Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Mathematics and the Homeboy

As reported in several previous Science Lifestyle blog essays, I’m always on the lookout for interest in science and mathematics by the general population. I’m usually quite surprised when I find any interest at all here in Los Angeles, aka Tinseltown, La La Land, home of the beautiful people in Hollywood where screen writers and wannabe actors lurk around every corner. But on a recent past weekend, I witnessed something quite curious, almost unbelievable.

I was at the TRW Swap Meet in the South Bay, soaking up the local color of ham radio operators, electronics enthusiasts, and other miscellaneous misfits (although I was probably the only Physics Groupie in the crowd). I was browsing the selection of the only remaining used book seller for math, physics and astronomy titles. My concentration was interrupted when I heard a loud voice ask the proprietor “Off the top of your head, do you have any advanced mathematics books?” This comment was a non sequitur because of who was asking – a young Hispanic man with that distinctive East LA accent, tattoos, baggy clothes, shaved head. I was intrigued. The proprietor did a double take as well and mustered up a response, “Well, yes, I’m sure I do but what general area, maybe engineering?” The patron continued “Yea something like that. I was doing some Laplace transforms.”

OK, I love it when I witness mathematics out of context like that. It excites me. Somewhere, somehow, this unlikely mathematician learned some real math maybe in some “Stand and Deliver” type environment. So I had to figure this out. After chatting with the young man a bit, I found out he was enrolled in Los Angeles City College (LACC), a community college nearby the Griffith Observatory, and he indeed was taking a differential equations class. He had aspirations of getting into mechanical engineering.

I reflected on this random occurrence for some time and came to the conclusion that when it comes to math and physics, you shouldn’t judge a book by it baggy pants. Viva la mathematics!

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