Ask any student that has ever taken a mathematics test. Simply answering the question is not giving a complete answer. One must be able to show the work to explain how the answer was obtained. In other words, the student cannot simply guess; computations must give evidence of how the answer was determined.
In 1956 Kurt Godel wrote a letter to John von Neumann and, basically, asked if he thought a computer could determine answers to certain problems from scratch. Computers had already proven quite successful at verifying answers; Godel wondered if they could posit the answer all on their own, especially regarding those problems that were easily verified but not so easily solved. This question was put into mathematical terms fifteen years later by Stephen Cook who wrote “P versus NP”.
The questions involved in the P versus NP debate are, simply put, questions whose answers cannot be determined without testing every possible answer. In 2000 seven mathematical problems were named Millennium Prize Problems by the Clay Mathematical Institute. Anyone solving one of these seven would win a million dollar prize. To date, only one of the seven has been solved; six are still unsolved.
These are not the only unsolved problems that exist, however. Even in mathematics, there are still a host of problems in each specialty that continue to challenge mankind. One of my favorites is found in Discrete Geometry – solving the happy ending problem for arbitrary . The problem itself has nothing to do with marriage. It states “every set of five points in general position contains the vertices of a convex quadrilateral.” There are quite a few theorems but none have been proven and proving is what solves the problem. In other words, the work must be shown. By the way, two mathematicians met while studying the problem and married; hence, the name.
The Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge between 1979 and 2009 was a gentleman named Stephen. A prominent theoretical physicist and often called one of the greatest scientific minds of all times, Stephen illustrates a great deal of unbelievable control for many people. He currently is the Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology, is a most successful author and is a fervent supporter and fan of quantum mechanics. He is also an avid supporter of SOS Children’s Villages in the United Kingdom.
The SOS Children’s Villages support vulnerable children who have lost their parents or no longer reside with them. The agency provided family strengthening programs, health, educational, and psycho-social support. Emergency relief programs are also available and the organization works within the intention of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child as well as working with the UN Economic and Social Council.
For me, though, one of the most astounding things about Stephen is his own lack of physical control that so many of us take for granted. Those that know him claim he has an incredible amount of determination or obstinacy, the perspective being determined by whether or not one agrees with him. He serves as an example for us all in what hard work can accomplish since he did not come from a background of wealth or privilege.
For many just the fact that he is still working illustrates the P versus NP issue. You see, Stephen is Dr. Stephen Hawking, a man who in his mid-20’s contracted ALS and is not in a wheelchair and unable to communicate naturally. As he lost control of his muscles and movement became limited, his geometric insight seemed to increase and he began performing equations in his head that most people could not solve with pen and paper/chalk and chalkboard.
All too often we write people off based upon their background. This is especially true for children who have grown up in deplorable conditions without a proper mentor or example set for them. We consider those that manage to become successful as anomalies, not the norm. We assume the children of Poverty will never Negate Poverty, that these People will not ever be Noticed People. They are the P versus NP problem of the world and by simply continuing to do what he once set out to do, Stephen Hawking has proven that life can be lived.
We seek to control so many things in our lives and yet, we often become our own enemy, our own handicap. Dr. Hawking has let nothing prevent him from being and by doing that, he has maintained control. So how can we follow his example and how do we help the children he so proudly supports in his own humanitarian efforts?
I cannot imagine someone rushing into the building that houses Dr. Hawking’s office and complain about too much, especially if he is rolling into the building in his wheelchair at the same time. He serves as a role model simply by being present.
Each of us does the same, although certainly not to the extent of Stephen Hawking. We can help children in our own areas by being a mentor or role model for them. So many children, especially those living without a great deal of positive parental involvement, need to simply see an adult being a functioning adult.
“However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do to and succeed at.” Those are the words of Dr. Hawking. They are words that you can help a child discover by manifesting your faith and living your beliefs. We each put forth an image every time we encounter another. Six days ago Stephen Hawking turned 74. His life has been the proving of a theory he proposed at his graduation from Oxford over fifty years ago: “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to Change.”
We might think control and adaptation are two different things just as five points might not seem like they would make a four-sided figure or quadrilateral. Yet, though not yet proven, the happy ending problem in Discrete Geometry exists. When teach control when we teach children how to adapt and we do that by helping them. This is something you can do. Be a hero to a child and you will help yourself in ways no computer could ever count. Charity really does begin at home.