Words have not always been my best friend, which is probably why it took me so long to start using social media or writing for my own website. I somehow got through school with only a passing ability to spell and to this day take a mathematical approach to grammar: randomly scatter and by chance, some will (hopefully) be in the right place. It is to my detriment that my command of my own language is not as good as it should be and something I perpetually work on improving.
When I started university I realised how important it was to clearly articulate my ideas. This wasn’t helped by an impulsive switch of course in my first week at university from aeronautical engineering to aeronautical engineering with French – after all what could be better than being 21 and living near Paris? So began near-daily practice of technical French (GCSE French did not cover how to discuss different engines) as well as conversational French so that I could really enjoy my time living in France. I still can clearly remember the look on my French lecturer’s face as I admitted to having no idea what the “pluperfect” was (and in case you’re wondering it’s being able to say something had happened in the past at a specific point in time). To her credit, she helped me every improve dramatically and I also purchased both a French dictionary and an Oxford English thesaurus.
The latter is a rather sturdy tome and over the years was used regularly to write all my dissertations. I’ll admit at times has been a handy footstool and occasional doorstop.
However recently it showed in stark clarity how words and mathematics are inextricably linked. Each has its part to play in showing the full result – of showing what can be hidden inside.
At the risk of generalising (and let me know if you disagree) mathematicians are cautious with words. Publishing your research, thoughts and ideas needs precision, care and attention. Now, when I’m writing reports I have my Thesaurus and a copy of Fowlers Modern English next to me. It helps me focus and make sure every word on the page has a place. No one really has time to read waffle.
The maths interlinking with words starts four years ago when I lost my engagement ring. I knew I’d had it on in the morning but by tea it was gone. It was winter so I’d been wearing gloves and after searching the car, house, washing machine, retracing my steps….it was still nowhere to be found. Only I couldn’t shake a niggle that it wasn’t lost (or couldn’t accept I’d never see it again)
Skip forward to a couple of months ago and my Thesaurus has had a few spells in the shed (redecorating) and survived a potential donation to a charity shop (it is quite big). Through all of that, I did keep it, partly due to being of use to both me and my kids (helping with homework) but mainly for sentimental reasons. After all, how many books you brought whilst at university do you still use on a regular basis?
Then one morning as I started writing up a recent project, I was gleefully thinking about how much nicer it was to use a book and not a computer thesaurus. Whilst flicking some glinted and caught my eye. There on page 430, wedged in was my ring. Still sparkling, still as lovely as the day I got it.
Calculating the probability of finding my ring is an interesting problem. There are lots of interlinked factors and undoubtedly human decision making biases involved. Perhaps I’ll work on this when I have time. But what I take from the whole event is this: even though the maths might be complex, the probability might be small, and the real finding is hidden from sight at the start, if we take time to focus on clearly presenting the results and cut out waffle the end result can make everyone happy.