I joke about my multiple mid-life crises. I think I’m on my fourth, but it’s hard to keep count.
The first one, at age of 35, found me studying math, as in Mother-Always-Takes-Her-Enemy’s-Mush-And-Turnips-In-Cole-Slaw mathematics. Graduate school was “respectable unemployment.” Then my stipend became a teaching assignment because I was also a female who spoke English. And most unexpectedly, I fell madly in love with presenting College Algebra. It was just like pitching an advertising account, trying to convince a suspicious and surly audience to believe me. Except now, no matter who you were, no matter how you were dressed, tattooed and pierced or not, if x equaled 2, then x equaled 2 and anyone could prove it. Brilliant.
In my graduate class cohort, there were three or four American women, a few American boys, a couple of American men. There was a contingency of 14 from China. They stayed together and spoke little English. When one went to the board to do a proof, the explanation was usually a shoulder shrug and It’s easy. The Americans could never get away with this.
The balance of about 30 were from some corner of Eastern Europe, some of whom had to re-do their education to qualify for financial and visa assistance. So, side-by-side with Literature major me was Victor, who had earned a PhD in the Ukraine. Victor found correcting me painful. Is not right, he would say with a sorry shake of his head; he liked me because I always gave him cigarettes. Victor delighted in challenging Dr. Ratti during Real Analysis lectures. Dr. Ratti did not delight in this questioning. Their debate was far over my head.
My outstanding academic achievements were in a course called The History of Math because evaluation was by essay tests and papers. For one paper, I wrote about zero. One professor disparaged my assertion that it took Eastern spirituality to recognize the existence and purpose of zero, a concept which the Europeans missed for centuries. At the time, I assumed I had hit upon a significant, undiscovered, universal truth. My paper was dismissed with an A for execution and a question mark for the argument.
Now, a real mathematician has published a book that is said to assert the same idea. And people are paying attention. I haven’t yet read Finding Zero: A Mathematician’s Odyssey to Uncover the Origins of Numbers by Amir D. Aczel, but I intend to do so soon.
If you want to read my take on zero, penned 16 years ago, click the link. I think it’s interesting, but I’m biased. And if you like my paper, buy Dr. Aczel’s book.