Thursday, November 1, 2012
In music, I love such nonsense. I think it is important somehow, like reading a kōan, putting the mind in a place where mere truth is irrelevant, but I also do have a deep lasting long term relationship with science - and maybe even a love for it - which goes back to my youth, discovering one day a large cache of old Scientific Americans and reading through them all from cover to cover and cardboard box to cardboard box. It leads me to still spend days reading through scientific and mathematical articles, scribbling down my own calculations and pondering the deep search for truth. Although I sometimes dissemble when discussing it, my doctorate is not in music at all, but in Electrical Engineering, and I recall a story from those days. My research advisor was Al Despain, a wild-haired crazy man who was willing to skim off some money from his various defense grants to support me, a poor graduate student interested in the intersection of music and technology in those heady times, when one had to write one's own file system to get samples off a disk fast enough to achieve audio rates, when one had to build one's own D/A converter to listen to the audio in real time. But Al's true love was all things military, and one day he told me to be at his house the next morning early, where we were met by a limo and, quickly chewing through several columns of Fig Newtons, headed to the airport and a quick flight to San Diego. Again, a limo, and bustled into a room, I found myself giving a talk on my thesis to a room full of JASONs, the notorious and/or acclaimed MITRE-related Defense Advisory Group, including the esteemed Freeman Dyson. I bumbled through, in awe, and wondered at the attendees most celebrated, not able to say what I really wanted to say: in fact some kind of gushing fanboy babble.
Last week, driving back from visiting my mother and my in-laws, I was reminded of this experience when listening to a Relatively Prime podcast on Paul Erdős. The subject is dear to my heart, and I glow with a very small respectability due to a paper I published with the mathematician Oscar S. Rothaus on Gaussian Residue Arithmetic, giving me an Erdős number of 5 to his 4. The podcast featured three mathematicians with Erdős numbers of 1, and one of them told how he was invited by Erdős to give a talk at a symposium where no one showed up except Erdős, the organizer of the symposium and Stanislaw Ulam, and how proud he was to give his talk to such a small but illustrious audience. In life and work, we love our icons and we hope that someday they may love us.