Wednesday, 31 December 2014

The Beauty of the Proof

When the building is finished, you take away the scaffolding.

You know how they say, “Proof denies faith”? Well for me, proof gives me faith. Or rather, the way proof is achieved.

Someone once said to me: don’t give up on a good idea just because it’s wrong. It takes time to prove something. A long time. Something worth proving, anyway.  And once you think you’ve proven something, then you need to check your working. Check that you’ve got it right.

A first proof is ugly. Inelegant. Long. Way too long. But it’s all there.

Then, once you’ve done the work, you ask for help.

Years ago, this took even more time. Letters sent on horseback from one city to another, from one country to another. Letters that said: I think I’ve done it. Could you do me a favour and give this a read? Check my working for me? It’s a bit long, sorry.

These letters aren’t just sent to anyone, of course. They’re sent to your colleagues, to your peers. Some might say your competitors. Letters sent on horseback. Letters sent in hope. In belief. In good faith. The work takes you years of your life. You write it down – many times – and you send it off.

Then you wait.

And slowly, one by one, the horses come back bearing new letters. If you’re lucky the new letters say, Yes, you got that right. Well done!

And if you’re luckier still, the letters also say: I’ve been doing work in a similar area. There’s a bit of our research that might help you to simplify chapter 4, or pages 16 through 23, or the second hypothesis, or whatever…

This is the story that the proof tells. With the help of your friends, across the continent, you refine your clumsy, inelegant explanation, into something clear, something clean.

This is where I find beauty, in the efficiency of the logic, in the clarity of the proof. And this is where I find faith. In my colleagues. In my friends. They help me to take away the scaffolding.

These days, of course, you just upload it to a discussion room on the internet. It’s not as poetic, but it’s much quicker.


This text was inspired by a conversation with Professor Ian Stewart at Warwick Arts Centre as part of our research into The Paradise Project. Professor Stewart was one of several academics who generously came in and talked to us back in December 2013. This year those conversations all fed into the making of the show. 

This piece about proof was written during the making process this November, but feels like it is closer to the voice of 600 People, so it may find its way into the expanded version of that in 2015.

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