Tales from the past

2. Cycling with Galois

After I finished my A levels, I was sure that I wanted to study mathematics, going into mathematical research eventually. What I read about mathematics had fascinated me too much. However, I figured that starting straight away at age 17 may not be best – when would there ever be a better occasion to see something of the world? Later in my studies I was sure to invest a lot, so finding time would be a challenge. I settled on a gap year.

Next came the question of what I wanted to do. If I spent a year of my life on travel instead of my beloved mathematics, I wanted to get the maximum out of it, to really experience something. In the end, I decided on starting with a cycling tour towards Istanbul; alone, because nobody I knew was crazy enough to join. When I had my first stop in Dresden, I ended up in an antiquary by chance and discovered several outdated books on mathematics. In the end, I added, as my only one, a book on Galois theory to my luggage. Tent, cooker, camping mattress, “Introduction to Galois theory” – I guess had I gotten robbed, that would have left a confused robber.

The cycling tour was as intense as I had hoped it to be – I saw a lot of he countries in Eastern Europe, met many friendly people. It was also lonely at times; strangely, never more so than on the first day when I hadn’t even left Germany. But after a couple of days I fell into a rhythm, just cycled. I even adapted to scarcely meeting anybody I could speak to in any language I knew (German and English) – one just keeps on going after a while. Whether cycling through the Czech hills, along the Danube, through the Hungarian plain or over the Karpathian Mountains in Romania – the book on Galois theory was always on my side – or in this case, in my saddle bag.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I didn’t get around to reading up on Galois theory very often; as in, not at all. But there was one time where I was alone in the Romanian plain, wild camping in a field. It was miles away from the next village; complete darkness, which made the stars as bright as I’d ever seen them. I didn’t feel like sleeping – and then, finally, here was the one time where I opened the book, reading 30 pages in antiquated German on Galois theory in the glow of my head lamp. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I didn’t understand an awful lot, being unfamiliar with even the mere concepts of groups and fields.

So arguably, taking the book had done more for my leg muscles (remember those Karpathian mountains?) than for my brain muscles. However, the one time I read it, everything in it was so different to my life on the cycling tour and so close to the life I wanted to lead after returning to Germany that it still left me with a warm and fizzy feeling.