Saturday, January 22, 2011

Numbers etc.

Our world owes a lot to numbers. Since ages, human civilizations have been obsessed with these symbols. In our world, anything that can be measured in numbers is given a serious thought. 
Physics- the science to which we owe our understanding of the physical world-relies as much on numbers as it does on practical observations. Only and if only a physical theory can be mathematically proved is it given validity. We judge people with the help of numbers. So if you get 90% in your test, you’re good enough and if you get less, you’re not. We’ve even been able to quantify time and it has made our life a race. Though only the moment of now (the right now) is real, all we think about is what would happen 2 weeks later or what happened 5 years ago.
Animals too have a sense of maths. A mother cheetah (or lioness etc.) will get anxious if only two out of her three cubs are with her and go looking for the third one. In fact, a very interesting mathematical “behavior” in the animal world is talked about in the book “The Math Instinct” by Keith Devlin. A dog trying to fetch at maximum speed a ball thrown over a lake diagonally to the water line seems able to figure out how far to run along the shore before plunging into the water, a problem that a human would need calculus to solve.1
Numbers are reliable (though often their source might not be). They give us the illusion of an order and control. We can predict a lot of things with 70% accuracy or 99% accuracy etc. with their help. Meteorological departments can measure humidity levels, air pressure etc. and have us decide if it’s a good time for an outing on the beach. Computer, rockets and cars, the hallmarks of modern times, wouldn’t be possible without mathematics.
 Numbers have gone far and taken us far. But not far enough, yet. So although we appreciate, love and respect our mothers, we cannot account for their contribution in the national income. We still don’t account for the environmental damage caused by industrial units when arriving at the profit made by them. Maybe one day in future when biology understands more about human emotions and the related physiological processes, we will be able to quantify our love and fear in terms of, say, oxytoxin levels in blood. If I say I’m looking forward to that day, I’d be lying.
I’ve nothing against numbers though. It’s not the numbers; it’s what we do with them. And what we do with what we do with them.

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