Shared language

I was having a delightful discussion today with one of my Ph.D. students. The topic was some exciting new mathematical ideas we are working on to in our computer graphics research.

Part of me was completely immersed in the conversation. But another part of me was listening to the rhythm and flow of it, as a sort of fly on the wall. And I realized that my student and I are so absorbed in this research, we describe things to each other in a way that a third person would have had a very difficult time following.

It’s not that the concepts are so radically difficult. It’s more that we have developed our own shared language for describing the mathematical pictures in our minds, and discussing ways that we might play with those ideas and try out different possibilities.

Any other reasonably thoughtful person could indeed be brought up to speed on what we were saying. But they would probably need to learn some version of this shared language. And that all by itself would take time and effort.

So much of shared understanding can pivot on shared language. If you can’t properly express to eath other the thoughts and images in your mind, then you can’t explore those ideas together — you can’t go on exciting journeys with each other.

Of course a lot of this comes down to motivation. My student and I are both passionate about what we consider to be beautiful ideas in mathematics and computer graphics. I am sure that something similar transpires between two jazz musicians using a verbal shorthand that they have developed over time to discuss cool musical ideas.

It’s not that a third person couldn’t learn their jazz language. It’s more that the person might not want to. Practically speaking, the ability to learn a particular shared language of ideas requires an inherent love of those ideas.

And so we develop languages that bind us to our respective tribes, whether they be tribes of sports, medicine, war, politics, music or computer graphics. We recognize the people who share a tribe because those people have put in the effort to learn our tribal language.

And like us, they did it for love.

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