I have been stereotyped by many I know (and understandably so) as a quintessential computer geek, probably someone who dabbled in computers since his childhood and is his first love. That is however far from the truth because I first programmed a computer at the age of 20 and started my career soon after as a lowly back office outsourced engineer that a lot of the geek community looks down upon. What I did grow up with was something related but still different - mathematics and physics.
Around the age of 15 my mother enrolled me for IIT coaching classes (a huge financial struggle and a social shock for me, but that’s another story) and I found teachers that ignited a love for these subjects. I was always technically inclined thanks to my father who was an engineer. After his early death everyone around me wanted me to be his ‘successor’ as an engineer and I happily (almost proudly then, what does a 9 year old know!) obliged. Whatever technical inclination I had was due to watching my father as a 6-9 year old (another interesting story) and it was enough to make me an above average math and science student.
In the IIT coaching classes, I learned in Physics, a way to look at the world and in mathematics, a way to express that view. Despite the ragging due to my social status (backward caste and poor, in a predominantly rich, upper caste, South Bombay clique), I was floating in the air those two years, making up problems to trick friends and solving equations for fun. I don’t think I’ve done maths just for the heck of it since. The love affair with physics and its mathematics did not live too long though as I flunked my IIT examinations and had to rethink everything, including my view of myself; it woouldn’t be the last time either.
I went into what I now recognize as depression for over a year. As I recovered, I was ankle deep in Linux and FOSS and it was the beginning of the next chapter of my life, a life that has more extensive documentation on the intertubes. The physics and maths got beaten out of me in the process though. One thing however seems to have stuck, my obsession for beauty and rhythm whenever I encounter a mathematical equation. If a result looked large and wieldy, I would get very uncomfortable and keep working at it, refactoring it till it looked beautiful and reading it out sounded like I was reciting a poem. It was an obsession that my teachers loved and hated depending on how they were feeling on that day.
I rediscovered that love for symmetry and rhythm when I spent some time working with multiple precision math nearly a decade ago. I discovered it once again some years ago with just a few minutes of hacking away at a physics problem at reserved-bit where I came up with equations for a little maze that the kids at the makerspace wanted to build. The immense satisfaction of seeing the equation being easy on the eyes and almost musical to read is a feeling I cannot express in words. Then there is the beauty of discovering little facts by reading the equation (like location of an object at any point in the maze being independent of the acceleration due to gravity for the maze) that adds to the wonderful experience.
There is a parallel to such beauty in programming in the form of APIs or algorithms, but it doesn’t quite feel the same to me. I guess I enjoy programming quite a lot but no, I don’t love it like I did physics and maths. I don’t seem to have the mental space to go back to it though. I guess it’s a first love that I can only look back fondly at for now.