Try your hand at solving an L.A. Math mystery

If you caught the rather incredible trailer for L.A. Math, you know it’s not your typical scholarly math book. Romance, crime, and mathematics don’t often go hand in hand, but emeritus professor in the Department of Mathematics at California State University Jim Stein cooked up the idea for an unconventional literary math book that would speak to students in his liberal arts math class. The end result is an entertaining, backdoor approach to practical mathematics knowledge, ranging from percentages and probability to set theory, statistics, and the mathematics of elections. Recently, Stein spoke to us about writing L.A. Math. Not only that, he left us with a mathematical mystery to solve.

L.A. Math is definitely an unusual book.  Brian Clegg described it by saying “It’s as if Ellery Queen, with the help of P. G. Wodehouse, spiced up a collection of detective tales with a generous handful of practical mathematics.”  How did you happen to write it?

JS: I absolutely loved it when he described it that way, because I was brought up on Ellery Queen.  For younger readers, Ellery Queen was one of the greatest literary detectives of the first half of the twentieth century, specializing in classic Sherlock Holmes type cases.  The Ellery Queen stories were written by the team of Manfred Dannay and Frederick Lee — and my mother actually dated one of them!

LA MathThe two other mystery writers who influenced me were Agatha Christie and Rex Stout.  Rex Stout wrote a series featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin; the books are presumably written by Archie Goodwin describing their cases, so I used that as the model for Freddy Carmichael.  The relationship between Archie and Nero also served, somewhat, as a parallel for the relationship between Freddy and Pete.  Nero and Pete both have addictions — Nero wants to spend his time eating elaborate cuisine and raising orchids, and Pete wants to spend his time watching and betting on sports.  It’s up to Archie and Freddy to prod them into taking cases.

How does Agatha Christie enter the picture?

JS: I’d taught liberal arts mathematics — math for poets — maybe ten times with temporary success but no retention.  Students would learn what was necessary to pass the course, and a year later they’d forgotten all of it.  That’s not surprising, because the typical liberal arts math course has no context that’s relevant for them.  They’re not math-oriented.  I know I had several history courses discussing the Battle of Azincourt, but I don’t remember anything about it because it has no context for me.

Agatha Christie’s best-known detective is Hercule Poirot, and one day I was in a library reading a collection of short stories she had written entitled The Labors of Hercules.  Christie had a background in the classics, and did something absolutely brilliant — she constructed a series of twelve detective stories featuring Hercule Poirot, each of which was modeled, in one way or another, around the Twelve Labors of Hercules in classical mythology.  I thought to myself — why don’t I do something like that for topics in liberal arts math?  Maybe the students would remember a few of the ideas because they’d have the context of a story from which to remember it.

Could you give an example?

JS: How about this?  Why don’t we take a story from the book, and present it the way Ellery Queen would have.  Ellery Queen always played fair with the reader, giving him or her all the clues, and after all the clues had been presented, EQ would write a paragraph entitled “Challenge to the Reader”.  EQ would tell the reader “Now you have all the clues.  Can you figure out whodunit?” — or words to that effect.

OK, here’s what we’ll do.  We’ll take The Case of the Vanishing Greenbacks, Chapter 2 in L.A. Math, and present the story up to the crucial point.  Then we’ll let the reader try to figure out whodunit, and finish the story next week.

Chapter 2 – The Case of the Vanishing Greenbacks

   The phone rang just as I stepped out of the shower. It was Allen.

“Freddy, are you available for an embezzlement case?”

My biggest success had been in an embezzlement case involving a Wall Street firm specializing in bond trading. Allen had given me a whopping bonus for that one, which was one of the reasons I could afford to take it easy in L.A. I had done well in a couple of other similar cases, and had gotten the reputation of being the go-to guy in embezzlement cases. It never hurts to have a reputation for being good at something. Besides, you don’t see many guys in my line of work who can read balance sheets.

I’ve always felt it’s important to keep the cash flow positive, and the truth was that I was available for a jaywalking case if it would help the aforementioned cash flow. But it never hurts to play a little hard-to-get.

“I can probably clear my calendar if it looks interesting.”

Allen paused for a moment, either to collect his thoughts or to take a bite of one of those big greasy pastrami sandwiches he loves. “I’m pretty sure you’ll find it interesting. It’s stumped some people in L.A., and I told them I had a good man out there. BTW, that’s you.”

It’s nice to be well thought of – especially by someone in a position to send you business. I knew that Allen’s firm, though headquartered in New York, had arrangements with other firms in other cities. I didn’t really care about the details as long as the check cleared – which it always had.

“I’m certainly willing to listen. What’s the arrangement?”

“Consulting and contingency fee. Fifty‑fifty split.”

That was our usual arrangement. Burkitt Investigations got a guaranteed fee, plus a bonus for solving the case. Allen and I split it down the middle.

“OK, Allen, fill me in.”

“Ever heard of Linda Vista, Freddy?”

Temporary blank. Movie star? Socialite? Then I had it. Linda Vista was a town somewhere in Orange County with a big art community.

For those of you not up on California politics, Orange County is a bastion of conservatism. You have Orange County to thank, or blame, for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. But Linda Vista, which my fragmentary Spanish translates as “pretty view”, was different from your basic Orange County bastion.

The vista in Linda Vista was sufficiently linda that it had attracted a thriving artistic community.   There were plenty of artists in Linda Vista, and most of them were liberals.

As a result, Linda Vista was highly polarized. The moderates were few and far between. On the left, you had the artists, with their funky bungalows and workshops. On the right, you had the stockbrokers and real-estate moguls, living in gated communities so they wouldn’t have to have any contact with the riff-raff, except for the tradesmen delivering or repairing stuff. However, there were enough artists and hangers-on to acquire political clout – after all, it’s still one man-one vote in a democracy, rather than one dollar-one vote. Pitched battles had raged over practically every issue from A (abortion) to Z (zoning), and many of these battles had made state and even national news.

That’s all I knew about Linda Vista, other than not to try to drive down there at rush hour, which turned one hour on the 405 to more than twice that. The obvious question was: what kind of a contingency case had they got? So I asked it.

Allen filled me in. “The city is out a bunch of bucks, and each side is accusing the other of fraud and embezzlement. Because of the split in the political situation, the City Manager gave half the budget to the conservatives, and the other half to the liberals, letting each determine how to spend its half. Both sides claim to have been shortchanged.”

Allen paused to catch his breath. “I’ve got a friend who works in the City Manager’s office. I told him I had a good man out there who’d done a lot of first‑class work in embezzlement cases. Want to take a look at it?”

“Sure. How much time should I put in before I throw in the towel?” In other words, how much is the consulting fee?

“As much as you like.” In other words, since Allen’s meter wasn’t running, feel free to burn some midnight oil. “The consulting fee is $3,000, upped to ten if you figure it out and get proof.” You don’t have to be an expert at division to realize that I was guaranteed a minimum of $1,500 for the time I put in, and $5,000 if I doped it out. You also don’t have to be an expert at division to realize that Allen was getting the same amount for making a phone call. I decided to be reincarnated as an employer rather than an employee.

Allen gave me a brief description of the protagonists, and I spent a good portion of the evening with a pot of coffee and my computer, getting some background information on them. I’ll say one thing for the Information Age; it’s a lot easier to run a background check on people than it used to be. What with search engines and social networks, you save a lot on gas money and shoe leather.

The next morning I waited until after rush hour, and made the trek to Linda Vista. The City Hall was located in a section of town where the vista was a long way from linda, unless strip malls filled with 7‑11s and fast-food stores constitute your idea of attractive scenery. I found a place to park, straightened my coat and tie, and prepared for the interviews.

I was scheduled to have three of them. I had been hoping to arrange for longer interviews, but everyone’s in a rush nowadays, and I was getting a quarter-hour with each, tops. They’d all been interviewed previously – Allen had mentioned that this case had stumped others – and people are generally less than enthusiastic about being asked the same questions again. And again. The first interview was with Everett Blaisdell, conservative city councilman, who would explain why the conservatives happened to be short. The next was with Melanie Stevens, liberal city councilwoman, ditto. The last interview would be with Garrett Ryan, City Manager.

I have a bad habit. My opinion of members of groups tends to be formed by the members of those groups that I have seen before. Consequently, I was expecting the conservative Everett Blaisdell to look like a typical paunchy southern senator with big jowls. So I was a little surprised to discover that Everett Blaisdell was a forty-ish African-American who looked like he had spent years twenty through thirty as an NBA point guard.

He got right down to business. “I want you to know,” he barked, “that everything that we have done with our budget allocation has been strictly by the book. Our expenses have been completely documented.” He handed me a folder full of ledger sheets and photos of checks, which I glanced at and stashed in my briefcase.

Blaisdell was clearly angry. “The business community is the heart of Linda Vista, and it is ridiculous to suggest that it would act in a manner detrimental to its citizens. We are $198,000 short in our budget.”

You don’t expect NBA point guards to get out of breath too easily, considering the time they have to go up and down the court, but maybe Blaisdell wasn’t in shape. He paused, giving me a chance to get a question in edgewise. “Just what do you think has happened, Mr. Blaisdell?” I inquired mildly.

“I know what has happened. Melanie Stevens and her radical crowd have managed to get hold of that money. They want $200,000 to fund a work of so‑called art which I, and every right‑thinking citizen of Linda Vista, find totally offensive. It’s mighty suspicious that the missing funds, $198,000, almost precisely cover the projected cost of the statue.”

I was curious. “If you don’t mind my asking, exactly what is this statue?”

Blaisdell’s blood pressure was going up. “They are going to build a scale replica of the Statue of Liberty and submerge it in Coca‑Cola. You may know that Coca‑Cola is acidic, and it will eventually dissolve metal. They say that this so‑called dynamic representational art represents the destruction of our civil liberties by over‑commercialization. Well, let me tell you, we’ll fight it.”

He looked at his watch. “Sorry, I’ve got another appointment. When you find out what those scum have done with the money, let me know.” He walked me to his door.

It took a few minutes to locate Melanie Stevens’ office, as it was in a different wing of the building, possibly to minimize confrontations between her and Blaisdell. It was a bad day for stereotypes. My mental picture of Melanie Stevens, ultra‑liberal, was that of a long-haired hippie refugee from the ’60s. The real Melanie Stevens was a pert gray‑haired grandmother who looked like she had been interrupted while baking cookies for her grandchildren. She, too, was evidently on a tight schedule, for she said, “Sorry, I can only give you about ten minutes, but I’ve made copies of all our expenses.” More ledger sheets and photos of checks went into my briefcase.

“Let me tell you, Mr. Carmichael, that we could have used that $198,000. We planned to use it for a free clinic. I know exactly what has happened. Blaisdell has doctored the books. I’m sure glad that Ryan had the guts to ask you to look into it.”

“Blaisdell seems to think that your people are responsible for the missing funds,” I observed.

She snorted. “That’s just typical of what they do. Whenever they’re in the wrong, they lie and accuse the other side of lying. They rip off the community, and channel money into PACs. Political action committees. Or worse. Blaisdell knows he faces a stiff battle for re-election, and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to find that money turning up in his campaign fund.”

“He seems to think that you are going to use the funds for an art project, rather than a free clinic,” I remarked.

“He’s just blowing smoke. He knows quite well that the statue will be funded through private subscription.” She looked at her watch. “Let me know when you pin the loss on them.”

I left Stevens’ office for the last interview, with Garrett Ryan, whose anxious expression made it clear that he was not a happy camper. “Have you got any ideas yet?” he asked.

I shook my head. “I’ve just talked to Blaisdell and Stevens. They’ve each handed me files containing what they consider to be complete documentation. They’ve each given me a story asserting their own innocence, and blaming the other. I take it that the missing amount is $198,000?”

Now it was Ryan’s turn to shake his head. “No, each side says that it is missing $198,000. Quite a coincidence. And I’ll tell you, Mr. Carmichael, despite the animosity between them, I think that they are both honorable individuals. I find it difficult to believe that either would rip the city off.”

I focused on Ryan’s coincidence. “It’s funny that they are both short exactly the same amount. Perhaps you could tell me a little more about the budgetary process.”

“It’s really quite simple. Each resident of Linda Vista is taxed a fixed amount. Any complicated tax scheme would just result in a full employment act for accountants. The previous census resulted in a $100 assessment per individual. The population of Linda Vista increased by 20% since the last census. We didn’t need any increase in operating expenditures; under my guidance we’ve done a fiscally conservative and frugal job of running the city. As a result, the Council voted to reduce everybody’s taxes by 20%. Needless to say, this was a very popular move.”

“I’ll bet it was. Did everyone pay their taxes, Mr. Ryan?”

“Everybody. We’re very proud of that ‑‑ a 100% collection rate. Despite what you may have heard, the citizens of Linda Vista are very civic‑minded. Liberals and conservatives alike.”

I’ve spent enough time with balance sheets to know that accuracy is extremely important. “Was this population increase exactly 20%, or is that merely an approximate figure?”

Ryan consulted a sheet of paper. “Exactly 20%. I have a sheet of printout that gives information to four decimal places, so I can be quite sure of that.”

Just then a phone rang. Ryan picked it up, and engaged in some political doubletalk. After a few minutes he replaced the receiver. “Sorry, Mr. Carmichael. I’m behind schedule. Let me know if you make any progress.”   We shook hands, and I left.

A couple of hours later, I got home, having stopped for a bite but still avoiding rush-hour traffic. Pete noticed my presence, and asked, “So how’d things go in Linda Vista, Freddy?”

“I had a pretty interesting day. Want to hear about it?”

He nodded. I took about fifteen minutes to describe the problem and the cast of characters. “It looks like I’ll have to spend a day or so looking over the books.”

Pete shook his head. “It seems pretty clear to me.”

I’d seen it before — everybody’s a detective. Amateurs always think they know who the guilty party is, because it fits in with their preconceptions. I didn’t know whether Pete had cast Blaisdell in the role of a political fat-cat out to line his campaign war chest, or whether he was a conservative who saw Melanie Stevens as a radical troublemaker. Anyway, you’ve got to learn not to jump to conclusions in my line of work.

“You can’t do it like that, Pete. You’ve got to trace down the paper trails. I’ve done this lots of times.”

Pete grabbed a piece of paper, scribbled something on it, and sealed it in an envelope. “Five dollars will get you twenty that the name of the guilty party is inside this envelope.”

Pete needed taking down a peg. Maybe two pegs. Besides, I liked getting four‑to‑one odds on what was obviously an even‑ money proposition. “You’ve got a bet,” I said. We wrote our names on the envelope, and Pete put it on the table next to the HDTV.

“Whenever you’re ready, we’ll unseal the envelope.” I headed back to the guesthouse for a session with the books.

Challenge to the Reader: You have all the clues. Can you name the party responsible for the missing greenbacks? We’ll give you until the next blog to figure it out, when we’ll present the conclusion to the story.

Celebrate National Grammar Day with Frank Cioffi’s One Day in the Life of the English Language

Grammar: It’s the difference between knowing your stuff and knowing you’re stuff. Some even say it saves lives (see below). If you haven’t noticed, today is National Grammar Day (March 4), so here at Princeton University Press we are celebrating good grammar, proper punctuation, and clear communication with Frank L. Cioffi’s anti-textbook handbook, One Day in the Life of the English Language: A Microcosmic Usage Handbook.

Cioffi’s chatty and charming reference doesn’t just lay out the “rules,” but also makes a convincing case for why good grammar and usage matter. Cioffi argues that Standard Written English (also known as “formal English”) is vital for success in professions where exactness and clarity carry great importance, and he also proposes that correct English can foster a more honest, ethical, and functional culture of communication.

The book draws on some three hundred real-world sentences printed in eleven newspapers and six weekly magazines and published on a single, typical day (December 29, 2008). Cioffi emphasizes that English usage is continually evolving and he debunks some of the most popular grammar “rules.” Is it acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition? It is. Can you start a sentence with a conjunction? You can. Is it “correct” to use split infinitives. Sure.

What do you think? Does “formal” English still matter in the post-Twitter world?


Check out the introduction and let us know.

We’ve also been tweeting out #NationalGrammarDay #protips from the book today.

Happy National Grammar Day!

Photo via Brett Jordan / Flickr

PUP Book Chosen for Princeton Pre-Read

For incoming Princeton University freshmen, the first piece of required reading will come from the shelves here at Princeton University Press. As part of the university’s Pre-Read program, which was initiated last year by President Christopher L. Eisgruber, members of the class of 2018 will be reading Meaning in Life and Why It Matters by Susan Wolf.

So, what is the idea behind this book? When we pick up a friend from the airport, bake a chocolate cake, or visit a loved one in the hospital, we’re not doing it for our own self-interest or for the greater good. In fact, the reasons and things that make our lives worth living often have nothing to do with the egoistic or altruistic motives that most people, including philosophers, think drive people to act. According to Susan Wolf, meaningfulness—not happiness or morality—makes our lives worth living.

In Meaning in Life and Why It Matters, Wolf argues that meaning comes from loving objects worthy of love and engaging with them in a positive way. That is, we act out of love for objects that we rightly perceive as worthy of love—and it is these actions that give meaning to our lives. Wolf makes a compelling case that, along with happiness and morality, this kind of meaningfulness is an essential element of human well-being.

Princeton reports on the choice of Wolf’s book in a recent article, which includes the president’s thoughts on this year’s selection:

“It is a superb example of engaged, ethical writing, and I hope that it will introduce the freshmen to the kinds of scholarship they will encounter at Princeton,” President Eisgruber says. “The book also includes short critical comments by four distinguished scholars, along with reply from Wolf — as such, it models for students how one can disagree with a thesis in a way that is simultaneously rigorous, constructive and collegial. Finally, a key point in Wolf’s argument pertains to the objectivity of value and why it matters; that question is important, and it inspires lively argument among undergraduates.”

Read the full story from Princeton here.


Meaning in Life


Looking to find out more about this year’s selection?

Read the introduction of Meaning in Life and Why It Matters for yourself here. You can also check out a review of the book on the New York Times‘ Opinionator blog.

Launch of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics— “004”!

We were delighted to host the launch of the Fourth Edition of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics at the London Review Bookshop last Thursday evening. Contributors, well-wishers and lifelong fans gathered together to celebrate this magnificent book. Among them was the contributor on Poetry of Russia, Andrew Kahn, who was kind enough to share his admiration for this much-loved work in a speech:

“Like the appearance of a new James Bond film, the appearance of the fourth edition of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics—004!—is cause for jubilation.

This new edition is a magnificent book and achievement. Was there ever a work that taught us more about the ideal and the practical, the historical and the theoretical? Was there ever a work that in a single volume ranged across so many forms of the imagination? Perhaps the Bible, but then for many of its readers, and I include myself, the Princeton Encyclopedia is something of a Bible, containing revelations, divine writings, miracles of concision and lightly worn authority, the precepts of wisdom literature and abundant storytelling. Except that the God of Poetics wears her learning lightly. While deeply serious, and executed with great technical finish, this Good Book is a lovable and playful work. One would want to praise it in terms commensurate it with its contents and achievement. One would therefore want to be a ‘Meistersinger’ (p. 860) gripped by a ‘furor poeticus’ (p.531), ‘inspired’ (p.709) with ‘intensity’ (p. 710) to dithyrambic flights (p.371), to new heights of ‘agudeza’ (p.26), to praise Princeton Press ‘phonesthemically’ (p.1038) in rhyme, near rhyme or even ottava rima, to lavish ‘hovering accents’ (p.640) or devise hypograms (p.649), to roar with leonine rhymes or fire a cybertext, and then to repeat the pythiambic ode, a paplindrome of rispetto or, if you all joined in, to stage a ‘poetry slam’ (p.1070)—a Zulu izibongo (p. 1553) or an epinikion in the Pindaric mode.

It’s not news that the art of poetry has many rules and forms from ‘agudeza’ to ‘Zulu’. But the Princeton Encyclopedia always manages to make it new. This indispensable manual has a history of being savoured and cherished, and the fourth edition will instruct and inspire faithful users and new readers alike. Its reach is global–the expanded selection of national chapters bears witness to the universality and vitality of poetry. It’s worth its considerable weight in gold (but well priced so have no fear). But there’s a further aspect to the Princeton Encyclopedia that I find profoundly wonderful. Poetry as we see it assembled, explored, taxonomized, appreciated and renewed here is a mirror of civilizations and hearts and minds. It turns out that poetry is nothing less than the sum total of virtually everything that goes into thinking and writing about life. In fact, one has only to glance at topical chapters to see that poetry IS life because poetry goes hand in hand with anthropology, belief, culture, dance, gender, history, linguistics, music, painting, philosophy, politics, psychology, religion, science, technology and therapy. And if I might strike a personal note, there are many reference works about poetry, but there is only one that commands universal respect. Contributing a chapter on my subject, and writing an essayistic account of the lives and lines of the poets of Russia, was a privilege and uplifting responsibility.

Horace, a grand old man of poet legislators and sometimes a killjoy, says ‘Nil admirari est’—‘It’s better not to admire’. But the learning, style and sheer scale of Princeton Encyclopedia is worthy of Horace’s own famous Poetics, now fitted for our times yet ‘more lasting than bronze’. 007 may only have so many lives, 004 is imperishable! The contributors, editors and publishers deserve all our ungrudging admiration, congratulations and thanks for the latest incarnation of this tremendous work of learning and spirit.”

Andrew Kahn — Contributor, Poetry of Russia

Q&A with Sönke Johnsen

Quinn Fusting, PUP’s editorial assistant in the life sciences, has conducted a Q&A with Sönke Johnsen, the author of The Optics of Life: A Biologist’s Guide to Light in Nature.

Q: When, how, and why did you become interested in light?

A: I grew up in a house where we made just about everything, including science toys. My dad was a physicist, and we would spend weekends building pinhole shoebox cameras, arc lamps from dismantled batteries, and once even a solar hot dog cooker made out of a sledding saucer covered in aluminum foil. He would also bring home surplus items from his lab, like head-sized Fresnel lenses and chunks of sapphire lasers. He also set up a black-and-white darkroom in the attic where I spent much of my childhood and adolescence. My mother was creative as well and introduced me to painting, drawing, tie-dying and such. There were no computers yet, and our TV only got two channels (three if my little brother stood in just the right spot), so I had plenty of time to fiddle around.

As for why…well, light is beautiful. What’s more wonderful than the light filtered through new leaves on a windy, Spring day? Or the green bioluminescence trailing your limbs as you swim on a moonless night?  The stars alone are worth having eyes for. I can’t imagine not studying light. 

Q: What drove you to write an optics guide for biologists?

A: I’m not entirely sure. I do enjoy writing, but this was a lot of work, so there must have been a reason. When I pitched the project to my editor, I told her that it would fill a niche, but I’ve never been one to lose sleep over unfilled holes. I also told her that optics was important to biology. It is, but so what? Steve Vogel told me once that writing books is wonderful because it transforms you from a competitor into an enabler. I do hope this book helps people use optics in their research, but honestly I still feel competitive. Maybe I just want people to stop me in the hall and say, “Nice book!” I’d be lying if I said this didn’t matter. I’m shallow, and flattery goes a long way with me.

There’s more though. While not religious, I am often overcome by this world — it’s like being given a prize over and over. The most remarkable part to me is that we are able to appreciate and at least partially understand it. Being a biologist, I can mumble about scientific curiosity being an epiphenomenon of natural selection for cooperative hunting, foraging, individual recognition, and so on, but that doesn’t make it any less incredible. As the physicist Isidor Rabi said when the muon was discovered, “Who ordered that?” However we acquired this ability to appreciate and understand the world, it would be rude to waste it. So I wrote this book to share this feeling, this amazement at what is all around us.

Q: What would you say is the most important thing for biologists to know about optics?

A: That it’s easier to learn than you think. The long history of the field and its connection with human vision has left us with a horrible mess of units and concepts. Only in optics do people still publish papers using units like stilbs, nits, candelas, trolands, and my personal favorite, foot-lamberts. However, the reality of optics itself is simple and elegant. With the right introduction, you can sidestep the mess and get right to the fun parts.

However, light is also harder to work with than many people appreciate. The main reason for this is that we don’t measure light in our daily lives. Since childhood, we develop an intuitive sense of weights, lengths, area, temperature, and so on. For example, we can guess someone’s height to within 5% and weight to within 10%-20%. However, even after a decade of measuring light, I can’t tell you how bright my office is on this overcast morning to within even an order of magnitude. This is like saying that I can’t decide whether I am six or sixty feet tall. So you need to be careful. It’s worth it though. The biological world is a funhouse of optical tricks and traits just waiting to be discovered. Just today, I read that jumping spiders use image defocus to judge distance and that bowerbirds play with visual perspective to impress their mates. How cool is that? 

Q: What is light anyway?

A: I have no idea. I have thought about light since I was five years old and am no closer to understanding its fundamental nature. I am in good company though. Even Richard Feynman, one of the creators of the theory of how light and matter interact and widely acknowledged as one of the best explainers of physics, said that light cannot be understood. We have equations that let us predict what light will do to a precision of more than twenty significant figures, but no one has come up with a description of light that makes sense. It is unlikely that anyone ever will. Read enough about the subject, and your head will start to itch.

However, while the non-intuitive nature of light can be unsatisfying, it doesn’t affect our ability to use it. In other words, as long as you do your measurements and math correctly, you can think of light as little purple buffaloes and it won’t matter. After all, we don’t really understand the fundamental nature of anything, but manage just fine.

For Course Use: Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death

Adopted for Course Use

Søren Kierkegaard’s The SicknesKierkegaard covers Unto Death appeared in the Best of the Winter 2010 Course Lists from The Front Table, The Web Magazine of the Seminary Co-op Bookstores.

Check out our complete listing of Kierkegaard’s Writings