A continuing tale of life in the boonies

No. 327

An elegant equation…does it really add up?


FARMINGTON – A couple of years ago, in this column, I mentioned that an old friend of mine from Glasgow, Danny Healey, had encountered a spot of bother while driving a camper from Morocco into the Spanish enclave of Sebta on the north African coast. "Spot," on reflection, might be the wrong word. Perhaps "gigantic inkblot" better describes it, for police found 100 kilograms of cannabis resin, worth half a million pounds, secreted in the vehicle’s water tank.

Danny did not pass Go, or collect $200 from each player. He went directly to jail, and from that very jail, I got a phone call, last week.

"Hello," I asked, when the phone rang, "who is this?"

"It’s Danny from Glasgow," said a voice.

"Are you still in Algeria," I asked. How quickly details fade in the aging brain.

"Morocco, yes," he replied in a tone that suggested that place and time mattered little to him.

Getting immediately down to business, he continued, "I have an elegant equation for the speed of light."

I was floored for a reply, as my only association with mathematical and scientific equations was from viewing Sheldon Cooper’s livingroom blackboard in the Big Bang Theory.

I suppose the correct response would have been to utter a profound "Wow!" but my mind had flooded with skepticism. The last time I had seen Danny (and that was over 30 years ago) he was not associated with elegance. In fact he had just partially wrecked a piano in a posh Sauchiehall Street coffee bar called Nico's, by pounding ferociously on the keys and bawling impromptu lyrics about an architect who apparently owed him money.

Time can mellow a man, though, and indeed, prison time can concentrate the mind in wondrous ways. Some readers will doubtless recall that William Addis invented the toothbrush whilst in prison, Davis William tweaked the blueprint for the M1 carbine, and Jesse Hawley designed the Erie Canal. Huddy Leadbetter wrote a string of songs in jail and John Bunyon penned Pilgrim’s Progress, so maybe Danny had created an elegant theory after all.

"It’s been in the Glasgow Herald, and in a French paper. Call Gerry Mangan in Paris," Danny continued, with the kind of ebullient enthusiasm not normally associated with a prisoner. "You’ll want this for your newspaper."

Like his daughter, Siobhan, the talented glass artist who exhibited her fragile orchids in Harvard’s Natural History Museum (see a past Farmington Corner), Danny seemed to be confusing the Rochester Times with the New York Times.

He reeled off a 15-digit phone number for Gerry Mangan, a man I was presumably expected to call up for further details of the elegant equation.

Instead, when Danny hung up, I phoned my Glasgow buddy, Scout Lamont, guessing correctly that it was he who had passed along my phone number to our man in Morocco.

"Hey, Scout, Mad Danny just called, going on about an elegant equation he has come up with about the speed of light," I said.

"Yeah, man, Alasdair wrote to the Glasgow Herald about it. You should be able to read it online," said Scout.

I Googled "Glasgow Herald" and "Alasdair Gray", Scotland’s most esteemed living writer and painter, who is now approaching his 80th year. Up popped a letter published a few weeks back.

"A friend of mine in unusual circumstances" wrote Alasdair, diplomatically, "believes he has found an elegant equation for the definitive value for the speed of light which he would like made public. "It is 6π + π2 +1.

"Being neither a mathematician nor physicist, the equation is meaningless to me. The fact that he wishes to remain anonymous while ‘giving his discovery to the Scottish people’ is, I admit, highly suspicious. I am sending it under my name to The Herald as he wishes, partly to oblige him, partly in hopes that a qualified physicist may judge if it is sense or nonsense."

The judgment was speedy, and snippily came down on the side of nonsense.

"Alasdair Gray’s friend appears to know a very little Greek and no mathematics or science at all," came an online response within minutes.

"The first thing to be said about his ‘elegant equation’ is that it isn’t an equation at all since the expression quoted is not equated to anything: x= y is an equation, but x alone is not."

What a shame! If I have copied the "equation" correctly, the answer is 29.734693 somethings per something, and while this may lack the elegance of Douglas Adams’ Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything (widely accepted, these days, as being 42), it could yet prove to be an incredibly insightful piece of work that just needs a little refining – rather like Alasdair would like to slightly modify his mural in Hillhead underground station.

On the other hand, Danny Healey’s elegant equation may be a load of bunk. You, dear reader, are the final arbiter.


Nov. 10, 2013

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