Sunday, December 14, 2014

An Epiphany

Sunday reflection via Steven Strogatz....

"The teacher, Mr. diCurcio, said, 'I want you to figure out a rule about this pendulum.' He handed each of us a little toy pendulum with a retractable bob. You could make it a little bit longer or shorter in clicks in discrete steps. We were each handed a stopwatch and told to let the pendulum swing ten times, and then click, measure how long it takes for ten swings, and then click again, repeating the measurement after making the pendulum a little bit longer. The point was to see how the length of the pendulum determines how long it takes to make ten swings. The experiment was supposed to teach us about graph paper and how to make a relationship between one variable and another, but as I was dutifully plotting the length of time the pendulum took to swing ten times versus its length it occurred to me, after about the fourth or fifth dot, that a pattern was starting to emerge. These dots were falling on a particular curve I recognized because I'd seen it in my algebra class. It was a parabola, the same shape that water makes coming out of a fountain.
"I remember having an enveloping sensation of fear. It was not a happy feeling but an awestruck feeling. It was as if this pendulum knew algebra. What was the connection between the parabolas in algebra class and the motion of this pendulum? There it was on the graph paper. It was a moment that struck me, and was my first sense that the phrase 'law of nature' meant something. I suddenly knew what people were talking about when they said there could be order in the universe and that, more to the point, you couldn't see it unless you knew math. It was an epiphany that I've never really recovered from.

-- Steven Strogatz from "Who Cares About Fireflies"

[…If you have a favorite math-related passage that might make a nice Sunday morning reflection here let me know ( If I use one submitted by a reader, I'll cite the contributor.]

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