Jan 022010

From the Good Math / Bad Math blog:

Throughout elementary and high school, I got awful marks in math. I always assumed I was just stupid in that way, which is perfectly possible. I also hated my teacher, so that didn’t help. A friend of mine got his PhD in math from Harvard before he was 25 (he is in his 40’s now) I was surprised the other week when I learned he isn’t particularly good at basic arithmetic etc. He said that’s not really what math is about. So my question is really for math fans/pros. What is math, really? I hear people throwing around phrases like “elegant” and “artistic” regarding math. I don’t understand how this can be. To me, math is add, subtract, etc. It is purely functional. Is there something you can compare it to so that I can understand?

So what is math? It’s really a great question, and not particularly an easy one to answer.

Interesting answers from the comments:

“that which can be known”

But math is not epistemology.

The word “mathematics” comes from the Greek μάθημα (máthēma), which means learning, study, science.

It seems to be that no one gets a phd in math because they love arithmetic. If this is true, or somewhat true, certain conclusions should follow…. Such as: Why should we hope to discover/support/develop future mathematicians in arithmetic classes? I would argue that we kill, not develop, our future mathematicians in these classes. The ones that survive surely do not outnumber the ones we destroy. And this is, I believe, the genesis of the reason for this article. People do not understand the beauty of math because we only expose it to those few who survive the boring, rote, uninspired ugliness of math for years and years, and who perhaps only discover the latent beauty of the subject by accident, long after so many other creative, energetic minds have gone elsewhere.

Math is just as much a part of the humanities as it is of the sciences. The history of the number sense, from the integers, to the irrationals and the imaginary and beyond is the history of human progress and should be taught as a part of Western Civilization 101. Likewise, Maxwell’s field equations are the crowning event of the 19th century and should be taught in every history book.

We make a fundamental error in thinking of math in terms of science merely.

more coming on this…

 Posted by at 7:27 pm

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