the personal web page of arielle lok display_properties-0 home

go back

14092023 here’s my number

i recently wrote about how learning feels incredible when there is no pressure to fit into a set of standards. i’ve consumed more words in the last 2 weeks than i have in the last 2 years alone (a bit sad, but sooo uphill!) and my brain constantly feels stimulated in the way that i take in views, look at the sky, and i am just! always! thinking! i have also been attending seminars scattered around montreal in topics that deeply interest me and are tangentially related to my fall curriculum.

today, i went to my first number theory seminar and i admittedly have been looking forward to this to an embarrassing degree. there is something so enchanting about the way humans have accepted numbers and look for patterns with absolute certainty and consensus across the world. i fervently read up on the two speakers and read their papers multiple times just so i could understand <10% of the content they would talk about. there were not enough tables for the amount of seats scattered around a tiny blackboard and the lights flickered fluorescent whites and yellows and i sat in the most uncomfortable chair of my life.

here is my naive view on academia as someone who was never involved in academia: it is absolutely wonderful that people who are all obsessed with a single topic can come together and just talk for hours in the same room. researchers travel to new cities not to marvel at sights but to be in these uncomfortable, liminal spaces. it is unabashedly exciting to have dedicated moments with others where there is a universal obsession over the same studies. in many, many ways i was out of place here (there is a term here for not being an expert. something about blown out of the water?) but! i sat down, shut the hell up, and listened. as one does (i seem to have crippling shyness around mathematicians).

as the speaker scribbled absolute nonsense in chalk, i thought about the alcoves that euclid must have sat in while trying to convince a group of soon-to-be mathematicians of the concept of a line. i imagine how the caricature of “mad scientists” were based off of people like the speaker; his sparse hair stood up as if it was its own living being, emanating static electricity in every moment. he spoke softly, then loudly, then softly once more. he stops and ponders before laughing to himself and continuing, with not a second thought given to the room of PhDs patiently awaiting his next sentence. he stares at the blackboard and nods; not a single person gestures alongside with him but we collectively agree that there is indeed something going on - if only we could follow!

we put chairs away at the end and we struggle to balance them on top of each other. “how many mathematicians does it take to stack 5 chairs?” i jester and only one person laughs. that’s enough for me. i overhear the conversation of the two older men next to me. “we really should’ve written that paper together!” what an awesome sentence to say. i picture the two of them cramped in a tiny office, whiteboard markers on windowpanes and boxes of empty chalk.

back to the greeks: we take (basic) geometry for granted. at its foundational level it is considered rudimentary. children fit cubes into square holes (after failing to fit it through the circle, triangle). we walk in the constraints of lines on the street, subconsciously acknowledging their meaning. although shapes have existed forever, the formal acceptance of geometric axioms did not come to be until euclid's elements and - how did the world collectively agree to his systematic approach? who knows! no QED here from me.

but, this makes me wonder about the thousands of years from this given time. will the poisson-distributed nonsense that the speaker scratched on the blackboard become table stakes? im a believer that human capability for knowledge continuously expands overtime. what topics will become foundational? even graduates from 50 years ago agree that curricula have become more thorough; not to say it is more difficult, but the breadth of prerequisites has grown exponentially and we absorb much more than before. new discoveries act as catalysts and we have only scratched the surface!

anyway. my brain has been quite happy lately and i have been thinking, pondering with precise care. the saying that the more you know, the less happy you become (or even more simply “ignorance is bliss”) does not compute in my head, or maybe i just know very little to begin with. i merely can’t imagine nor accept a reality where i am unhappy to be exploring what the world has to offer!



today, i took my first step into building 21. i cannot believe that i have never heard of this sanctuary until now, but im grateful that it has found me at this point of my lifetime. i talked with anita, olivier, and participated in their ‘lightning’ talks for 3 hours and it past by me so quickly. conversations were contemplative and i loved how every question had intent to let the respondent delve deeper into their thoughts. why’s were thrown around like confetti and after feeling a bit mindless in the last few days, this was what i needed to begin putting some of my floatiness at ease. real words, tangible learning, actionable projects and a hive of people who are tangentially working on their own what’s and how’s.

a first year math and english student said i was “so cool” even after she witnessed my heated conversation about food systems and i felt a lightness transcend through my body. i have found a tiny corner that i feel comfortable in once more, and you will be able to find me in this coziness nose-deep in another climate book, algebra 1 notes, and continuing to make delicious snacks.

go next