# Monday, 19 June 2006

On Chemistry, Mishnayos and an Uninteresting Result

When I was doing my PhD, one of my fellow students told me a story (apparently true) of someone doing a PhD in Chemistry. His assignment was to examine the reaction of some chemical, which for want of a better name, we will call Krinklium Trithorodine (KrTh3) with other chemicals.

He slaved away (as much as any PhD student does) for three years mixing, heating, defibulating and otherwise abusing his bottle of KrTh3, trying in vain to get it to react with something. At the end of three years he concluded that it simply didn't react with anything, and that his entire PhD had been a waste of time.

When I was told this story, I pointed out that the fact that KrTh3 didn't react with anything was itself a result. The reply was "Yes, but it's not a very interesting one."

Why am I telling you this? Well, this morning I was learning a tractate of mishnayos called Kinim, which is generally reckoned to be extremely hard to understand by anyone with a non-mathematical mind. I happen to like this tractace, partly because I'm weird, and partly because I like mathematics (which probably amounts to the same as being weird).

Anyway, the subject matter turned to the calculation of what happens when a mixture of sacrificial bird offerings from several people are brought by mistake. There is a discussion over certain specific cases as to how many of the birds were OK, and how many were no good. I started pondering if there was some mathematical formula that, given the number of people and the number of birds they each had, would tell you the proportions that were OK. I started working out some numbers to see if I could see a pattern, but decided that it was a bit complex to do by hand. I began to ponder the complexities of writing a computer program to do the calculation for me. I had grand pictures of a thesis being formed, with a new mathematical treatise on Kinim in the offing. I was going to be famous!!

The matter was put aside at lunchtime, and all but forgot during the afternoon. When I returned to the subject this evening, I decided to have another go at some calculations by hand. As I was doing these, I suddenly realised that the answer was quite simple. If the number of people were even, then half of the birds were OK, and if the number of people were odd, then two thirds of the birds were OK.

I felt a bit deflated. All my grand plans of a thesis shot out of the window. Sure it's a result, but to quote the person who told me the previous story "It's not a very interesting one."

Bit like this blog post!!
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