I have started an on-line course on quantum mechanics and computing. A drastic means of putting off the pain of writing my novel. I came across the course via Facebook TED and realised that it was something I had to try. To prove something? Perhaps. I feel a bit of a charlatan. I have done little in the way of maths for 35 years and quantum mechanics is not an easy way of avoiding maths. It’s a bit like talking French having not studied or spoken it much since O level. It involves a certain bravado and handwaving (something I do embarrassingly well when trying to speak French, apparently). I write mathematical terms out like a child copying her teacher and hope that the funny notation will coalesce into something. Voices, like those of mad sailors awaiting rescue on a forgotten island where they have been marooned for half a lifetime, shout to be rescued. I hear snatches of language that were once familiar to me, but are now like French spoken from another room, very quickly and in a heavy accent. I sort of understand it, but realise I could not speak it back convincingly if challenged. My mathematical grammar is very shaky. However, what I have found is not complete incompetence, but there is an undercover process, an understanding at some level, similar to the pre-language of childhood where things are understood without vocabulary. Tentatively, I approached the first assignment, submitted it with no confidence, telling myself I’d be happy to get a couple of things right. I didn’t do brilliantly, but with work, some reading of text books and some bolder approaches, I eventually got it all correct. OK, it hurt a bit, but I was pleased to get through the first step.
There is a chat forum on-line for the students, who hail from across the globe. A question about the age distribution of participants prompted a long list of responses. The originator of the comment expected most participants would be in the range 19-21. As it happens, the age profile of the students does appear to have a strong young contingent – mainly under 30 (one as young as 13) but there is another bulge in their 50s and 60s, with some in their 70s. It’s wonderful how the internet has brought learning resources to so many.
One 16 year old says he learned algebra from the internet. (I may have to try that myself!) What is plain is that everyone taking part is keen to learn. Not for career advancement, but for the joy of learning and the intellectual challenge. There is no qualification to be gained, but tests consolidate the process of learning, encouraging exploration of the ideas. I don’t expect to outsmart a mathematically adept 21 year old fresh from university, but I will learn something about a subject that didn’t exist when I was 21.