Latest posts by Susan Silver (see all)
- Alice in Wonderland: Thoughts and Memories on a Classic of Literature - October 17, 2019
- Celebrating the Life of Alan Turing (Mathematical Cross Stitch Pattern) - September 19, 2019
- Interview with Life Through a Mathematician’s Eyes - June 8, 2019
Today I want to focus on my recent trips to London. They represent some of the most significant moments of my life. I am grateful that I’ve had the means to visit other countries.
For the past few years, I’ve been working on research around writing a biography of G.H. Hardy. Hardy is a far cry from the socially awkward and shy man he appears as in anecdotes. When I look at his actions, his writing, his friendships… I can only think of him warmly.
G.H Hardy: Delightfully Contradictory
He is also interesting to me because his life is full of delightful contradictions. The last became clear to me as I was describing to someone how he fell into a depression when he retired from mathematics. Hardy felt that he had lost his creative powers. His friend recommended that he write a book.; he wanted Hardy to write about cricket, his lifelong obsession. Hardy wrote A Mathematician’s Apology instead. Widely regarded as the most accessible book on the beauty of mathematics. Go figure! Sometimes it is hard to convince ourselves of our own abilities.
Because of my interest in Hardy, I’ve now made two trips to London in the past three years. These trips to London, though, were pilgrimages. The main event, exploring and taking in the history of mathematics.
Trips to London: Trinity College Cambridge
When I hopped across the pond at thirty-five, I arranged a visit to Trinity College Cambridge where Hardy was a Fellow.
People may not know that Cambridge is some distance from the train. When I got to Trinity, there were these wooden doors at the entrance. It hardly looked like the way you might think. I was afraid to open the doors, not thinking I was at the main entrance. Eventually, I pushed my way through and recognized the courtyard of Trinity College. I wanted to walk over the grass but thought that it would be rude.
At Cambridge, I had access to Hardy’s personal papers. I was awestruck. Unfortunately, I cannot share the materials. I did take photographs of the documents.
There was an amazing find. I found the petition sent around Trinity College to reinstate Bertrand Russell after he lost his fellowship. This was due to his pacifism during World War I. It was a bit of a blow up, but not as severe as you might think.
Hardy wrote a pamphlet about the whole affair because what had happened was so misunderstood.
Trips to London: Bletchley Park
This year, I took my second trip to London intending to take a visit to The Royal Society as suggested by a friend. But, I forgot the papers I needed to actually do the research.- I needed a proof of address which I left at home. D’oh.
I decided to visit Bletchley Park. Although, it wasn’t an easy choice.
I hemmed and hawed. Wanting to talk myself out of it.
“I’ll wait and go again next year. I need to come back anyway.”
Why was this decision so difficult?
- I have intense emotions around it. Raised in a Jewish family and thoughts of the war have never been far from my mind.
- My grandfather, a WWII veteran. He risked his life escorting medical teams to the front. Bringing back the wounded behind the lines for treatment. He was honorably discharged receiving a purple heart.
- Lastly, my heart is currently darkened by the parallels with the rise of the extreme right in my country.
This stuff weighs heavy. I was afraid to step foot on Bletchley. What if it was an intense emotional experience? I didn’t know if I would break down mentally and physically. There was so much going on in my mind.
What Bletchley Park means to me
They are also all the reasons why I went to Bletchley this trip. It is a beacon of light in that darkness. A time when thousands of people came together, united, and changed the course of history. In dark times that gives me hope.
It is the thought that there are good people in the world who will come together to serve and sacrifice. Sometimes it is hard for me to believe that. I like to remember their bravery and it makes me feel braver too.
And no one knew for about thirty years that anything had happened at all.
So, what was it like visiting Bletchley Park?
When I stepped out of the visitor’s center and onto the roads of Bletchley it felt as it must when you cross a threshold.
I found that instead of expending all that mental energy, it become focused to a point. And, those thoughts and assumptions I held melted. Everything was fraught with meaning. I felt awe at all of that. I saw things with a clarity and enthusiasm. And I spent five hours in total and absolute silence.
Contemplating the Wrens
At it’s height about 10,000 people worked at Bletchley and about three-quarters of the workforce were women. The WRNS (Women’s Royal Navy Service) are a fascinating part of that history.
The Wrens operated the Bombe machines.There was a whole room of them! And the Wrens operated them during three shifts every day. Two women to a machine. One to set up the wheels and the other to do the plugboard configurations.
I spent about 15 minutes sitting on a bench by the lake with my eyes closed imagining what it was like to be in that room. In uniform, on your feet for eight hours, the heat, and the smell. There is nothing glamorous about it, but so essential to daily success. It has me thinking about writing a short piece of historical fiction.
I think it is really inspiring.
A Tribute to Alan Turing
Now, Alan Turing is one of my favorite mathematician’s and one of the most important influences on my life. I never encountered anything about Turing until I was in college. This makes me angry because I’m queer. I didn’t know any queer scientists when I was a kid. I think visibility matters and it would have meant a lot to me to have an example like that in my life at an early age. Someone to look up to.
I learned about in Turing in this interesting class that was this combination of Cognitive Psychology, Computer Science, and Philosophy. It was called Theory of Mind, which appealed to my interest in the mind-body problem. We covered a lot of topics like machine learning and AI. The most fascinating to me was the Turing Test. I obsessed over how you could create a winning scenario.
There is a bit of an Alan Turing museum in Block B. It Includes a sculpture of him in slate by artist Stephen Kettle. I already know a lot of his story, so I gravitated towards his mathematical papers.
Finding Common Ground with Turing
I just remember hugging the displays, my face pushed against the glass, glancing over the lines of each paper. My favorite finding being his work on group theory, mostly because I have some familiarity with it and it is something I can wrap my mind around.
My most surprising finding was discovering that he had done a paper on the Reimann-Zeta function. I regularly have dreams about the Reimann hypothesis so this was really exciting to see him tackle it. Though, I think trying to get through that paper would be difficult for me. I really want to try though.
But, none of those discoveries compare to my favorite part of the exhibit.
Alan Turing’s Teddy Bear Porgy! How can you be even more endeared to a person. It isn’t just because it is cute. Turing purchased the bear as an adult and used it to practice lectures. Very, very, cool.
I associate mathematics with the Hierophant card of the tarot. Not because I believe in their predictive powers, As a writer, I appreciate their symbolism. I associate the Hierophant with initiation, tradition, and institutions. There is a lineage in Mathematics. Passing on wisdom from adviser to student. There are so many arcane secrets in mathematics. It is fascinating and deeply meaningful.
I am happy to announce that I am now an initiate. At Portland State University, I am working towards an >under graduate degree in Mathematics!