A math op-ed, circa 1996

Link: A math op-ed, circa 1996

By Suzanne Sutton. Here’s a quote:

It is among the greatest ironies of education that a subject so graceful and elegant, so able to inspire and bolster confidence, and so useful for living a joyous and effective life, should be presented in a manner that strips it of its substance and glory, and leaves students feeling bludgeoned and inept, convinced they “stink at math”, unaware of its beauty, or their own precious abilities.

Another meeting with my advisor

First of all, the math dance piece went quite well (at least, I had some positive feedback). In part of it I ask for questions from the audience, and I’m not sure I answered them all as well as I could have, but I was able to spiral into and beyond the question “What is the quadratic formula” to explain that evidence of the quadratic formula has been unearthed dating back to 1000 B.C. and beyond, and all of the interesting questions it leads to. More on this particular subject later on.

I met with my advisor today, for the first time in a while. Meeting with him has been uniformly productive of late. He was pleased by my recent little result, and suggested some new avenues to explore. I’m starting to get into a better and better place with my question: I can draw analogies to previous work and have a sense of what should (or might) be true with what I’m working on.

More on this later too.

Math Dance Tonight

I’ll be premiering my math dance piece tonight when my dance group, Stimulate Dance performs. Very exciting. I also get to do my sibling piece, which I know will be okay—it’s a very likeable piece. The math piece feels like it’s a little more ambitious. Can I get people to think about mathematics during an art performance? Can I argue, in essence, that math belongs in an artistic context?

I’ll try my best.

This is actually a fractal picture! There’s a gallery of them here. Gorgeous.

Where does Pac-Man live?

Here’s a question I’ve always liked: what kind of world does Pac-Man on?

We know we live on a sphere, or course, or something close to it. But we often imagine our world on a rectangular map. What are the rules? Well, if you go out the left side, you come back on the right side. If you go to the top or bottom, you arrive a single point (the north or south pole). So following the same logic, what are the rules in Pac-Man’s world? If he goes out the left side or his world, he comes back in the right side. But—if he goes out the top, he comes back in the bottom. Our map represents a sphere. What shape is he living on?

You could also think of it like this: take a stretchy square of paper, glue the left side to the right side and the top to the bottom. What do you get?

It turns out that this shape is of great mathematical interest. See if you can figure it out. If you get stuck, there’s a nice video here.

The nightmare

The other day a friend related a math nightmare. She was in a prison-like compound. People guarded the exits, and they wouldn’t let her out until she solved a calculus problem. She couldn’t ever do it, and her teeth started to fall out.

Apparently this had been a recurring nightmare for her through high school. I wonder how many people have had dreams like this about math. Or any dreams where math played a starring role.

Mathematical Flimflam

Link: Mathematical Flimflam

One thing that’s always struck me is how mathematics has been interpreted by so many people in so many contexts as a direct conduit to God’s thoughts. This link is a modern manifestation of that—but sadly it’s a pretty shallow vision of what God’s thoughts look like. There are some pretty identities, but under deeper scrutiny they’re not particularly revelatory. This is a kind of mathematical flimflam—it looks like there’s something deep going on under the surface, but really it’s quite superficial, and has more to do with how we write numbers than what their inherent qualities are.

Then we have a segueway into assigning numbers to letters and interpreting words. There is no meaning here at all.

I worry that the inherent love for math that (I believe) we all have in us leaves us open to being drawn in by these kinds of vacuous mathematical runarounds when we don’t have authentic experience with math to compare it to. There are lots of ways to use mathematics to help a lie—it happens in religious thought, politics, economics. Being separated from our mathematical birthright leaves us open to being tricked. And plenty of people are ready to trick us.

Check out the comments as well. Very interesting responses, to my mind. Quite passionate. And a couple skeptics, who demonstrate why the numbers to letters argument doesn’t mean anything.

The mathematician’s patterns, like the painter’s or the poet’s must be beautiful; the ideas, like the colors or the words must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in this world for ugly mathematics.

G. H. Hardy (1877 – 1947)

This is an entertaining talk on education and creativity, though not specifically about math. There are some powerful stories near the end in particular.

One Manifesto

Link: One Manifesto

People have been writing about the failure of math education for a long, long time. For example:

S. K. Stein, Strength in Numbers, John Wiley & Sonse, 1996 

If you browse through The Mathematics Teacher, the main journal devoted to instruction in mathematics you will find constant lamentation, going back to its first volume in 1908, where one teacher wrote, “One of the most obvious facts about mathematics in our schools is a general dissatisfaction.” The tone in 1911 was even less cheery, “Our conference is charged with gloom. I have attended funerals, but I do not remember a more mournful occasion than this. We are failures and our students are not getting anything worthwhile.”

Year after year, the complaints in The Mathematics Teacher persist. I will skip ahead to 1958, when we read, “The traditional curriculum is meaningless, and by heading for abstract mathematics the modernists are moving further from reality.” … Still, in 1994, the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project complained, “The student today still encounters a variant of the elementary school curriculum designed for the pupil of a hundred years ago.”

I cribbed this tidbit from the website this title links to. I think the author of this site does a good job laying out a comprehensive manifesto—if you have some free time, check it out. There are plenty of specific anecdotes and quotes that are worth reading (and I’ll be putting my favorites of those up here from time to time). There are also lots of math puzzles. A warning though—most of them look pretty tricky. If you’re timid about math, this probably is not a good place to start. If you’re more experienced and looking for a challenge, it may be right up your alley.

To return to education for a moment, I quoted Stein above to make the point that there is virtually no time period we can point to where mathematics was generally well taught. Personally, I think that the problem is deeper than math education. The point is to teach students to think independently and creatively; everything else should support this goal. But the particular problem of mathematics is that most people don’t understand that it is a subject where creative and independent thought is possible. To quote the great mathematician and teacher G. Polya:

“A teacher of mathematics has a great opportunity. If he fills his allotted time with drilling his students in routine operations he kills their interest, hampers their intellectual development, and misuses his opportunity. But if he challenges the curiosity of his students by setting them problems proportionate to their knowledge, and helps them to solve their problems with stimulating questions, he may give them a taste for, and some means of, independent thinking.”

There are long standing arguments about how best to teach math. At this moment, they tend to be polarized between entrenched, immovable opponents. Both sides, of course, have plenty of valid points, and both sides, at some level, miss the whole picture. To be taught well, mathematics needs to be motivated. The reason to learn it is not because you’ll need to use it someday—it’s because it’s interesting now, and because you have questions now that you want to answer.

In my experience, there is a near universal interest in math. I’ve seen students who were classified as lost get joy out of the subject. But we have to get people—students, teachers, and the public—to do math in order to see that they actually enjoy it. Music you can listen to. Art you can look at. Math you have to do.