Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Great Equations

Last night I attended a delightful mathematics-themed lecture at the Los Angeles Public Library, central branch in downtown L.A. The lecture featured Dr. Robert P. Crease, author of a wonderful book “The Great Equations: Breakthroughs in Science from Pythagoras to Heisenberg.” It was part of the ALOUD lecture series hosted by the Library Foundation. I’ve attended previous ALOUD lectures and they’ve all been excellent and very well attended like last night which was standing room only. Admission to the ALOUD lectures is free, but you need to reserve a ticket ahead of time.

Dr. Crease led the audience through a fascinating tour of the topics in his book. As a philosophy professor, the focus was less technical and more historical, like the examination of Maxwell’s equations which had immense and far reaching application, but had to be narrowed down by a self-taught electrical practitioner, Oliver Heaviside, to yield the four familiar equations that are taught to physics undergrads today. Crease covered a very wide range of famous mathematical results dating back from the ancient Greeks, on to Newton, to Einstein, and to Heisenberg. The lecture was approachable to a general audience and there were many young people of high-school and college age in attendance. After the lecture there was a Q&A session and a book signing (I got mine made out to the “Physics Groupie!”).

As you all know by now, I greatly enjoy the opportunity to follow science and math events around the city in part because I get to encounter parts of town I rarely see. Before the lecture, I sat at sidewalk table at a coffeehouse near the library, contemplated the science lifestyle, and watched people pass by who actually still wear business suits. I was trying to work on my astrophysics book, but my experimental observations (aka people watching) got in the way.

If you live in the L.A. area, I would highly recommend the ALOUD lecture series, but if you don’t, you should check out the offerings of the public library in your own town. You might be pleasantly surprised.

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