I want to talk about my experience of doing mathematics. I expect to do mathematics, too, but I really want to talk about the doing, not just the done.

For many years now I have written an annual letter. At both sides of 3 sheets of paper, it’s larger than one is supposed to send as a Christmas card. What makes it work, I think, is that it is more than just a recital of events; it attempts to describe what I experienced. At the very least, it talks about I liked and didn’t like during the year. 

A friend taught me that distinction early on. (Hi, Bert!) He called me up after reading a long-ago letter. “Ok, I know what happened all year. Now tell me how you are. That’s what I want to know.”

I’m not saying that my annual letter is all touchy-feely. Yes, I’ve talked about having a cat missing for more than 24 hours, using my real-time diary entries. I’ve talked about my first trip to the Old World: my feelings standing on the tarmac at Athens airport were almost indescribable, but I tried to describe them anyway. I have also discussed such things as jury duty, cat genetics, and color theory.

There is one subject, however, that doesn’t come across very well in that letter: mathematics. Oh, I once included plots of spacecraft going from earth to other planets. I enjoyed getting the calculations to work, and while still pictures weren’t anywhere near as good as my animations, nevertheless I could show my friends the results of my playing around. Alas, I don’t often get results that lend themselves to nice pictures.

Only one of my friends is a mathematician, a couple more got their undergraduate degrees in math; several more are engineers. I can talk to one friend about linear algebra and statistics, to a couple of them about physics, to a few of them about chemical or electrical engineering.

But I cannot write an effective Christmas letter about mathematics.

Hence, I’m going to try blogging. And I am deliberately aiming for the same chatty style I use in my annual letter.

We’ll see how it works. If it goes like most of my life, I’ll get better with practice.

Sixty years ago I knew everything; now I know nothing; education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance. ~ Will Durant


One Response to “Purpose”

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