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A² + B² = Snowflake ?

It’s amazing how simple events, in our case, a dump of snow, can spin such profound consequences through our lives.

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By Paul Esau (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: February 1, 2012

The Math Nerds* have a concept called the Koch snowflake which I’ve been pondering as I’ve watched the snow come and go over the last couple weeks.  It hasn’t been a really comprehensive pondering—I understand fractal curves about as well as I read Sumerian cuneiform—but then again I haven’t had a lot of time since the Ice Age finally began to retreat and the wheels of civilization returned to motion.

A Koch snowflake is an equilateral triangle in which the middle third of each line segment is puckered into a smaller equilateral triangle, which is then subdivided again and again, in an infinite cycle. It begins so simply, three lines, yet within only a couple of steps it achieves a level of complication and a form akin to (obviously) a snowflake. I’ve seen a lot of snowflakes recently, but it’s the complexity, rather than the form, which has held my interest.

It’s amazing how simple events, in our case, a dump of snow, can spin such profound consequences through our lives.  With the snow came a flurry of emails, phone calls, schedule changes, and five days of cancellations.  Most of us were left with gaping schedules and complicated logistical challenges for the few appointments we considered absolutely necessary, simple tasks made suddenly intricate by the application of a natural force.

Yet in the last week I’ve talked to a fair number of people who spent the snow week battling a more subtle challenge: sheer boredom. Caught without the necessity of being anywhere else, and aware of the tuition money slowly melting into the gutters (about $11 per credit hour missed), these people began to resent the cosmos and all its meteorological manifestations. One individual admitted to developing a sudden, debilitating Facebook addiction, while another related a cute cat YouTube binge in all its glory. People paced through suffocating suburban dwellings, trapped by snowbound automobiles, and claimed to go slowly mad. The general consensus among these individuals was that the snow cost us a week of valuable learning, was bloody inconvenient, and, most of all, was terrifically dull.

There are not a lot of arguments that can be made against the first two accusations in that triad, but I am somewhat astounded that people, when given a week of drastically reduced responsibility, complained about boredom. I hate to make this personal. I hate to be that person, but I think I’m going to do it. You see, I rolled a chest-high snowball then attempted (unsuccessfully) to roll it down a hill like a real life Calvin & Hobbes adventure.  I built an igloo. I learned to encrypt and decrypt secret messages by manipulating a deck of cards, in what (I’ve heard) is one of the most secure ciphers that doesn’t involve microchips. I also wasted a lot of time on various social networking sites, so I don’t feel too self-righteous, but I wouldn’t have described myself as bored.

In fact, the problem I have with boredom is not a matter of arguing who most creatively utilized the five days of cancellation, but instead a matter of perspective.  Most of us here in university are paying a good deal of money for the opportunity to “get an education,” which presumably means to accumulate knowledge, sophistication, marketable skills, etc. Yet this is not a quantifiable transaction, in that we are also supposedly paying for a paradigm shift, a change in perspective beyond the mere accumulation of fact.  The hope is that our curiousity will be cultivated, indeed develop such a crushing grip upon us, that even when the professors and classrooms are not physically present we will still endeavor to explore.  That eventually we will embark on projects that are not directly required on a syllabus, and involved ourselves in dialogues that we could have previously ignored.

I will admit that the people who used the word “bored” in conversations with myself, probably did not choose it as a profound description of their emotional, physical, and intellectual state during the majority of their time off.  It was an easy answer, easier than explaining in detail the tasks they attempted and the goals they accomplished. I understand that, but I also understand that “bored” is a triangle word, and that university is about creating snowflakes.

*Definition 1: People who can use the phrase “irrational number” without feeling rather silly.  Definition 2: People who can subtract double-digit integers.

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