There is an anecdote about Sir Isaac Newton, and his adventures with inventing calculus. According to the story right after he got his bachelor’s degree, Newton went back to his home in Woolsthorpe for two years to avoid the Great Plague. In the process he invented calculus, optics, and the law of gravitation. So basically, he sat at home avoiding a great pandemic and just invented, among other things, one of the most important math theories. The power of focusing under great duress should not be discounted. It can be an excellent motivator and it shows that humans are capable of amazing feats when needed. Newton literally took humanity by the hand and moved us into the future by decades.
The past few years have put a tremendous stress on everyone, with the global pandemic unbalancing everything and tormenting humanity around the globe. The loss of life and the devastation that covid 19 brought with it will be felt for many years to come. But this is not a depressing blog. Far from it. I wanted to bring to light an amazing gem / collaboration that I stumbled upon the other night. I too was sick from a common cold (having two kids at daycare means a lot of sick days in the beginning of the semester until our immune system adjusts), so I too was working on research with the customary background working music.
On one of my breaks, I trusted the youtube algorithm and clicked on a viral video from 2021 by Nathan Evans called Wellerman (Sea Shanty). With a very catchy tune and easy to remember chorus coupled with his distinct voice and Scottish accent, it was obvious that it would be an instant hit. 175M views after (and I have no idea how many tiktok views) it was obvious that the song was good.
But there is something more to the song, some impossible attraction, a rhythm that makes you work, but also somehow feel part of a group of doing something together. This article, by Jacob Uitti explains why this is so.
The Wellerman is a work song, something that whalers would probably sing while working to turn a whale into oil a couple of centuries ago. The article is excellent at explaining the origins of the song, whaling in New Zealand in 1830, a company named Weller brothers and more. Give it a read when you have some time. So yes, I am convinced, there is something about the song that speaks to some subconscious part of us and guides us in a common activity. The song could bring people together and give them motivation and courage to work together for a common cause, especially under what we could imagine were amazingly harsh conditions either on a whaling ship or a remote area in New Zealand.
And then, probably because my brain was scrambled by the sickness, I started making connections with the modern version of the song. It was a Tiktok smash hit for quite some time, people were picking it up and making their own versions. Tiktok is nowadays one of the easiest ways to bring people together and unleash their creativity with the whole world being the audience. But it is more than that, as we will soon see. Apparently so many people responded to the video, and their mashups become collective pieces of art that sound and feel amazing.
There is a rendition of the song with 6500 singers:
There is my favorite version of mashup/supercut:
There is a version by a duo of my favorite artists Gary Barlow and Ronan Keating:
There is an amazing Remix, which I can see myself dancing to:
and many many more (there is a rabbit hole in the links above… proceed with caution)
Imagine the work behind these projects and just how awesome they are. Most of these folks have probably never met in person, but a 200-year-old sea shanty brought them together for 3 minutes. Imagine the potential! People having fun and creating together. Its moments like this that restore my faith to humanity and really justify my life. So, strap on, this is going to get heavy.
I am no philosopher, nor well-read overall, but early in life I crafted my own meaning for life, which is probably influenced by my classic Greek upbringing, my profession as a teacher, the ideals imprinted to me by my family and whatever little I read when I am not reading about mathematics. You see I don’t have a specific religion, or philosophy that I adhere to, to “borrow” a meaning for my life, thus like a good mathematician I had to “invent” one.
And it is quite simple. The meaning of life is to help humanity progress. Any way I can, no matter how small or insignificant my efforts seem, as long as my actions have a net gain in humanity, I will be a happy camper. Perhaps a revised Asimov’s zeroth law of robotics might be a good way to describe it. Asimov had added a zeroth law to his famous 3 laws of robots which stated: “A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.” My version for humans should be “a human should always try to progress and help humanity and may not through inaction allow humanity to come to harm”. Imagine all of us working with this motto in mind, bringing our experiences, individuality, expertise and strengths to the table. I am not talking about a utopian, society of people working in collectives, I am talking about living our lives as they are now, but taking that extra small step when possible, to help, to improve, to educate, to fix so that the collective view of the world is improved and the experience of our fellow humans and our children will be better than the one we found.