failure.

              “I bet robbers burn your house down.” A lose/lose seems to be a win/win.

              Nevertheless, mathematics has never left me.

              I was interested to learn, many years later, that the hammer of the piano strikes the string at such a point as to suppress the discordant 7th harmonic.

              Thank you Herman Helmholtz.

              Since chords on a guitar are merely mathematical arrays, I discovered utility for myself in the pursuit of music. I can play chords on a left-handed guitar – a trivial mirror image. I have many softwares which think through the many rules of music. It’s only a matter of time before a simple melody can be articulated and embellished by simply pressing the JSBach button.

              There was a game of 50 levels on a Gameboy that, at each level, gave you a code to unlock the next level. I completed the first half dozen and then, with the deployment of higher mathematics, I reverse engineered the code to take a shortcut directly to the 50th level.

              I have some skill at Mahjong, Go, Nine Man’s Morris, Bezique and Forty Thieves. Poker is less interesting to me since it conflates money and psychoanalysis.

              As for jokes, I once corrected a joke teller in regard to the mathematics of jokes.

              “Three horses walk into a bar…..”

              Since I anticipated the punchline, I helpfully suggested that there were only two horses.

              They sit down, order a drink from the greyhound behind the bar, and start to reminisce about winning races. The greyhound chips in that he has done a bit of racing himself.

              “Look at that! A talking dog!” says one of the horses.

              Jokes can rework the Hegelian notion  to become:

              Thesis + Synthesis  ===> Antithesis

              My neighbour was an engineering lecturer. To his credit, he has two essential modes, certainty and no opinion.

              He decided to build a second storey on his house during a year of sabbatical leave. The child  young person from the council came around to innocently advise him as to why it was not possible.

              Bruce authoritatively informed him exactly how he was going to proceed.

              The house now has a second floor.

              Once upon a time much of tertiary education was less encumbered by notions of  vocation and utility. Even today, the study of medicine is where you learn the labels in order to communicate with other officials. It’s only when you are in the hospital, at the end of your training, that you need to know how the plumbing can be fixed – or can’t.

              Ask a novelist what “schizophrenia” means and they will offer a pinpoint. A psychiatrist will advise another psychiatrist that the patient’s observable behaviours fall within the scope of the umbrella term “schizophrenia”.

              To be a specialist is to know more and more about less and less. Don’t ask a renal specialist about your cataracts. They may not have the foggiest.

              Whatever it is that you have learned will surprise you with its unforeseen applications.

              Your vocation is simply what you are curious about.


Redmond Symons

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