Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Numbers and elusive "solutions"

I am fascinated by numbers and math. That's not to say that I particularly LIKE math or that I have a mathematical mind. No - I respect math but from a safe distance. In fact, a few years ago I probably would have claimed indifference when it comes to math and numbers, but lately I seem to be drawn to the inevitability of math. Looking back, I think it probably started with the movie A Beautiful Mind, a 2001 Ron Howard film starring Russell Crowe as the brilliant mathematician John Forbes Nash. Then, I started watching the tv series Numb3rs, an FBI detective show based on the application of mathematical principles to solving crimes. Then, it was the book, The DaVinci Code and just a few days ago I watched a movie called Pi, in which Maximillian Cohen, a numbers theorist, searches for a key number that will unlock the universal patterns found in nature.

Way, WAY back, I remember watching an episode of a tv show called A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in which computers were assigned the task of determining the answer to the question of the meaning of life. The answer? 42. That helps a lot, right!

So, here's the thing. math IS everywhere. It's in the beauty of a flower, the sharp angles of a cliff, the rythm of the ocean, the organization of human genes and skeletons. It's in economic transactions and political systems. Math, numbers, geometry, formulas - they describe and ARE the stuff of life on this amazing planet. But, is there life beyond the reaches of math? Or, to put it differently, can we ever reduce life to mathematical propositions and formulas? Can we understand ourselves, the universe, God, the past, the future - through numbers?

Well, I wouldn't be much of a sociologist if I said YES to that question! After all, a fundamental premise of sociology (identified by French sociologist, Emile Durkheim) is that society is equal to MORE than the sum of its parts. In fact, it was Durkheim who posed the question, "how is social order possible?" that really provided the framework for the development of sociology as a distinct social science.

I think it's the unknown factor which intrigues me - it's the elusiveness of solutions, or even of understanding that gives me passion for life and learning. I love watching life unfold - the spectacular dance between reason and faith, certainty and mystery, what is and what may yet be. I love being both spectator and participant in the incredibly complex and multi-faceted reality of life with all of its beauty and absurdity. I love pursuing truth and understanding, even knowing that truth is much too clever to stand still long enough for me to catch it.

I wish the mathematicians and other scientists well in their quest to capture life in an equation or formula. I will contrbute money for medical research so that they can unlock mysteries that are well beyond my own understanding. I will cheer them on with great enthusiasm - for they are most certainly the underdog in their cosmic quest - and it is no doubt very disheartening to be reaching for that elusive goal that is always just beyond your reach.

But as for me, I will revel in the complexity and mystery of life and in the goodness of a God who has given us this amazing gift.

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