On Math, of All Things!

I am not a math person (like you hadn’t already figured that out for yourself…). The most mathematical thing I’ve done in a long time probably involves either my piggy bank, my checkbook, the conversion rate of dollars to euros (quelle tristesse!) or some failed attempt at triangulation in which I tried to navigate the shortest route from point A to point B through the wandering backstreets of Paris. I’ve never liked numbers as much as I like words, and of late (some 5 years removed from the last time I studied any math) I’ve noticed some rust in my mental arithmetic, and I know I can’t blame all my mathematical slowness on how different numbers sound when they’re spoken in French.

I suppose I was an adequate math student, if adequate can denote apathetically average. I wouldn’t have wanted to have to teach me. I took the math classes requisite to completing middle school and then high school–algebra, geometry, pre-calculus, calculus–but I never brought the same intensity or interest to my studies of math that I did to English, history, or science. I placed out of college math (don’t ask me how) and through four years of essays and thousands of pages of reading I never really looked back at all those numbers I’d left behind.

In utter contrast to me, one of my best friends in high school excelled at math. This wasn’t surprising considering she’s really, really smart, but what was a little bit surprising (at least to me, with my nose constantly in some book or other) was that she really seemed to enjoy math, and not just because she was good at it. She held on to her old math homework the way I kept track of my old English papers, and she talked about math in her free time,

An cool picture from Strogatz's most recent post, "Finding Your Roots." Image by Simon Tatham . Read the blog to find out what it is!

just the way I talked about whatever I was reading.

During our senior year, we both designed and completed our own independent study courses; mine was a semester of studying and writing poetry, and hers was a semester of studying mathematical formulae and turning them into art. Some vague connection was made then, in my mind, while I was counting syllables and feeling out the rhythms of different poetic styles, between math and the creativity of more humanistic disciplines. It was my first glimpse of the of the relationship between all those numbers that I abhorred, and what they really meant to someone who could actually see and understand them.

A month or so ago, a friend of mine sent me a link to a New York Times blog on mathematics called From Fish to Infinity, written by Steven Strogatz, a professor of applied mathematics at Cornell.  I’ve been keeping up with his blog consistently, albeit irregularly, ever since. One of the things I’ve learned in the past few years (from college, from travel, from life in general) is that it’s best to experience things you’re unfamiliar with through someone who speaks the unfamiliar language, someone fluent in the thing you completely fail to understand. And this guy speaks the language of math, and write about with a style that touches that of both the philosopher and the poet.

When I think about my failures as a math student, I sometimes remind myself, not without a shudder, that there are people in the world who think Jane Austen wasn’t any good as a novelist and indubitably (at least if you subscribe to the theory of infinite worlds) there are also people who only read a chapter or two of Slaughterhouse 5 before setting it aside from boredom or disinterest. But I like to think that if these people (or at least, a lot of these people), if they’d had a good teacher, would have come to feel differently about Austen, or Faulkner, of Shakespeare, or whoever it was that bored them silly.

And that’s what this blog is: it’s a good math teacher. The kind I would have liked to have had. So if you’re interested in learning a bit more about math, about its history, about the effervescent creativity of certain mathematical minds and the ideas they produced, without having to do all of (or really, any of) the heavy lifting (i.e. any homework), stop by for a post or two and become reacquainted with old friends like long division or imaginary numbers. And if you get really excited, and want to learn more (the true mark of an extraordinary teacher) this is a great blog for bibliography plundering, one of my preferred leisure activities.

Here’s a link to the most recent entry, “Finding Your Roots.” Enjoy!!

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