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Tokyo Games: The Math in Everything

July 29, 2021 09:49 IST
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I wondered how being scientist-mathematician helps one cycle better.
Perhaps the self-discipline helps; perhaps it is the scientist-technologist perspective of breaking down the whole into separate pieces, identifying specifics and working on them for improved results, mulls Shyam G Menon.

IMAGE: Austria's Anna Kiesenhofer in action on the Tokyo to Fuji International Speedway during the women's road race event in the Tokyo Olympics, July 25, 2021. Photograph: Michael Steele/Pool/Reuters. The overlaid graphics, kind courtesy Gerd Altmann/

It was the first WhatsApp message I received that late July morning.

The message was a forward about Austrian cyclist Anna Kiesenhofer who secured gold in the women's individual road race at the postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The text centered around the fact that she was a scientist-mathematician; a PhD in math, currently a postdoctoral researcher.

The narrative was propped up by three attributes -- she got a gold medal at the Olympics, she is a scientist-mathematician, the Olympic gold medal and her impressive academic qualifications make her "an inspiration."

"Oh man, "I groaned," there goes my day."

Back in school, yours truly had been terrible at math, happy to study humanities by the time college dawned and eventually, seek refuge in an utterly ordinary profession like writing.

Anybody can write; it has no fences by pedigree or qualification. In fact, it is a lot like walking, running or cycling.

The beauty is its accessibility and simplicity. Math never felt so.

I wondered how being scientist-mathematician helps one cycle better. Perhaps the self-discipline helps; perhaps it is the scientist-technologist perspective of breaking down the whole into separate pieces, identifying specifics and working on them for improved results.

Perhaps, a computer in the head is great for modern cycles founded on gear ratios and modern cycling which leaves no stone unturned to extract an advantage.

Or maybe, establishing everything in a narrative of mathematics is politically correct text for our technology-fueled times?

With my morning kickstarted so, I decided to check the Internet for how the news had been reported. A leading Web site on cycling had reported the story sticking to just the sport and the race.

On the other hand, at least two leading international media outlets had reported Keisenhofer's victory highlighting her background in academics. Usually, I dismiss obsession with academics as an Indian nightmare.

Now with such fascination for studies getting mainstreamed, where will the likes of me hide? I thought.

The whole thing is a bit like contemplating what makes Brian May a good guitarist.

Does his being an astrophysicist contribute to his excellence in playing the guitar?

Does May being astrophysicist make Freddie Mercury (among the greatest rock vocalists), Roger Taylor and John Deacon any less in the fantastic band the four were?

And even if the two halves of May are synergic, isn't it a reflection of his engaging composite personality and not something you delineate and highlight to manufacture cause for inspiration?

Not to mention -- there is the question of whether one half is relief for an excess of the other. But the tendency to justify competence in arts, sports and spirituality because the person was brilliant in academics or had / has a great mainstream career, continues.

IMAGE: Anna celebrates winning gold. Photograph: Christian Hartmann/Reuters

One of the most dismal conversations I had was with a technologist who assured me that science and technology can explain art. I don't dispute it. Machine learning is on the ascent.

One day, Dali and Picasso will be the names of computer programs and apps churning out sophisticated artwork. But it hurt to be told that the human being brought little that was creative and unique to its person, to the table.

It is like the discussion around the song 'Lateralus' from the metal band, Tool. An interesting composition, its progression apparently has links to the Fibonacci Sequence of mathematics.

While that may render it attractive to minds cast so, the thing is mathematics by itself articulates neither words nor sounds. A sequence can be expressed as anything.

Shouldn't we respect the human being for choice of words and sounds?

Isn't this why laid down-structure notwithstanding, classical music leaves room for interpretation by given musician?

In fact, the beauty of music -- indeed the beauty of any art form -- is its ability to exceed perfection by rules and, explore. That is why it is creative.

Unfortunately, the creative arts, sports -- they have become something you do because you are either useless for other things (which is fine) or deign to indulge despite accomplishment in fields that matter more (that's patronising).

Simply put, they are increasingly denied original value although every time we seek to showcase humanity, we unfailingly reach for arts and sports.

Imagine yourself in an alien spaceship, trying to describe your species to an abjectly different life form. Would you take out pen and paper and solve a mathematical puzzle or act out something, do a dance, play a rhythm, sing a song; something that captures the spectrum of human capability?

The world's domination by science, technology and mathematics has been steadily growing.

During the worst human crisis of recent times -- the COVID-19 pandemic -- there has been no shortage of deluge by data, to the extent, we have arguably stopped sensing ourselves as human. We have become statistic in huge databanks, our lives run by algorithms.

It amazes me that despite such domination to their credit, the math-science-technology triad can't enjoy a development in cycling without celebrating the scientist-mathematician angle replete with postdoctoral research and all.

Doing so, we overlook an important aspect.

IMAGE: Left to Right: Silver medalist Annemiek van Vleuten of Team Netherlands, gold medalist Anna Kiesenhofer of Team Austria, and bronze medalist Elisa Longo Borghini of Team Italy on the podium during the medal ceremony. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty Images

The presence of math in sports and music has been known for long.

In climbing (particularly bouldering), a tough sequence on rock is popularly referred to as a 'problem.' When you climb it, you solve it; just as in mathematics.

The drift shouldn't surprise. The person often called the 'father of modern bouldering' is American climber, John Gill. By profession he is a mathematician.

Few climbers dispute the description of the challenges they tackle as problems. Working your way around one is very much like solving a puzzle. Yet not all who climb or excel in the sport are mathematicians or the technology loving sort.

The same holds true for pursuits like music, painting and dance -- all of which involve aesthetic balance struck between space and sound, brushstroke or movement.

When you dissect canvas with a brushstroke or violate silence with sound, there is mathematics at play.

In other words, everybody understands the existence of math in the universe.

It is our personal learning style and life experiences -- how we are taught math, for instance -- that makes us explicitly mathematical in comprehension or otherwise.

You think Dali, Picasso or Jimi Hendrix lacked an idea of mathematics? Think again.

Or to put it differently, when you meet that alien in the spaceship, would you stand there believing you are the only one who knows mathematics?

Eventually, it boils down to the traits of the modern human being, maybe even the contrast between the compulsions of biology and the laws of physics. Unlike our tendency to compartmentalise and position some compartments as dominant (usually for livelihood, survival), in nature, the specifics lay merged in the whole.

When a specific portion of nature goes out of synch with the rest, we are quick to acknowledge it as equilibrium disturbed - a fine example being the weather we experience amidst climate change.

What then would you term an ambiance of academics and science-technology-mathematics lording over everything else?

Brain change; cranial warming?

IMAGE: Anna poses with her gold medal. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty Images

Anna Kiesenhofer is a cyclist who secured gold in the women's individual road race at the Olympic Games. That victory in Tokyo was well deserved; it was a fantastic performance. Her journey in cycling -- that's something I would love as my first read of the day.

Like we often wonder about Albert Einstein and his playing the violin (or Sherlock Holmes and his violin for that matter), ever thought if it is cycling that makes Keisenhofer the scientist-mathematician she is?

It is an engaging line of enquiry but one that does not guarantee paramountcy to academics and hence, in geographies like India, condemned to being still-born.

Shyam G Menon is a Mumbai-based columnist.

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/

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