Doughnuts to Bagels
This week’s BBC podcast in its excellent In Our Time series was on the Poincaré Conjecture and I must admit that, assuming it was going to yet another rehash of the furore over Nasar’s and Gruber’s New Yorker article, I almost didn’t bother to download it.
I am one of those causing the demise of newspapers and radio stations (I’ve never had a television so I can’t be accused of the decline there) by reading all my national and international news online and giving up listening to anything but the most local news on the CBC so that I can listen to podcasts from various countries. I have learned much from In Our Time’s eclectic mix—over the last few weeks I have listened to discussions by experts on
- The Encyclopedie – the great project of the Enlightenment
- The Needham Question – did China lay the foundations of modern science?
- The Diet of Worms – Luther’s stand against the Church
- Averroes – the battle between faith and reason
- Alexander von Humboldt – the remarkable career of the Prussian naturalist
I felt I understood the Poincaré Conjecture and was aware of the debacle in the New Yorker and suspected that I was either going to get angry or bored by another 40 minutes on the topic. The iTunes program on my wife’s Mac downloaded it automatically, however, (I know that there’s a Linux program somewhere to do this but life is too short) and it appeared on my iPod to be played in the car going to and from work yesterday.
In fact, the New Yorker was never mentioned and Shing-Tung Ya’s name didn’t crop up (although “China” was mentioned once in passing). If anyone else was hanging back because of these reservations then don’t: go ahead and download it. The emphasis was actually on Poincaré and his conjecture.
In a general programme of this nature there obviously wasn’t going to be any deep maths but one thing did pop out. In the past, for people who didn’t understand the word torus, we always used to have doughnuts. Now we seem to have migrated to bagels, a type of Jewish bread. For Poincaré we now have to imagine multi-dimensional bagels instead of doughnuts. Is there any experimental linguist out there who could explain the switch?