International Languages

08Oct06

There are a few really international languages. One of them is footbal (“soccer”). Unfortunately I don’t speak that one yet. Another one is mathematics, which I know a little bit about. A third, somewhat newer international language is basketball (Don’t think so? Just look at the results of the FIBA tournament this year.), and this I do speak fluently, albeit better as a spectator versus a player, and usually in the chippy drama-queen NBA dialect versus the more pure international (or college) sport.

I wasn’t surprised to hear lots of chat about the World Cup here. Despite not knowing all the rules or any of the players, I’ve heard enough about this year’s World Cup to know that there were an abnormal amount of red cards, certain teams are ‘dirty,’ and just about everyone’s national team “should have won” except for the USA. Today’s BA brunch was punctuated by cheers by my Macedonian neighbor when she read the Guardian headline “Toothless England held” (my German neighbor had to translate that into “Macedonia ties England in an upset”) and alternate groans/laughs when my Irish neighbor described to my Greek neighbor Ireland’s recent 5-2 loss to Crete. My staircase, if not Cambridge as a whole, is certainly a very international place. What makes my staircase a little special is that immediately after chatting about the latest football scores, it’s not surprising to hear someone talking about algebraic topology or category theory.

And we do like to talk about our mathematics. Pure math, statistics, applied math, and theoretical physics–we’ve got our bases covered. Yesterday I went to lunch in hall (no gowns for lunch) and discreetly took out a napkin to rederive something I hadn’t completely understood in class. Across from me I heard a very fast paced (well, it seemed that way) and animated discussion in Russian and hoped they weren’t arguing about how nerdy I was. To my surprise, in between the Cyrillic chatting were a few words that I did recognize… “yadda-yadda-yadda differential manifold
or “something-something toric geometry.” They were thinking about math as well! My ears then perked up… to my right were some undergrads attacking a physics problem (“mumble-mumble spherical symmetry mumble”). And to my left was a conversation in Chinese that ended with, “Take the Part II Riemann Surfaces class.” Trinity is certainly known for being a hub of mathematics at Cambridge, but every once in a while it really hits you that people have come from all over the world to take part in that community.

Finally, today I played an 11pm game of basketball with the Trinity cuppers-league (intramural) team. It’s been a couple of months since I played with Berkeley’s Physics basketball team (called Net Force), but I had a great time playing with our group that included players from Serbia, Greece, Ireland, China, England, and the US. Being more of an NBA watcher than an actual player, I’m a poor representative of the US. But as a corollary I also pass to my teammates. We had a great game… it was probably terribly ugly to watch from anyone used to watching high school (…or even jr. high…) basketball teams, but it was the first time that I really felt at home here. Perhaps in characteristic US fashion I was walking up and down the sidelines cheering for both teams when I was on the bench taking a breather. The other players found this very foreign but rather amusing. Afterwards, they asked me if I’d ever attended an NBA game and what it was like. Much to my surprise there were a couple of Laker fans in the group! Apparently if you go anywhere in the US outside of Southern California people don’t like the Lakers. But if you go even further away to Europe, you’ll find quite a few fans who remember Vlade Divac.

Anyway, you want to know the kicker? The Trinity Basketball team is composed of nearly all mathematicians. We’ve got an engineer here and there, but otherwise we’re all at the Centre for Mathematical Studies. For now I think Berkeley’s Net Force team of physicists are more coordinated than Trinity’s cupper’s team… but we’ll see if we can catch up this season.



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