Sunday, January 8, 2012


I have finally fixed the dice. (This is a random post generator link on the sidebar; it had vanished after I switched to the new template.) My achievement of the weekend.

It is one month since v3.0 was unveiled. I am happy with the new look, though I can’t say the initial goal of minimalism has been realised. But for lovers of minimalism, here are three of my favourite anecdotes on the subject.

1. Spartans

The Spartans were renowned for being men of few words. Indeed, Spartan is almost a synonym for minimalist, and the word laconic derives from Laconia, the principal region of the Spartan state.

Herodotus (The Histories, Book 3.46) tells us that when the banished Samians reached Sparta, they came before the magistrates and, as was customary, made a long speech to show the greatness of their need. But the Spartans answered that they had forgotten the beginning of the speech and could make nothing of the remainder. After this the Samians came a second time with a sack, and said nothing but this: “The sack wants flour.” The Spartans replied that they need not have said “the sack”; however, they resolved to give them aid.

2. Physicists

Wikipedia informs us that British physicist Paul Dirac was notoriously taciturn. After a lecture he gave at the University of Toronto, a member of the audience remarked that he hadn’t understood part of a derivation. There followed a long and increasingly awkward silence. When the host finally prodded him to respond, Dirac said, “That was a statement, not a question.”

3. Mathematicians

My high-school book on number theory had the story of how Mersenne’s conjecture was demonstrated to be false. In 1644 the French monk Marin Mersenne stated that the numbers 2n – 1 were prime for n = 2, 3, 5, 7, 13, 17, 19, 31, 67, 127 and 257, and were composite for all other positive integers n < 257. Mersenne admitted that he had not tested all the numbers, but owing to the notorious difficulty of integer factorisation, his conjecture went unverified for two and a half centuries.

In 1903 F. N. Cole made a presentation to the American Mathematical Society with the rather bland title, On the Factorisation of Large Numbers. Cole’s ‘lecture’ went thus. He approached the chalkboard and in complete silence proceeded to raise 2 to the power of 67. He then carefully subtracted 1, arriving at 147,573,952,589,676,412,927. Cole then moved to the other side of the board, wrote 193,707,721 × 761,838,257,287, and worked through the multiplication in longhand. The two results were equal. Cole returned to his seat, not having uttered a word during his hour-long presentation.

It is said that this is the only lecture in the history of the AMS where the audience applauded.

If I were Cole, I would have arranged for T-shirts to be sold outside the lecture venue:
M67 is composite.


relativelytruthful said...

spartan magistrates sound like the best law profs :)

Rara Avis said...

Always thinking business.

And yes, if only the Indian judges would take a cue from them Spartans.

Abhiroop said...

My favourite Laconia story is this:

Philip of Macedon apparently wrote to Spartan magistrates in Laconia once: "If I enter Laconia, I will level Lacedaemon to the ground". The Spartan magistrate replied "If".

What a reply!! Respect!

Indecision Personified said...

I like the 'If' story better too. The story and its point are both minimalistic.

Tommy said...

When on vacation in 1862, Victor Hugo telegraphed his publisher to ask how well his novel Les Misérables was being received. He wrote "?", to which the publisher replied "!" -- deemed the shortest correspondence in history.

Sroyon said...

@IP: But everyone knows the "If" story! (Largely because of the publicity that I myself have given it.)

Priyanka said...

Eggselent. More artwork!

Priyanka said...

Whoops wrong comment box. You get the drift though. Eggselent.