Never be afraid to get dirty, but be sufficiently sure-footed to avoid the abyss of contamination.

On Living Life

An old math joke goes as follows:

An engineer, a physicist and a mathematician are staying in a hotel. The engineer wakes up and smells smoke. He goes out into the hallway and sees a fire, so he fills a trash can from his room with water and douses the fire. He goes back to bed. Later, the physicist wakes up and smells smoke. He opens his door and sees a fire in the hallway. He walks down the hall to a fire hose and after calculating the flame velocity, distance, water pressure, trajectory, etc. extinguishes the fire with the minimum amount of water and energy needed. Later, the mathematician wakes up and smells smoke. He goes to the hall, sees the fire and then the fire hose. He thinks for a moment and then exclaims, “Ah, a solution exists!” and then goes back to bed.

Claude Shannon was an electrical engineer that many consider the father of the information age. His master’s thesis started the field of digital logic. In his seminal work, A Mathematical Theory of Communication (later republished as The Mathematical Theory of Communication), Shannon proved that it was possible to transfer information reliably over unreliable media by digitizing it and adding sufficient redundancy, an insight that has led to innovations ranging from deep space communication to scratched-up CDs that continue to play music. While there is no Nobel Prize for engineering, Shannon was one of the first recipients of the Kyoto Prize, the Japanese equivalent.

When not revolutionizing the world, Shannon found several ways to keep himself busy. His hobbies included running, playing the oboe, and juggling. Shannon also loved tinkering. He built a machine that could juggle, designed a robotic mouse that could “learn” how to solve a maze, and converted his Volkswagon into a camper for family excursions.

Richard Feynman was one of the famous physicists of the twentieth century. A biography of him by James Gleick is titled simply Genius. During World War II, he was among a select group of scientists involved with the Manhattan project. He helped develop the field of quantum electrodynamics. The work won him a Nobel Prize in physics.

Feynman had an extensive set of hobbies, too. While at Los Alamos, he developed a reputation for cracking safes. While some might question the legality of that hobby, some of his more benign activities included playing the bongo and sketching. However, the hobby he is most noted for is storytelling. Several of his conversations with Ralph Leighton were recorded and turned into a series of books, inspiring several aspiring scientists and engineers.

Bertrand Russell is considered one of the top logicians in the history of mathematical philosophy. His contributions to mathematical logic and the foundations of mathematics form much of the basis of our current understanding of the field.

Russell’s writings were not confined to mathematics. In 1950, he was awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature. Among the texts recognized was The Conquest of Happiness. The book eloquently stresses the importance of pursuing external interests over those that are inwardly focussed in order to maintain “the essential quality of life.” Among other things, external interests include concern for others and hobbies.

In a chapter titled “Is Happiness Still Possible?” Russell uses the example of his gardener’s attempts at ridding the garden of rabbits. Russell comments that his gardener’s crusade against rabbits is a great source of happiness, something for which the latter, at seventy, “bicycles sixteen hilly miles” on a daily basis to do. He rejects the notion among some intellectuals (a group my friend Eugene would call “coffee drinkers”) that knowledge brings with it misery, noting that a scientist crusading against a dangerous bacterium can derive the same joy his gardener gets from rabbit chasing. In fact, Russell proclaims, “Of the more highly educated sections of the community, the happiest in the present day are the men of science.”

A solution exists, and it’s a bit early for bed.


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