Equations are Everything

My blood pressure hasn´t been doing very well in the past 24hrs. The first time it dropped significantly was after donating blood to CVD research. Well, I didn´t really donate blood – goodness knows I would probably require my own blood donation of 500ml straight back due to the fact that the sight of blood makes me squirm and feel faint to start with, and also because I can´t really afford to lose 1/6 of my blood volume, no matter how humanitarian my mind may be feeling. But I made an effort to contribute to research in the field of cardiovascular diseases and I hope it might help, even though I won´t be directly saving lives. Nonetheless, getting up from the chair with over 100ml of my blood missing certainly didn´t keep my blood pressure looking pretty.

The second time it started to behave like a temper tantrum throwing 4 year old was a few hours later. The lightheadedness that had annoyed me before disappeared almost instantaneously after I stumbled straight into a debate on the importance of language as the driving force of humanity with my partner. And no, the blood pressure thing wasn´t love. I know without a doubt that despite the fact that the sight of his pretty face gets my heart pumping furiously, that was decidedly not what was making it shoot through the roof at the time.

The discussion achieved its goal, sort of. I now know my partner has the guts to pick a fight with my core belief system (which is good, because I do like a good challenge) and it got me thinking.

Is language really the driving force behind what makes humanity move forward?

I started thinking about the importance of language and tried to see it as more than just a neat little packaging for the content (ideas, stories, opinions) we try to get across. But it´s hard for a scientist, who has been trained to simplify the great wide world into nothing, but an equation, to see language as more than just pretty wrapping. After all, shouldn´t language be nothing more than the either crude or elaborate wrapping of a gift for Christmas? Does it matter to you whether your three year old nephew, with his adorably cute, but clumsy hands and yet to be developed fine motor skill wraps up the first edition of “Walden” by Thoreau you´ve been dying to get your hands on since practically the day you were born? Or does it have to be done by the shop owner, who has wrapped presents for years and can probably do it in his sleep by now? No. You´ll be too busy being happy about receiving the book at all. We´re all guilty of tearing off the wrapping too focused on the content to appreciate the work that has been put into it. Rarely does the wrapping ever appeal to us more than the present itself.

Conveying an idea relies on language, yes. But language is fluid, easily distorted and often just not enough (see what I did there?). Which is why we turn to equations. Mathematics offers us a safe haven, by being completely and utterly separated from the grasp of the real world. Terms are defined. Numbers are ultimate. They shall be derived, but not influenced by emotional turmoil of the human playing with them. My background, my upbringing, my vocabulary doesn´t matter to an equation. In its simplicity, an equation has achieved the state of a Platonic archetype; locked in the realm of our imagination, out of the reach of human fallibilities that language will always be a victim of.

These equations, the drawings of the thinker, have been at the heart of technical development. In their slightly heftier form of models, they have given scientists an insight into nature and the workings of the universe. Show a man an equation and no language barrier will be able to influence his thinking. Variables are defined prior to an equation, for example: c = speed of light, = wavelength, = frequency. The only thing I will use language for is to tell this hypothetical man that c is a constant in vacuum. The equation then easily reveals the intimate relationship between wavelength and frequency. Since the speed of light never changes, this translates to the frequency – a full cycle of waves in a ray of light – being inversely related to the wavelength. Turn on that thinking cap of yours and you will know that a microwave with its high frequency must have a very small wavelength. Run the experiment in your microwave with a piece of chocolate and a ruler and voilà! You will be able to see: you were right. Language, as the beautiful intricate piece of art that great poets and writers turn it into, was involved on such a small scale that one might even go as far to say: it wasn´t necessary at all.

But evolution gave us of FOXP2, the “language gene”, and it marked the birth of human civilization! And yes, I am in no position to argue against the importance of language in terms of the development of human civilization. Development of civilized cultures were based on the ability to convey stories, in order to establish and later on uphold social structures, monarchies, religion, money, and so on and so forth. Language is essential for the establishment of a society. But though it might be essential in the sense that it keeps civilization alive, language has never breached the limits of human knowledge. Language by itself did not put a man on the moon, did not invent calculators or find a cure for Ebola. Humans, who were able to simplify by using numbers, models, diagrams and most importantly equations did.

So yes, darling, you are right. Humanity would be nothing without language. But equations are its driving force.

Mmh? What was that, darling? I beat you what..?

You beat me fair and square!This will be the pose I strike when I come home.


4 thoughts on “Equations are Everything

  1. Ich glaube du unterschätzt die Sprache. Unser gesamtes Denken wird durch sie ganz grundlegend konstituiert und strukturiert. Gleichungen sind nur Formalisierungen davon.
    Sprache ist der innerste Kern des denkenden Menschen, und damit auch Ursprung aller Wissenschaft. Meine Meinung.
    Klug: Wittgenstein


    1. Das war exakt die gleiche Antwort auf diesen Beitrag wie die von meinem Partner als er den Text gelesen hat. 😉 Und ich gebe zu, ich habe die Sprache kaum selbst “zur Sprache” kommen lassen. Aber im Grunde sind Formeln nur die reduzierte Form dieser und daher, meiner Meinung nach, in der Zukunft anstrebenswert um mögliche Missverständnisse zu verhindern.


  2. Must disagree….language is the driving force – without it equations would have no conceptual meaning…equations are merely a symbolic means of sharing ideas that are derived in language (even if sometimes non verbal thoughts)


    1. Yes, language is in essence the translation of our non verbal ideas into a medium that we can easily share. But with every translation there is the risk of misunderstanding. My argument against language should’ve focused more on how, in my opinion, it is favorable for language to evolve into equations. I prefer seeing language as the glue, whereas equations actually get us to where we want to go in terms of human (technological) development, because there is no way to alter them in our favor or misunderstand them. But I’m also going to have to admit, it’s not the most favored view on language out there. 😉


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