Sunday 14 June 2015

Eulogy for my Dad

My Dad loved many things and it therefore falls to me to mention mathematics. Non-geeks tend to say things like “He had a gift for that,” as though geeks know a magic incantation or are “naturally clever”. My Dad was clever. However, one of my lecturers at University frequently reminded me that “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” David loved maths and was willing to spend many hours learning more, usually in order to teach his students or to share the latest puzzle he was thinking about with anyone willing to listen. Recently the puzzles had tended to be the Sunday Times Puzzler. After showing him how to program in Python he submitted a few that were accepted. You can still see them on the internet if you search. He has left ripples in the ether.
He cared about sharing results and ideas, and instilled in me the joy of someone moving from disbelief to confusion to understanding and conviction. The world is often a bigger and more amazing place than we first assume. I recall him getting a paper published he had written with some students. Not only did he credit the students, he also persuaded the publishers to include the negative results – things they tried that went wrong. Many academic papers avoid doing this, but he felt it is important to stop others from going down the same blind alleys and to learn from your mistakes.
I know he inspired many people. In my brief career as a teacher I met many who had been his students at Christchurch and they always spoke highly of him. He had a knack for explaining things and making sure you had understood. He was also willing to listen to me trying to explain things to him – including how to code in python and what I was trying to do with my “new work” chapter in my PhD thesis. He was willing to ask “Why?” and allowed me to ask as well. I have never grown out of this and that leaves me with an unsatisfiable curiosity. That makes it OK to ask “Why?” about his unexpected death. Not being a mathematical question, we are unlikely to get a clear and compelling answer, but it’s ok to ask.
The day after he died, I saw a nine digit number in large neon on the top of a building-front. It had all the digits except the number “1” – I forget which was repeated. I have no idea what the number meant, but I know if he’d been there he would have noticed it as well. Whenever I notice symmetries in tiles or paving slabs, or broken symmetries, curious numbers or patterns I will think of him. And have been doing for years. His excitement and curiosity about mathematics could be infectious if you were prone to it. Some people might say “Stop being a geek,” others just raise an eyebrow. Once in a while you’ll find someone else who’s noticed it too or looks when you point and wonders with you at the patterns and meaning that point to something greater in an otherwise chaotic seeming world.
I have no idea why the digit 1 was missing from the number on the building, let alone what the number was trying to convey, but having spotted a surprising number of physics books on the bookshelves of a man who claimed physics is just watered-down maths, I am reminded of a quote attributed to Feynman:
"I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned."
It’s always ok to ask “Why?” We may never really know but we may discover beautiful and interesting things on the way. Or perhaps I should end with another actual Feynman quote

“The most important thing I found out from [my father] is that if you asked any question and pursued it deeply enough, then at the end there was a glorious discovery of a general and beautiful kind.”

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