Two thousand years ago a group of Chinese mathematicians came up with a new form of mathematics called matrices. It must have seemed a bit abstract and ivory tower to the man-on-the Shanghai-omnibus. “yeah, just the sort of stuff that metropolitan elite like,” he would have sneered. Well the metropolitan elite, or to give them their proper name, the Educated, carried on with this line of abstract research. Eventually Larry Page used an aspect their findings called stationary distributions to create the multitrillion dollar company Google. Quite an application for the pure research.
David Sumpter, writing in the Guardian, has a whole set (unintended pun) of examples of how pure, seemingly abstruse research turned into practical applications. . Click to the link to see how Cauchy‘s ideas of gradient descent changed the game for YouTube. Or how Sir David Cox‘ theory of logistic recession is the toast of all successful gamblers everywhere. Our own example is James Clark Maxwell, without whose theories you would not have turned on an electric light this morning, let alone be reading this.
And so it goes. Today’s abstract, new, thought is tomorrow’s refrigerator. Or laptop. Or vaccine. In this seemingly intractable war between the educated and the uneducated, our side must defend the value of learning for its own sake. One day it will pay dividends. It’s a theme we shall return to in future posts.
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