Monday, December 22, 2008

The Magi and What Their Mathematics Discovered. The Fat Lady is Back

While the role of the Bible in modern American society can be controversial, the Disease Management Care Blog still thinks it’s great literature that gives important insight into the human condition. While it is the nature of popular media to substitute “Happy Holidays” for “Merry Christmas,” Santa for St. Nick and happiness for holiness, the DMCB is reminded by the Fat Lady to look for the lessons from the Season.

That’s why it’s been thinking about the Magi. These are the wise men who made a brief appearance in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. These individuals were probably top learned scientist-astronomers engaged in the full time study of the patterns of the heavens. As the lights circled overhead in precise mathematical patterns, this expert class of professional stargazers constantly sought out new insights and even attempted to link them to human events or predict the future.

The DMCB isn’t too sure that the stargazers of that day are not too dissimilar from today’s vast numbers of professional number crunching pattern watchers. The only difference is that their areas of study are no longer confined to the stars. In addition to breathtaking advances in the physical sciences, modern wise men are gazing at humans and their patterns, likewise seeking to link them to other events and predicting the future.

We’re all familiar with these brainiacs. Facile with incredibly complex mathematics, these data-heads can price risk, assess the strength of statistical associations and assign attribution. Some are better than others. The ones that are really good, really lucky and benefitting from the work of others often go on to make incredibly useful discoveries. Some even win Nobel Prizes. This is the work of turning data into insight and information into inspiration. This is the work of making numbers “sing.”

So who were the greatest mathematicians greatest of all time? The DMCB votes for the Magi. Blessed by the work of generations of predecessors as well as the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time, these brainiacs also applied prodigious (and literal) amounts of leg work in the pursuit of explaining new pattern in the sky. And what a thing they discovered.

Is this an endorsment of mystical numerology? Hardly. But the DMCB finds it interesting that mathematicians feature so prominently in this classic Bible story. Once again, something far greater lies at the center of our logical hard wired dependence on what is seen and what is measurable. The Fat Lady reminds us that this calls to us every Christmas season.

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