18 JUNE 2000
. . .Every year Barbara and I have two wedding anniversaries, one by the Gregorian calendar we all use, the other by the church calendar.
. . . Since Gregory was a Pope, youd think the two calendars would coincide, but they often dont because the church calendar has seasons instead of months, some of which, like Easter, are determined by the full moon.
. . . Trinity Sunday is like that. The year we were married, it occurred on June 14, Flag Day. This year it occurred on June 18, Fathers Day.
. . . Will the two ever coincide again? my wife recently asked. Math whiz that I am, I responded yes, every 29 years, on average. I knew that because the moon takes 29 days to complete its orbit, going from full moon to full moon.
. . . Her question got me thinking. On the day we were married, there was a full eclipse of the moon. What were the chances, I wondered, that Trinity Sunday should fall on Flag Day with a total eclipse of the moon? I figure once every 10,585 years, meaning, in all likelihood, it has never happened before and never will again.
. . . Who says math isnt fun?
. . . Last week I finished Paul Hoffmans enjoyable biography of Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdös, a book titled The Man Who Loved Only Numbers. Erdös is the fellow who said, A mathematician is an instrument for turning caffeine into theorems, and who traveled from city to city living out of two suitcases. He did this most of his life. He never married, much less on a special Sunday.
. . . Hoffman tells of one mathematician who did marry but only slept with his wife on days equal to prime numbers; 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, and 31. Hoffman makes the point that -- unlike normal mathematicians -- this guy was seriously nuts; hes now serving twenty years in the Oregon penitentiary for kidnapping and attempted murder.
. . . Does normal mathematician sound like an oxymoron to you? If normal mathematicians arent nuts, what are they?
. . . Recently, prizes of one million dollars each have been offered for the solutions to some simple mathematical problems. By simple, I mean that they are easy to understand but hard to prove, problems like the Goldbach Conjecture. They could have called it the Goldbach Guess but it doesnt have quite the same ring to it, does it?
. . . As you know, there are two kinds of integers, prime numbers and composite numbers. Composite numbers are those numbers which can be expressed as the product of smaller numbers; prime numbers cannot. Six is composite since it equals two times three; two and three are both prime.
. . . Christian Goldbach guessed that every even number can be expressed as the addition of two prime numbers but he couldnt prove it. In 258 years, no one else has proved it. Heres your chance.
. . . If you can prove it, you can collect a million smackaroonies. You will also attain instant fame, at least among mathematicians. You will become a media icon in the pages of the Proceedings of the American Mathematical Society, a journal you never find in the magazine racks at your local grocery store because they sell out so quickly. As for your friends, they will envy the moola but will still wonder when you are going to do something useful with your life.
. . . Usefulness is not highly prized among mathematicians or artists. That said, Paul Hoffman (who, incidentally, publishes the Encyclopedia Britannica) quotes journalist Roger Cooper who was kept in solitary confinement in Iran for several years in the 1980s. Cooper claims mathematics helped keep him sane during his incarceration.
. . . Between interrogations, always blindfolded and accompanied by slaps and punches when I refused to confess to being a British spy, I tried to find ways of amusing myself without books. I made a backgammon set with dice of bread, and evolved a maths system based on Roman numerals but with an apple pip for zero. Orange pips were units, plum stones were fives, and tens and hundreds were positional. This enabled me to calculate all the prime numbers up to 5,000, which I recorded in dead space where the door opened and could speculate on the anomalies in their appearance.
. . . But this makes you wonder -- doesnt it? -- why math didnt keep that other fellow sane, the fellow still in prison in Oregon for kidnapping and attempted murder. I suspect that only some mathematics helps calm the mind. Dealing with integers, yes. I can see how that might keep a person sane. But I suspect this guy whos now in prison wasnt dealing with integers. I suspect he was dealing with irrational numbers and may be still. That would make anyone crazy.
Visit A Website About Prime Numbers
Recommended by Paul Hoffman
The Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search Website
Your portal to better mental health.
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"Pure mathematics do remedy and cure many defects in the wit and faculties of individuals; for if the wit be dull, they sharpen it; if too wandering they fix it; if too inherent in the sense, they abstract it." -- Roger Bacon