20 June 2013

Find x

You have hopefully read the blog post titled 'In search...Of a fictional character'. You would then remember that it was originally written as an essay on a prompt by the University of Chicago. I am a fan of their prompts. They are simply too good! I am going to write essays on as many of them as I can, because they are so thought provoking, offbeat and interesting. This is the first of the lot. I know it is a bit too long, but please read on!

Find x

We were first introduced in Grade 6, me and x. As a variable that is; I have known x as an alphabet longer. I was nonchalant about this new acquaintance since I found mathematics’ penetrating arms into the realms of language quite annoying. I thought math should stick to numbers. I wasn’t particularly fond of math back then.

X then, to me, was just something which was a part of a question you had to solve. Find x. So you made x the subject of your equation and solved it. Period. I have been doing that ever since. The equations have become increasingly complex and x has made its appearance across different subjects. Evidently, x isn’t exclusive to mathematics. But what is most interesting about this simple little alphabet is the fact that countless people have been on a quest to find it. Through time, notwithstanding borders, across fields, despite setbacks and aided by answers.

X began as a representation of what you had to find in an equation: one value for linear equations, two for the quadratic ones. Eventually, x was also the velocity of the given body as it approached relativistic speeds; it was also the heat of formation of a compound; it was the refractive index of flint glass; it was the number of cells undergoing mitosis; it was quite simply, the representation of the unknown. It is used in the same fashion: to represent a mystery or a question, to represent an unknown something. In fact, the original reason as to why and how x came to represent the unknown involves ‘the something’. From what I understand, algebra in its original form in Arabic meant ‘the something’. But when these concepts reached Europe and Spanish scholars tried to translate it, they realized that the Spanish language didn’t have the required corresponding sound for pronunciation. By mutual consent, they turned to a certain Greek alphabet. And when those Spanish texts were converted to Latin for the rest of Europe, they assumed the form of ‘x’.

I never realized how closely I had begun to associate x with the unknown till I noticed that x was on my to-do list. The list quite simply said ‘find x’. I had instinctively used x to represent something I was supposed to assign a value to. I was researching spoilage rates and contamination levels for tomato. I wanted to know how many tomatoes from a given known quantity fell prey to decay. Was it 10 out of every 100? I needed to find a value for an unknown. I needed to find x. Simple, isn’t it?!

By a combination of convention (Descartes’ book in 1637) and habit, even in any scientific equation with multiple variables, the unknown is always represented by x. I am sure you have often heard or said “Say x was to do the following…” Again, x is representative of the arbitrary unknown. But I have begun to wonder. What is x?

I have come to believe that x isn’t the unknown. It is the representation of the unknown. Is that different? I believe so. X, by this belief, isn’t what you want to find; it is what makes you find it. It is not the answer, nor is it the question. X is the purpose behind the question. X is the drive to ask and then to know. We don’t fulfill a question by finding x. We fulfill our curiosity to know. X is our curiosity.

Does this make x any easier to find? On the contrary, this just turned x from an assigned representative of the unknown to an intangible. Then, x is no longer the number of rotten tomatoes or the refractive index or even the answer to the good old quadratic. That is why despite having found it so many times, and in so many forms, we still strive to find it. We are inspired by x, by the desire to know and understand.

Or probably, this new perspective makes it easier to find; it is then everywhere. It is in Stephen Hawking’s simply stated desire to know how everything in the universe functions. It is in a newborn’s questioning gaze of the world. It is in those angst-ridden lyrics which question purpose and reason. And of course, it is in those math questions which we solve by the dozen.

But this brings forth a more fundamental question. Does finding x involve knowing WHAT is x, or does it mean knowing WHERE is x? I am not so sure. I think x is purpose, the drive to see and to seek, to expound and to explore. X isn’t the person to a ‘who’; it isn’t a reason to a ‘why’; it isn’t an explanation to a ‘what’ and it isn’t a story to a ‘how’. It is what makes the who, the why, the what and the how. It is what drives the question mark. And as to its whereabouts, I think x is simply everywhere. Curiosity doesn’t really have a fixed residence, does it? But, if I believe I know what is x, and I believe I know where is x; I have found x, haven’t I?

The very basic nature of this elusive little crossed alphabet makes me think otherwise. Do I seek to know? Do I ponder over a question and seek an answer? Then, I haven’t found x as yet. I don’t think I ever can. I am always going to have another question. I love the question mark a bit too much. Are we, collectively, ever going to find x? Unknowingly, finding x is a daily, recurring, non terminating mission. You want to know something every day; you try to find x every day.

Till we lose the question mark, we will never find x. It is all pervading and always evading. X, the ever popular representation of the unknown, is what gives us purpose. Just imagine a day without feeling the need to know something. And that is why finding x is a global and eternal quest. We are always going to want to know. We are always going to ask. We are always going to find x, aren’t we?