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The English word ‘serendipity’ is said to be one of those words that’s hard to translate into other languages.

Other languages have words that don’t translate well. The German word ‘Schadenfreude,’ for example, could be translated as "taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others (especially people you didn’t especially like to begin with)." We all understand the feeling, we just don’t have a good English word for it. The word ‘gloating’ comes pretty close, but it doesn’t convey the inner gleefulness.

Here’s a pretty good definition for ‘serendipity:’ It’s the feeling you get when you accidentally stumble upon something fortunate (or useful or interesting or cheerful) while you’re looking for something else. I’ll explain the Haitian calculus thing under the fold. Eventually.

Some Guy In Seattle Reading Daily Kos

It was late Sunday night and I had been looking at Daily Kos stories. I’d written a few comments here and there. Suddenly I realized that I must have missed the Saturday morning Hate-Mail-A-Palooza, because I was doing something else on Labor Day Saturday. It had scrolled off the front page. So I clicked on "Previous 18" front-page diaries. I read the hate mail and voted for "below average" in the poll.

Then I noticed that I had also missed reading This week in science by DarkSyde. I love geeky science news. DarkSyde does a great job of summing up recent scientific happenings. I’d call that a small portion of serendipity. A lucky find.

This sentence caught my eye: If you knew calculus like Jennifer Oullette knows calculus, you'll buy her book and never be afraid of calculus again.

My first thought was, "I know that name! She's the woman from the Cocktail Party Physics blog! She’s a great writer!" (Sorry to correct you, DarkSyde, but she spells her name Ouellette, with an ‘e’ after the ‘u’). I was very happy to see her mentioned on Daily Kos.

My second thought was, "I need to leave a comment to DarkSyde correcting the spelling of Jennifer Ouellette’s name and telling DKos readers about the blog." I immediately realized that the original post had scrolled off the front page of DKos over 24 hours ago, so it was silly to write a comment that almost no one would see.

But I clicked on Cocktail Party Physics (to get the URL so I could mention it, perhaps in an open thread). I started reading the latest post. Jennifer Ouellette had written a blurb about her new book, The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse. But she also provided a link to a story about calculus in Haiti, which I’ll mention (eventually) at the end of this diary.

Why I Love The Cocktail Party Physics Blog

  1. It’s science. I love reading about science.
  1. All of the writers write well. I love good writers. Oh, yeah, I should mention they’re all women, too. They have this idea that it’s OK for women to be smart and nerdy and scientific. I love intelligent women who know interesting stuff about science and math.
  1. If you read the Cocktail Party Physics Blog, you can learn about things before they’re published in a book (Zombies? Ouellette wrote about zombies in a 2007 post. I knew about zombies three years ago).
  1. The coolest thing is this: Jennifer Ouellette (who wrote the recently published book about calculus, which DarkSyde mentioned on Saturday) wrote a whole book called "The Physics of the Buffyverse." Buffyverse? WTF? Buffy is the main character from "Buffy The Vampire Slayer," one of the best TV shows of the late ‘90s. I love the idea that someone figured out the physics of Buffy’s universe.

Teaching Calculus To Haitians

Here’s the link I promised in my headline: Guest Post: Eugene Lim on Calculus in Haiti. And here’s an excerpt:

Hello from Fondwa, Haiti, elevation 850m, Population 8000. For the past twenty days, I have been teaching a group of enthusiastic Haitian university students at the University of Fondwa. As I mentioned in my previous post, the university lost all its buildings during the Jan 12 quake. At the moment, we are using an abandoned warehouse as a temporary campus. It has no roof, so we put a tin roof over to keep the rain out. We use tarps (thank you USAID) for our windows to keep the rain out. There are 3 classrooms and an office. Some of the students have lost their homes in the Jan 12 earthquake, so the university allowed them to stay inside the warehouse.

The Haitian students are smart and they desperately want to learn. I know that there have been several other natural disasters since the Haitian earthquake – things like the BP oil spew and the flooding in Pakistan and hurricane Earl and the New Zealand earthquake – and maybe we’ve forgotten about the conditions in Haiti. And we’re wringing our hands about the possibility of Republicans taking over Congress in November.

But, goddamn it, this story about students learning calculus in Haiti cheered me up. There’s a math teacher in a building with tarps on the windows to keep the rain out. And the kids are so very thirsty for knowledge.

And that’s my tale of serendipity. I started out looking for the Saturday morning outburst of Hate-Mail-A-Palooza and I accidentally discovered that Haitian students are eagerly learning calculus. It made me happy.

Originally posted to Dbug on Mon Sep 06, 2010 at 04:55 AM PDT.

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