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Math Love

September 16, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

Perhaps you have already read Manil Suri’s op-ed piece How to Fall in Love With Math in today’s NYT. It’s currently ranked #1 in their list of most e-mailed articles, so it certainly has gotten a fair bit of attention. But if you missed it, follow the link and have a look.

Suri is both a successful mathematician and distinguished novelist. Not a common combination, but not unheard of either.* He maintains separate math and fiction websites.

*There’s Eric Temple Bell, a prominent American mathematician of the first half of the twentieth century who wrote influential works of math history and—under the pseudonym John Taine—was a pioneer in science fiction. Bell received his Master’s degree from the University of Washington and returned as a faculty member after receiving his PhD at Columbia, moving on to Caltech a few years later.

Suri opens his op-ed with a tale familiar to mathematicians.

Each time I hear someone say, “Do the math,” I grit my teeth. Invariably a reference to something mundane like addition or multiplication, the phrase reinforces how little awareness there is about the breadth and scope of the subject, how so many people identify mathematics with just one element: arithmetic. Imagine, if you will, using, “Do the lit” as an exhortation to spell correctly.

As a mathematician, I can attest that my field is really about ideas above anything else. Ideas that inform our existence, that permeate our universe and beyond, that can surprise and enthrall.

We all have stories like this. Many, having asked what we do and learning that it’s math, are momentarily at a loss, but then may point out that they were never good at it. A few decades ago, University of Chicago mathematician Paul Sally told me his favorite reply, one that echoes Suri’s comment about doing the lit: “I was never good at reading.”

Occasionally I adopt Suri’s tack and endeavor to explain that there’s much more to math, but it generally doesn’t end well. Undeterred, Suri carries on:

Gaze at a sequence of regular polygons: a hexagon, an octagon, a decagon and so on. I can almost imagine a yoga instructor asking a class to meditate on what would happen if the number of sides kept increasing indefinitely. Eventually, the sides shrink so much that the kinks start flattening out and the perimeter begins to appear curved. And then you see it: what will emerge is a circle, while at the same time the polygon can never actually become one. The realization is exhilarating — it lights up pleasure centers in your brain. This underlying concept of a limit is one upon which all of calculus is built.

Suri concludes on an optimistic note:

Fortunately, today’s online world, with its advances in video and animation, offers several underused opportunities for the informal dissemination of mathematical ideas. Perhaps the most essential message to get across is that with math you can reach not just for the sky or the stars or the edges of the universe, but for timeless constellations of ideas that lie beyond.

Speaking of today’s online world, Vi Hart has achieved renown over the last couple of years with her youtube series of enticing mathematical videos. I have embedded one at the top.

Categories: Math
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