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On Finding Purpose in Work and Life

341 words • 2 min read

[This blog is still evolving!]

Wiliam Shanks was an amateur mathematician who is famous for his calculation of the first 707 digits of Pi. in the year of 1873. However, Shanks made a mistake at the 528th decimal and all the calculations he made afterwards turned out wrong. This was later discovered in 1944 by mathematician D F Ferguson, using a mechanical calculator. Similar to how Sisyphus returning to his rock interests Camus, I'm interested in the period of William Shanks' life which was spent calculating Pi throughout the 528th to the 707th decimal places. The fact that the days, months or even years you spent working on something was all for nothing gives me existential dread.

Imagine a day in his life during the period in which he was making wrong calculations. Imagine how he'd have woken up and gone about his life. He must've had great productive days and days where he slacked off, all during the period where he was doing calculations to produce gibberish. I wonder if he must've thought if his calculation had gone wrong at some point in the past, rendering all his work useless. One may never know, but I'd like to argue that he never thought so. He passionately worked on his calculations everyday because that's what gave him purpose in life. That was for him the most important thing that he could be working on. On a positive note, Shanks died not knowing that he made a mistake in his calculation. If nothing, his mistake only made him more famous.