A bunch of us engineers were sitting together for lunch in a company cubicle when we were interrupted by someone whom the company had hired as a resident mathematician. If any of us ran into something that required mathematics beyond our personal skill sets, this fellow was our go-to guy.
He announced to all of us: "I am better than you."
After we recovered from our collective astonishment, one of us asked what he was talking about.
He replied: "How would you get the first derivative of the arctangent function?"
I held up a mathematics textbook.
"I don't need that," he said. "I know it off the top of my head and you don't. That's why I'm better than you."
For the sake of keeping this text fit for family consumption, I won't go any further into the ensuing commentary except to say that it was quite colorful, but wouldn't you know it, I actually found something later on to ask this mathematician about.
I had an eleven pole filter that had been designed into a digital multimeter. I wanted to know if the roots of the eleventh order polynomial of that filter's transfer function could be found; could they be factored out. The answer I got from the mathematician was "no," but he couldn't tell me why that was the case.
In fact, it was the case. The mathematician was right, but I only learned why later from a biographical article in Scientific American about the French mathematician, Évariste Galois
(October 25, 1811 – May 31, 1832
) who, if I got this right, had sought to find a generalized method of factoring a polynomial of any order and proved that there was no such general method for polynomials of greater than fifth order. Galois' work was the beginning of what is today called "group theory."
Because our resident mathematician was who he was, because of the offensive attitude he displayed, I didn't really believe him. He had lost his credibility with me and as I later saw, with the others too.
There was a life lesson in that.
(John Dunn is an electronics consultant at Ambertec, P.E., P.C. in Merrick, N.Y., a graduate of The Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn (BSEE) and of New York University (MSEE) and is a member and former Chairman of The IEEE Consultants Network of Long Island (LICN)).