Sunday, December 30, 2007

But can science be art?

I've spent Xmas 2007 devouring a biography of the late, great S. Ramanujan. For those unfamiliar with his name, he was perhaps the most intuitive mathematical genius the world has ever know. Originally a clerk who had failed college due to his lack of interest in anything other than mathematics, he died at the tender age of 32, having sketched thousands of remarkable theorems, lemmas and formulae in number theory that left highly schooled, eminent mathematicians of the day slack-jawed in wonder. To this day, there is a cottage industry in mathematics set around proving his intuition-led assertions.

The biography, by Robert Kanigel, I recommend to you most heartily. It is carefully researched, but most of all, Kanigel demonstrates a surprising degree of intuition about matters that must have been extremely unfamiliar to him, particularly life in traditional Brahmin communities of South India a century back. It is also incredibly moving. Picturing a mortally sick Ramanujan lying on a mattress in Chetput (a locality in Madras), scribbling in his slate about properties of mock-theta functions, brought a lump to my throat.

What stands out in comments by other mathematicians about Ramanujan's work is the sheer beauty of it. One eminent scholar compared the experience of first absorbing some of his work as simliar to suddenly coming upon a great work of art. It is remarkable how, at certain rarified heights, abstract scientific (mathematical) reasoning transcends the ordinary realm of logic and is elevated to an artistic plane.

Sunday, November 25, 2007


An opinion I've always held is that the first thing a career in academics should teach you is humility. It doesn't matter how good you are - it is always likely that there is someone better than you, and vary glaringly so. Most of us play in the minor leagues, with so many layers of ability and accomplishment above us that the mind boggles in contemplation. Therefore I have little time for the prima donnas one frequently encounters in academic life. It amazes me that, while humility is the expected outcome, what you often get is an overinflated sense of self-worth.

In economics, Paul Samuelson, in my opinion, is one person who could lean back and confidently say 'Pound for pound, there probably is no better economist than I'. But even he could look across at Physics or some other science, glance at a titan or two, and be caused to gulp.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Dinner party guest list

Back in the thick of the new academic year after a month spent in the Big Mango.

I'm looking back at the previous post about life's little treasures, and this always leads me to that familiar thought experiment: 'What would your dinner party guest list be if you could invite anyone in the world?' Of course, including the dead in it makes for better choice. I'm also going to restrict the choice set to those from the world of arts, literature and entertainment.

Woody Allen, of course. Louis Armstrong, and Billie Holliday. The astonishing Nick Park, who makes the astonishing Wallace and Gromit films. JRR Tolkien, who has to be on the list for that one creation involving staggering powers of imagination. A hugely underrated writer, RK Narayan, who will probably only be known to any Indian readers (and more's the pity). Qi Baishi, an even lesser-known painter from China, who painted simple nature art on wooden blocks (see picture above). Robert Frost, my favourite poet.

Stunning talent does not necessarily translate to great dinnertable conversation, and so I would throw in someone purely to play the role of conversation catalyst. Someone not in the same talent league perhaps, but with a pleasing personality and an ability to get the talk going. Perhaps Michael Palin or Louis Theroux.

And I would personally be able to neither talk nor eat, because my jaw would be on the floor.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Life as treasure hunt


"Why is life worth living?" Asks Woody Allen's character, Isaac Davis, in 'Manhattan'. He continues, "It's a very good question. Well, there are certain things I guess that make it worthwhile...Groucho Marx, to name one thing, and Wilie Mays... the 2nd movement of the Jupiter Symphony... and... Louis Armstrong, recording of Potato Head Blues, Swedish movies, naturally... Sentimental Education by Flaubert... Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra... those incredible Apples and Pears by Cezanne... the crabs at Sam Wo's"

In this brief soliloquy, Woody hints at an intuitive approach to life: keep seeking out those simple pleasures and add to and diversify your portfolio as you go along. Don't take your eye off the ball and go for the big chest of buried gold when you can walk along the beach and pick up the little gems.

For me, Woody himself is one of those gems. And I'm feeling quite pleased because I've just picked up another shiny one, one perhaps that most others are little aware of. This is the music of Madeleine Peyroux, a French-American jazz singer that is highly evocative of the peerless Billie Holliday's work. You can hear a small clip of her version of Edith Piaf's 'La Vie en Rose' here.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Resumption of normal service


A year and a half since the last post. During which time, I've re-relocated back across the globe, and now find myself back in my old office at Reading. The little tin of Chinese green tea I had left behind in my desk still sits there, and my temperamental laser printer still inserts annoying dots onto documents at random. A bit surreal; indeed so complete is my re-integration into my old life that I sometimes feel that the whole Bangkok sojourn was a dream. However, scrolling down this page and reading posts about Burmese days and the Chao Phraya river causes all those memories to come flooding back.

I confess, the heart grows heavy sometimes when it harks back. I left behind much that I loved there - that beloved river, the river-top perch that we inhabited, and of course, the incomparable Bee. Did I choose wisely? Incomprehensible as it may seem, I probably did.