Jul. 12th, 2005 05:36 pm
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[personal profile] paulonleave
I just got back from Berlin, and I have lots of stories to tell.  But first, I want to say how much I like nerds. 

On the train to Berlin, I sat beside a wonderful nerd.  He got on, like me, in Cologne/Koln, and I could tell that he was somewhat agitated.  When the conductor checked our tickets, my seatmate spoke to him at some length, and there was some to-ing and fro-ing that seemed to lead nowhere.  Eventually, he turned to me and said something in German, which I could not understand, of course, so he switched to English.  It turned out that he was on his way to Gottingen, but problems on the line had required him to take a detour, and he had been told that he could get a bit of a refund on his ticket.  The conductor was unwilling to assist without written evidence that a German railway official had offered the refund. 

He had been reading Der Spiegel, and we started talking about German politics.  I asked if he thought Angela Merkel would be the next Chancellor.  (He thought she would be, but he offered no hint about whether he thought this would be good or bad.)  Then the conversation took a turn toward the bizarre:  He said, "Do you know that a second German word has entered the English language?  You use our word kindergarten, don't you?"  I admitted that we do.  "Well, now, when the beautiful mannequins in London [I assume he meant "models"] want to roam the streets incognito, they go to their barber and say, 'Merkel me.'"  He laughed uproariously at this.  When I indicated that I was completely puzzled by this term, he explained that Angela Merkel is famous in Germany for having an ugly hairstyle.  He seems to believe that this fact is well-known among chic London fashion models as well.  Then he searched through his newspaper and his copy of Der Spiegel, looking for a suitable picture of Angela Merkel.  As the leader of the Christian Democratic Party and the possible/probable next chancellor of Germany, she figured in numerous photographs in both publications.  Unfortunately, she has apparently had a makeover, so her hair is no longer sufficiently unfashionable to warrant imitation.  He seemed genuinely disappointed that he couldn't find a photo from her pre-image-consultant days.

Anyway, it turned out that the man was a software designer with a background in mathematics and physics.  He became charmingly animated when he started to explain how important his home town -- Gottingen -- was in the world of mathematics.  He mentioned Gauss and someone whose name I didn't recognize and now cannot recall.  Then he started talking about Fermat's Last Formula, and pulled out his pen to show me the formula and explain how important it was.  I was vaguely aware of the story:  Fermat proved that "a to the power of x + b to the power of x = c to the power of x" was never true for whole numbers larger than 2, but he hadn't written down his proof.  The proof was discovered by an English mathematician a few years ago, and Gottingen University awarded a large prize to him.  The value of the prize, my seatmate explained, had declined a lot because of inflation and the wars, but it was still pretty substantial.

I am not much interested in Angela Merkel's hair, and even less interested in Fermat's Last Theorem, but I completely delight in visible signs of enthusiasm, regardless of the subject of that enthusiasm.  I was delighted by my nerd.  And I recognize that my delight probably means that I, too, am rather nerdish.

Here's a picture of Angela Merkel

Date: 2005-07-12 03:40 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I've discovered that, if a person has sufficient enthusiasm for a topic, he tends to catch you up in it, as well, even if it's a topic you never would've considered studying.

Date: 2005-07-13 12:15 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Uh oh. Don't get me going. :-)

Date: 2005-07-12 05:04 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Your description of a nerd, relying upon his ability to engage with and enthuse about particular topics as opposed to recounting his physical characteristics or visual style, reminds me of the many ways in which you distinquish yourself as insightful observer of human (or should I say humane?) character--just one of the reasons that I love you.

Date: 2005-07-12 05:36 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I initially misread your third paragraph and thought that the UK fashionista expression was "Merkin me!"

Date: 2005-07-13 01:38 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I think I heard that slogan first used in the movie Merkin Graffiti...

Date: 2005-07-15 02:17 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
First of all, this is the first time I've used my brand! new! lj account to do anything other than post an inane journal entry (just to see if I could), and the only reason I got an lj account in the first place was so that I could comment on your blog, Paul, as you suggested. So thanks!

I was delighted to read your account of the "nerd" you encountered and your reaction to him. Being a nerd myself (I teach math, which my students tell me automatically places me in the "nerd" category), I can relate to his enthusiasm about Fermat's Last Theorem and its solution. The interesting thing about the solution is that the man who came up with it (his name escapes me at the moment) used modern mathematics to solve it, mathematics that simply weren't around during Fermat's time. So the proof he came up with could not possibly have been Fermmat's proof; in other words, Fermat's original proof is still unknown. Some people suspect that, in fact, Fermat didn't actually have a valid proof. Some think that he came up with a proof, but that it was flawed; some think that he deliberately misled people to believe that he had a proof when in fact he didn't. Whatever the case, Fermat created the situation where people since his claim spent years of their lives looking for this mysterious proof, which may not in fact ever have existed. There are quite a few scandals in the world of mathematics, as in every other world in which humans live.

As for his general enthusiasm for mathematics and your positive reaction to it, Paul, I think that people who are not enthusiastic about anything are, or at least appear to be, less interesting, passionate, and engaged in their lives and the world than those who are enthusiastic about something, anything.


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Paul Leonard

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