Entry 61: The Answer– Back in 1979, when the German Democratic Republic was still a
glowering presence on the front-line of the Warsaw Pact, I watched a BBC documentary which showed East German scientists conducting animal research involving rats in order to find a “cure” for homosexuality.
The song, The Answer, was written then as a reaction against the excesses of reductionist philosophies such as Marxist dialectical materialism which produces this sort of absurd activity; although, falling to one’s knees to pray as a reaction may be seen as equally absurd.
The mathematicians smug it up as they point to the answers contained in their elegant and, to most of us, incomprehensible equations. One, though, I like- perhaps because it’s the only one I sort of understand: the equation goes, 1=0.99 repeating.
Stephen Strogatz of Cornell University cites it as his fave, I love how simple it is — everyone understands what it says — yet how provocative it is. Many people don’t believe it could be true. It’s also beautifully balanced. The left side represents the beginning of mathematics; the right side represents the mysteries of infinity.
Popular culture goes for another number, though. In The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, “The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything” calculated by an enormous supercomputer named Deep Thought over a period of 7.5 million years turns out to be the number 42. Unfortunately, the question is lost to us.
Maybe Adams was aware of the mathematician, Paul Cooper who theorised in 1966 that, the fastest, most efficient way to travel across continents would be to bore a straight hollow tube directly through the Earth, connecting a set of antipodes, remove the air from the tube and fall through. The first half of the journey consists of free-fall acceleration, while the second half consists of an exactly equal deceleration. The time for such a journey works out to be 42 minutes.
Even if the tube does not pass through the exact centre of the Earth, the time for a journey powered entirely by gravity (known as a gravity train) always works out to be 42 minutes, so long as the tube remains friction-free, as while the force of gravity would be lessened, the distance travelled is reduced at an equal rate. (The same idea was proposed, without calculation by Lewis Carroll in 1893 in Sylvie and Bruno, Concluded.)
Doug Adams was a big fan of Lewis Carroll. The American Sara Teasdale who composed clear, elegant verse wrote a poem entitled The Answer early in the 20th Century. Again, you will have to search for the question, but it may be a tad uncomfortable, particularly if you are a male,
When I go back to earth/And all my joyous body/Puts off the red and white/That once had been so proud,/If men should pass above/With false and feeble pity,/My dust will find a voice/To answer them aloud:/“Be still, I am content,/Take back your poor compassion,/Joy was a flame in me/Too steady to destroy;/Lithe as a bending reed/Loving the storm that sways her—/I found more joy in sorrow/Than you could find in joy.”
The search for meaning takes people on strange and arduous paths. The image of a guru on a mountain top dispensing wisdom, wit or cynicism to an endless procession of seekers has become an enduring meme in popular culture. I remember being somewhat puzzled, as a teen in the sixties, by the Beatles’ infatuation with the giggling Maharishi; although, not much later, I followed them eastwards to explore the worlds of Buddhism and Taoism.
Not on anything so arduous as a pilgrimage, mind you. I used books as my means of conveyance- cheaper and more comfortable, I found (or, rather, I didn’t find- for interesting and diverting though the textual exploration was, in the end, I had to admit that I still hadn’t found what I was looking for).
That said, the concept of pilgrimage has always had an appeal to me, ever since, as a teen, I read Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,
…in Albion’s isle there dwelt a youth,/Who ne in virtue’s ways did take delight;/But spent his days in riot most uncouth,/And vexed with mirth the drowsy ear of Night./Ah, me! in sooth he was a shameless wight,/Sore given to revel and ungodly glee;/Few earthly things found favour in his sight/Save concubines and carnal companie,/And flaunting wassailers of high and low degree.
The 16-year old boy was, unsurprisingly, much taken by this. The Australian-Greek poet, Dimitris Tsaloumas approximates where I am now, fifty years later, in his poem, The Pilgrimage, I’ve been on this pilgrimage for a long, bitter time…twelve austere couplets lead to the desolate conclusion that I share, as I flash in and out of belief, …I fear the message; there is no temple/ of light, no priest to read barefoot the voice of God.