Imaginary Numbers

> New Jersey Transit 17.47 to Morristown, NJ <

For anyone not familiar with Melvyn Bragg’s regular Radio 4 program In Our Time, let me bring you quickly up to speed. Over the course of about 45 minutes each time, host Bragg asks three invited experts broad questions on different subjects. Variety is paramount and topics covered canvas art, literature, culture, history and science. It’s educational but welcoming… I listen to the podcast because I like to learn and am curious – it’s my best quality, I think, although boundless generosity, sparkling wit, an extraordinary physique, and beatific humility might all, I concede, run it very close.

As other listeners will no doubt agree, some In Our Time‘s are, as the Smiths song goes, better than others. Sometimes, in fact, ‘niche’ doesn’t quite do it justice… an installment about ancient geological rock formations, for example, was surely dryer than dust in every possible sense. When In Our Time hits its stride, however, it’s well worth shouting about. If not from the rooftops, then at least in a library (and, ok, probably best to whisper). When so much of modern life is unendingly shit, instant, cheap, and shallow, it dares to suggest it’s ok to care, ok to find something difficult, ok to be dazzled. Or, to put it another way, week after week it says, ‘Look! There’s a whole world out there – and much of it deserves and rewards the effort of discovery.’

I’m sounding like a pompous arse, I know. Ah, but so what? Doesn’t bother me if it doesn’t bother you (and even then… what can I say? Feel free to think an unpleasant thought; it might be rather bracing!).

Back to where I was. The last In Our Time was all about ‘imaginary numbers.’ I never even knew such a thing existed. Did you? Probably: I expect you’re better than me at math(s), though that’s hardly saying much… Either way, as far as I understood (not very far at all; about ‘<—>’ far relative to the size of the building you’re reading me in), imaginary numbers are ‘imagined’ in order to make possible calculations that would otherwise be prohibitively difficult. You plug them into an equation and thus make the equation solvable. No, me neither…

I can just about grasp, I think, what an inspired leap of faith this ‘invention’ must have been, first time round when regular old ‘numbers’ and ‘fractions’ proved to be insufficient. It certainly made for an engrossing listen on the train into work yesterday morning. Like being buffeted by a rough sea, only without the inconvenience of seasickness. I shared Bragg’s general befuddlement and could only be grateful for the jovial way he consistently shared it.

What I still wonder now, though, is could I ever learn to navigate such outer-reaches of my ignorance? If, say, one of the cheery experts (the Cambridge professor, please) made it the consuming goal of his life to teach me what he knew – what an unpleasant task that would be – could I ever really get it all? Could I make a happy home in my head for imaginary numbers and everything you can do with them? I have to figure no. For the selfsame reason there’s no meaningful difference between asking me for directions or a tin of baby carrots. Those parts of my brain aren’t just undernourished, I fear, but missing.

Still, the mystery might be better, no? There can’t be many things worse in life than knowing more than you want to.

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About newjonnytransit

Same as ever, only better.
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2 Responses to Imaginary Numbers

  1. erm.. imaginary numbers surely that is Alegbra for example when Einstein Royally ripped us of with the equation to solve all equations: E= MC2. Ah yes the whole world is now so much better because E = MC2……no, Einsteins collect all the money from Book deals, Movies, TV deals, T-Shirts, Badges, copyrights etc and all we are left is a useless imaginary number which doesnt exist and wont work with anything I got, completely and utterly useless. the man who invented the Coffee holder to stop your fingers burning i.e. that piece of card around the cup at least I got something to show for it a nice coffee and fingers without second degree burns but for any purchasers of that imaginary number have got nothing for their money. Imaginary numbers is what Low Alcohol beer is to Stella. whats the point? stop p$ssing about with numbers you dont know and start filling in the blanks and work on them. This maybe a “Doubting Thomas” method but hey at least you know and not substituting with what is basically guesswork.

    • Mr. Main: once again, thank you kindly for the comment. I try to imagine you saying these things after several pints in the Moon. Or, even better, I try to imagine one of the old Moon ‘regulars’ saying this after several thousand pints in the Moon. Then again, maybe what you’re really going for is some kind of Alan Partridge impression. If so, job done! Only someone like Partridge could ever possibly be annoyed by an equation… Anyhow, if it’s at all reassuring to know, apparently ‘imaginary numbers’ continue to be very useful – in many real-life, practical ways. Yeah, something tells me you you’re not buying that theory… To each his own, I suppose. Hope all is good, etc., etc.

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