Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Getting knotted

Edinburgh is a city of statues and George Street easily lays claim to its fair share, with King George IV, William Pitt and Dr Chalmers all lined up for passing inspection.  It was only when sitting on the bus at a traffic light waiting to turn into St Andrew's Square that I paid any particular attention to the statue at the eastern end of George Street.  If you only glance at the statue of James Clerk-Maxwell you may easily miss the fact that it is not just another 19th century lump of bronze depicting some dead guy being well and truly dead...even if he is sitting on a hysterical horse. 

On closer inspection (and on a bus you are at just the right level and have the leisure to give a statue closer inspection), your attention is caught by the fact that there is nothing formal about this figure: he is utterly at ease, seated in a chair with his legs negligently crossed, a small dog tucked comfortably behind his calves.  His trousers are rather crumpled looking and he has some sort of round device in his hands which he seems to be regarding with gentle bemusement.  Best of all, if you look really closely you can see that his right shoelace has broken and he has done just what I do when the laces break on my walking boots--tied a knot in the lace and missed out an eyelet.  

It is, I think, the most essentially human statue in Edinburgh and I was surprised to discover that James Clerk-Maxwell was a physicist.  Nor was he any old physicist:  according to the carved panels on the side of the base he stands between Newton and Einstein; one of the three scientists who did most to change the world... and the only one who did not become a household name.  Yet he is the man who 'opened the way to quantum theory'--so without him arguably no quantum physics, quantum leaps,  or (James Bond film fans) quantum of solace (does anyone know what that actually means?).   Without his discovery that any colour can be produced from red, blue and green (forget what they told you in school about primary colours) there would be no colour printers.  Evidently his work in electromagnetism paved the way for all those gadgets we could not imagine surviving without now, like mobile phones and satellite televisions (but I am not going to hold this against him--who could have predicted James Murdoch?).  

And it gets better.  Sir Michael Atiyah, who was president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, was the moving force behind the statue.  Sir Michael is a mathematician who published a paper called:  'The Geometry and Physics of Knots', which sounds to me remarkably like a Alexander McCall Smith book title.  When I had a look at a transcript of a lecture Sir Michael gave by the same title I understood about one word in ten.  Nevertheless I was completely enchanted by a mathematician turning theory into knots-- generations of school children have done exactly the same thing.

 When Sir Michael talks about the problems of knots in closed strings, I see a metaphor for life.   You cannot help but warm to a man who talks about 'knottiness' at Royal Institute lectures, illustrating his point with drawings of 'the first seven orders of knottiness'.  If that is the pun I hope it is I would like to have Sir Michael's babies--although the best pun of all is contained in the statue itself:  the Atiyah-Stringer Theorem has helped to unravel string theory; thus the knotted shoelace...  

To paraphrase Rogers and Hammerstein:  there is nothin' that you've heard, that is anything like a nerd.  


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