Pearls of Wisdom
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What a charming problem we have here!
Whilst making love a necklace broke
A row of pearls mislaid
One sixth fell to the floor
One fifth upon the bed
The young woman saved one third of them
One tenth were caught by her lover
If six pearls remained upon the string
How many pearls were there altogether?
What a charming problem we have here! If our modern schoolteachers had set us exercises involving birds, bees and strings of pearls, we could all have been string theorists and winners of the Fields Medal — the mathematician's equivalent of the Nobel. But I remember having to endure the dreariest practical problems. Boring arithmetic involving municipal water flowing into and leaking out of overhead tanks. Having to figure out how many men it takes to dig a ditch or raise a wall, and how much faster these unremarkable feats could be accomplished by hiring more men. And how much they should be paid. No mention of women at all, though the urbanisation wave had just started when I was in school and India was being built mainly by women labourers.
What a difference eight centuries and the shadow of colonialism have made. The problem of the love-torn pearls is from Lilavati, an introduction to arithmetic and geometry, the first volume of Bhaskaracharya's Siddhanta Shiromani. It was probably composed in the mid-12th century in Ujjain where Bhaskara, then in his 30s, served as chief astronomer at India's leading observatory. His Ujjain was the Greenwich of the early medieval world — the prime meridian, zero degrees, ran through the city's observatory.
Numbed to mathematics by the prosaic practicalities of ditches, walls and tanks, the colonial contagion spread across the subcontinent by industrious, neo-industrial Britain, I cannot possibly answer Bhaskara's pearl-strewn verse riddle. But following Douglas Adams, a Briton I admire, I hazard that it's 42. Since The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy declares 42 to be a multivalent number expressing the meaning of life, the universe and everything, it ought to cover all eventualities. No?
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