Thursday, December 06, 2007

Sources of Inspiration

Two major sources of inspiration have dominated my years at Brown: philosophical/religious essays and biographies.

I am not Jewish nor radically religious, but since it's Hanukkah, I'll mention a collection of practical essays rooted in Jewish wisdom: www.aish.com/spirituality/48ways

Again, I am not blindly religious, but here is my own piece of wisdom - nothing is totally black and white, so be humble to listen, filtering what you like and questioning what you don't like in a constructive way. In fact the above essays are very rational in many ways, although at times they might be slightly simplistic - which is unavoidable even in less religious texts.

The essays are quite effective in inciting energy and vitality. My favorite ones:

It is interesting how Catholicism, although rooted in Judaism, has forgotten a little about a more proactive attitude towards achieving things in practice. Being meek and humble can be a very important concept, but that doesn't mean you should act foolish or abstain yourself from achieving. This is a recurring confusion among Catholics and paints a wrong image of Catholicism in the mind of non-Catholics. Anyways, human affairs are complicated, again, nothing is black-and-white.

I finish this part of this post with a quotation from one of the essays that is particularly well suited to my research

"You couldn't buy an eye for a million dollars. Yet God gave you -- for free -- a pair of eyes that work more accurately, quickly and efficiently than the most sophisticated digital vision devices."

Basically the Rabbi is challenging us researchers in the field : he wrote an essay that is supposed to offer timeless wisdom - and he certainly thinks machine vision doesn't work as good as human vision, and probably never will !!!!

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The second part of this post is about these fantastic biographies of mathematicians and scientists we are used to hear about. I have just read a particularly amazing one, from Grassman. The man was never recognized as a major mathematician at his time, mostly taught at high schools, and yet had discovered a stupendous amount of concepts which, 100 years later, are now the basic "look and feel" of math.

After struggling all his life to get his ideas accepted, obtaining little visibility, and being criticized by major mathematicians for his abstract presentation, he finalizes his years by insisting on publishing yet another edition of his work, with a magnificent foreword:

==The following is an extract from the Foreword of Die Ausdehnungslehre: Vollständig und in strenger Form bearbeitet published by Grassmann in 1862:==

"I remain completely confident that the labour I have expended on the science presented here and which has demanded a significant part of my life as well as the most strenuous application of my powers, will not be lost. It is true that I am aware that the form which I have given the science is imperfect and must be imperfect. But I know and feel obliged to state (though I run the risk of seeming arrogant) that even if this work should again remain unused for another seventeen years or even longer, without entering into the actual development of science, still that time will come when it will be brought forth from the dust of oblivion and when ideas now dormant will bring forth fruit. I know that if I also fail to gather around me (as I have until now desired in vain) a circle of scholars, whom I could fructify with these ideas, and whom I could stimulate to develop and enrich them further, yet there will come a time when these ideas, perhaps in a new form, will arise anew and will enter into a living communication with contemporary developments. For truth is eternal and divine and no phase of it ... can pass without a trace; it remains in existence even if the cloth in which weak mortals dress it disintegrates into dust."

And ditto - his truth remains and there's nothing you can do about it. This is a sublime example of unshakable belief in ones purest thoughts, and this brings us back to one of the wisdom articles above - Use Your Inner Guide.

The full biography can be found at: www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Grassmann.html

2 comments:

Fred Hapgood said...

"You couldn't buy an eye for a million dollars. Yet God gave you -- for free -- a pair of eyes that work more accurately, quickly and efficiently than the most sophisticated digital vision devices."

At some point -- exactly when doesn't matter -- we will certainly be able to make artificial eyes that are consipicuously better than biological ones by any imaginable standard. How will people with the Rabbi's perspective react? How will they explain God's giving us such inferior trash?

Please email followups, if any, to hapgood@pobox.com. I never visit my Gmail account.

Ricardo Fabbri said...

Hahaha, I bet they will find an explanation/excuse, but it'd be funny to show this quote by then. I just mentioned the quote because I was amazed that the Rabbi seems to think that's never going to happen.