There’s a very amusing novel by Matt Beaumont called e. It’s not about ecstasy – well, perhaps the ecstasy and agony of communication. It’s set at a British advertising agency, and it’s told entirely through the emails of the various characters (“e me” means “email me”). And of course the accelerated communication leads to events compounding exponentially.
I’d say the letter e strikes the right note for that book, and for all the e things we have now growing exponentially (e-commerce and e-learning in particular), interest in which is compounding and the mass of which is accumulating at light speed, making it hard to maintain the energy to keep it all squared up.
To begin with, e is a letter of being and increase: è in Italian and é in Portuguese mean “is”, and e in Italian means “and” (in Mandarin, it means “hungry”, which can lead to increase, but never mind). Of course “is” is a statement of the existence of one (and in symbolic logic, ∃ x means “there exists an x”). Add “and” and you have “one-and”: that’s a beat and a half in music. The musical note E (in solfège, E = mi… e me, baby) is one and a half times the frequency of A, the basic note – they make an open fifth between them, and an open fifth can be quite powerful and intoxicating. You might be left with an ecstatic, open-mouthed grin like the bottom half of a lower-case e. On the other hand, if you say [e] – the International Phonetic Alphabet character – it sounds like what you would say if you named the note A (in English). How about that, eh? How do we have this apparent equivalence between two different things?
Well, if we want equivalence, there is of course the E that equals mc²: energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. You know that when you look to the light of the rising sun, it’s coming from the east – E on your compass. And you know if you have a container with an ℮ on it, it’s a foodstuff from the European Union (the ℮ means the volume is acceptably close to the stated volume by EU standards) – making it a source of food energy. Meanwhile, e is also the symbol for an electron, that energetic little particle that zips around the nucleus – it has properties of both a particle and a wave, and the more you know about its velocity, the less you know about its position… at best you just get close enough.
And e is the mathematical constant that is the base of natural logarithms, the number with the most elegant derivative equation (d/dx ln x = 1/x). Its value can be expressed as a sum of factorial fractions: 1 + 1/1! + 1/2! + 1/3! + (etc.). It is not just irrational but transcendental. And it is of considerable value in calculating exponential growth, such as compound interest.
Well. As a Yorkshireman would say, “E, by gum!” (Well, actually, “Ee, by gum!”) American money (speaking of compound interest) may say E pluribus unum, “Out of many, one,” but it’s e’s e (easy) to see that with e it’s really “out of one, many.” And then some!