Thursday, January 12, 2006

In Our Time - Prime Numbers

It's a long time since I took maths A level and I was never the most enthusiastic of pupils. But I did enjoy this morning's In Our Time on Radio 4. As often happens Melvyn Bragg's guests made a highly specialised subject fairly comprehensible. I really can't imagine how such a programme would be made, and made weekly, without a public broadcasting service of some sort. Much of this one was about Riemann's hypothesis which hasn't yet been proved but hasn't yet been disproved. It was interesting to be reminded how much of maths is experimental and that most great mathematicians needed some luck to stumble on their theorems.

'Great discoveries often happen over tea' said one contributor (or something like that). This is also apparent in business, the famous water-cooler or informal meeting affect. So if, like me, you get bored doing what you're supposed to be doing at work and like to go for a wander, you can use this phrase to convince your boss that you have your company's best interests at heart.

Maths often starts to make my brain hurt as do large numbers and big universes. I was reminded of a maths teacher who said we were lucky to live in a universe where pi was nearly equal to 22 dived by 7. I wondered, and still do, what a universe where it equalled, for example, an even more convenient 5 would be like? I liked the analogy used on the programme of nature throwing a dice to decide if a number should be prime and the dice having to have more and more sides as the numbers got bigger. But it would be dangerous to push the analogy too far, you might end up thinking you're hearing secret harmonies......

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