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Education Math The Almighty Buck

'To Live Your Best Life, Do Mathematics' (quantamagazine.org) 229

Excerpts from an article on Quanta Magazine, rearranged for clarity and space: Math conferences don't usually feature standing ovations, but Francis Su received one last month in Atlanta. In his talk he framed mathematics as a pursuit uniquely suited to the achievement of human flourishing, a concept the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia, or a life composed of all the highest goods. Su talked of five basic human desires that are met through the pursuit of mathematics: play, beauty, truth, justice and love. Su opened his talk with the story of Christopher, an inmate serving a long sentence for armed robbery who had begun to teach himself math from textbooks he had ordered. After seven years in prison, during which he studied algebra, trigonometry, geometry and calculus, he wrote to Su asking for advice on how to continue his work. After Su told this story, he asked the packed ballroom at the Marriott Marquis, his voice breaking: "When you think of who does mathematics, do you think of Christopher?" If mathematics is a medium for human flourishing, it stands to reason that everyone should have a chance to participate in it. But in his talk Su identified what he views as structural barriers in the mathematical community that dictate who gets the opportunity to succeed in the field -- from the requirements attached to graduate school admissions to implicit assumptions about who looks the part of a budding mathematician. When Su finished his talk, the audience rose to its feet and applauded, and many of his fellow mathematicians came up to him afterward to say he had made them cry. [...] Mathematics builds skills that allow people to do things they might otherwise not have been able to do or experience. If I learn mathematics and I become a better thinker, I develop perseverance, because I know what it's like to wrestle with a hard problem, and I develop hopefulness that I will actually solve these problems. And some people experience a kind of transcendent wonder that they're seeing something true about the universe. That's a source of joy and flourishing.
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'To Live Your Best Life, Do Mathematics'

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  • by xxxJonBoyxxx ( 565205 ) on Friday February 03, 2017 @01:27PM (#53796223)
    >> some people experience a kind of transcendent wonder that they're seeing something true about the universe

    Those would be the ones that took an illegal substance before solving for x.
    • Those would be the ones that took an illegal substance before solving for x.

      Not all, but Erdos I think definitely fell into that category.

      • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Those would be the ones that took an illegal substance before solving for x.

        Not all, but Erdos I think definitely fell into that category.

        Probably not. Were amphetamines illegal then? For most of human history, the War on Drugs would have been an absurd concept (because it is an absurd concept). We have to make sure that genius mathematicians don't take all the amphetamines. Otherwise what will we pump our elementary school children full of!?

      • Coffee was illegal?

        Oops, I guess that saying was wrongly attributed to Erds. But Erds is said to have drunk a lot of coffee.

        • Oops, I guess that saying was wrongly attributed to Erds. But Erds is said to have drunk a lot of coffee.

          Indeed. He attributed it to someone else. Nevertheless he did drink a lot of coffee and also took a lot of amphetamines.

          • On a semi-related topic, I guess /. doesn't do Unicode (I recall seeing that in someone's sig line). When I typed in my post, I had an umlauted 'o' in Erdos' name, and I see it's gone now. Weird, I wonder why /. can't get with the times? It's not like Unicode is new...

    • by lobiusmoop ( 305328 ) on Friday February 03, 2017 @02:09PM (#53796615) Homepage

      The ugliness of the real world in comparison to that mathematical beauty can unfortunately be a bit too much. [wikipedia.org]

      • The ugliness of the real world in comparison to that mathematical beauty can unfortunately be a bit too much. [wikipedia.org]

        The profession with the highest suicide rate is farming.
        The lowest are teachers and librarians.
        Mathematicians are in the middle.

        Farmers tend to be old, they often work alone, and one bad season can ruin them financially.
        These are all aggravating factors for suicide.

    • some people experience a kind of transcendent wonder that they're seeing something true about the universe

      Isn't the same math true in any universe?
      Could there be an alternative universe where 1+1=3?
      Or where 4 is prime?

      • by lgw ( 121541 )

        Math is not an empirical concept. It's not a property of our universe. It's a set of first principles, plus a set of principles of deduction, like any other formal system.

        Math works shockingly well in predicting our universe, though. Handy, that.

  • Even better with atl-math you can make up you own truths... it makes doing proofs a lot easier.

    • Re:Atl-math (Score:5, Interesting)

      by serviscope_minor ( 664417 ) on Friday February 03, 2017 @01:43PM (#53796377) Journal

      Even better with atl-math you can make up you own truths...

      What you've just described is not alt-maths, it is in fact actual regular maths.

      For example, you can make up your own truth about how 1+1 isn't really 2 and you wind up with Galois theory and finite fields. Or invent something impossible like x*x=-1 and you end up with complex numbers.

      Or you can invent absurd things like "infinity" and so find that 1-2+3-4+5-... to infinity ends up rather oddly as 0.25 (don't even look at 1+2+3+4+...).

      Mathematics is in fact all about making up the rules and seeing where they lead. There are basically 3 outcomes:

      1. trivial (and therefore not interesting).
      2. inconsistent (and therefore not interesting).
      3. interesting.

      • Inconsistent need not be uninteresting. Many things that at first glance are inconsistent need a minor change to behave consistently. sqrt -1 was inconsistent until a new perspective was imposed that made a newly consistent system.
        • Inconsistent need not be uninteresting. Many things that at first glance are inconsistent need a minor change to behave consistently. sqrt -1 was inconsistent until a new perspective was imposed that made a newly consistent system.

          I don't think sqrt -1 was inconsistent. Inconsistent is where you can for example prove both a and not a from the same axioms.

      • Thanks... you know I felt a bit guilty about posting such a trollish comment but now reading your interesting post made it worth.

      • Or you can invent absurd things like "infinity" and so find that 1-2+3-4+5-... to infinity ends up rather oddly as 0.25

        That's... not true. Like at all. You can group the terms and then argue it comes out to negative infinity. Or positive infinity. But I don't see any way to make it come out to 0.25.

    • The flexibility allows you to store more energy and launch the weapon faster.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BkK2vEZ5bTk [youtube.com]

  • by iMadeGhostzilla ( 1851560 ) on Friday February 03, 2017 @01:37PM (#53796329)

    ... since they didn't have the numbers for it. Still their aqueducts lasted centuries and millennia. Nassim Taleb says a side effects mathematics is to optimize and cut corners, making things fragile. He also quoted a science historian that before the 13th century no more than five persons in Europe knew how to perform a division. But their architects made all those cathedrals that are more or less still standing. (They apparently didn't know geometry either: a triangle was visualized as the head of a horse.)

    Not saying don't use mathematics, that would be insane, just listing counterexamples to the claim that life is best lived with mathematics. Any boxing in becomes counterproductive at some level.

    • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      You're a moron if you think that the engineers and architects who designed those things didn't know advanced mathematics (geometry and algebra of that time).

    • ... since they didn't have the numbers for it. Still their aqueducts lasted centuries and millennia. Nassim Taleb says a side effects mathematics is to optimize and cut corners, making things fragile. He also quoted a science historian that before the 13th century no more than five persons in Europe knew how to perform a division. But their architects made all those cathedrals that are more or less still standing.

      In other words, the available evidence seems to indicate he's full of shit. Same as the convict probably didn't get much "love" while in jail thanks to math.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Assuming what your hearsay suggests is true - and it most certainly isn't - those "no more than five persons" were probably living a better life than the average European.

    • by jfdavis668 ( 1414919 ) on Friday February 03, 2017 @01:58PM (#53796531)
      The Romans learned advanced mathematics from the Greeks, who had already proven that the square root of 2 was irrational. I think they had plenty of math to build an arch.
      • I think they had plenty of math to build an arch.

        It doesn't take math to build an arch. It doesn't take math to build a cathedral. What it initially takes for a civilization is some trial and error, and then often a sort of procedure is created. Yes, math can help and new architectural procedures did follow during the Renaissance along with more sophisticated mathematical analysis. But a lot of those problems can be overcome with the well-learned mechanical procedure after trial and error coupled with some factor of "overengineering" to prevent collap

    • by epine ( 68316 )

      He also quoted a science historian that before the 13th century no more than five persons in Europe knew how to perform a division.

      Screw Taleb.

      Taleb has an all-world point to make, and yet somehow he manages to advance his thesis on an all-world edifice of rhetorical corner-cutting. It's almost as if he feels the need to degrade his argument to prove that even broken argumentation strategies can be robust, if advocated by a person uniquely possessed of this particular ray of enlightenment (only).

      On the mat

    • As a person interested in historical woodworking, I can say that you can do lots of division and geometry without using numbers. It is actually a bit easier not to use numbers, since you add some imprecision doing measuring versus doing ratios and divisions of the parts.
    • all those cathedrals that are more or less still standing

      That's survivor bias. We don't see all those structures that collapsed because they weren't strong enough.

      a side effects mathematics is to optimize and cut corners, making things fragile

      And the side effects of not using math are:
      a. the occasional disaster,
      b. huge time and money sinks because structures were massively overbuilt. Those medieval cathedrals took a hundred years to build, during which they soaked up all disposable income of a province. An optimized cathedral would have left time and money to do other things.

    • Um, no [st-and.ac.uk]. You are highly misinformed.
    • by hey! ( 33014 )

      (1) Of course they had numbers. They just had notation system that made arithmetic hard.

      (2) Math isn't limited to arithmetic.

      (3) Limitations in one area drive innovations in another. If John Napier had a four function calculator he probably wouldn't have invented the logarithm.

  • by ErichTheRed ( 39327 ) on Friday February 03, 2017 @01:40PM (#53796357)

    I think one of the problems with mathematics is that it's pretty hard to get the average person to see it as anything other than a tool. Maybe that's how it's taught, but how do you get average students interested in math the same way mathematicians are? Where is the hook in people's minds that turns them on to it as something other than a bunch of formulas and operations? I know it's a cop-out to say I suck at math, but I really do feel I'm mathematically challenged. I wonder if it was just because I didn't get some magic spark early on. I remember all of my elementary and high school math being a long slog of memorization with very little understanding. I was never very good at it and just learned enough to handle the exams. Like every high school student, I still remember to this day that x = -b +/- (sqrt(b^2 - 4ac)/2a) but I have no idea why that is or what it's good for other than getting the answers to a quadratic equation. I think my lack of math background kept me out of civil or chemical engineering, despite a huge interest in both.

    One reason why I think proper teaching may play a role is because I had a similar experience studying chemistry in college. I had a very good introductory chemistry teacher and something just clicked. Almost everyone saw it as a bunch of nonsense formulas and equations for various phenomena that had to be memorized for the exams and forgotten, but somehow I got a little more out of it and it was interesting enough that I got a degree in it. Good thing too -- by the second year of engineering school I knew I wasn't going to be able to keep up with my poor math background and didn't want to end up a generic business major!

    • I think one of the problems with mathematics is that it's pretty hard to get the average person to see it as anything other than a tool.

      I always enjoyed it, but somewhere around 15 or 16 I started seeing it as a handmaiden to physics rather than a subject in its own right.

      Oddly, I wasn't aware of that at the time or I might have got a better grade in it.

    • by BlackSupra ( 742450 ) on Friday February 03, 2017 @02:55PM (#53797141)

      The right teacher, someone like Richard Feynman:

      Check out his book "Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman".

      http://www.earth.northwestern.... [northwestern.edu]

    • I think part of the problem with mathematics is that it's taught as a series of formulas that you need to remember and use. That's an idiotic way of teaching almost anything and it's no wonder that people struggle with it. You could probably have someone remember all the syntax for the English language (or a computer language for that matter) but until they've moved beyond just knowing the rules to a point where they intuitively understand why those rules exist and what those patterns (formulas) actually re
    • A major problem is that practically no teachers in U.S. elementary schools actually understand math (and so they teach the emergency fall-back of remember this nonsense). Education majors in the U.S. have perennially had the lowest qualifications of anyone entering college, and the highest rating for math dislike/anxiety. They're effectively self-selected for lack of mathematical understanding. I talked to a guy who used to run a middle school, and he said that he had no hope or even desire of getting math

  • It will make solving difficult computer problems much easier.
  • Math (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    I have a math degree, I went into medicine. I can honestly say very very little math that I learned has been useful in any meaningful way (only really some basic stats), Analysis, partial differential equations, algebras and all that stuff while enjoyable (and incredibly work/ time intensive in undergrad) have really not improved my life in any way and really it seems like a sad waste as most of it has just faded away (although epsilon and delta will always cause a small smile in my heart) but damn you Ji

    • by PCM2 ( 4486 )

      I was a fuck-up in high school. I took geometry three times. Later in life I picked it back up again, went through Algebra 2, trigonometry, and on to calculus, but I dropped out there because it all had become too time-consuming.

      Ironically, I've never had any cause to use anything past geometry. Turns out geometry is pretty damn useful in real life ... proportions, the Pythagorean theorem, the concept of three points determining a plane, circular geometry with pi, all very useful for designing and building

  • Math conferences don't usually feature standing ovations, ...

    That's because the usually ask people to limit their applause, but as the number of people still standing approaches zero, there's always one guy who keeps clapping for *way* too long...

  • >> desires met through math: ...truth

    Clearly, he's never met a statistician.
  • Enjoyed the math enough but decided to go in a different direction like Computer and Information Science, Information Security etc. It's where I went.
  • by roca ( 43122 )

    Mathematicians Agree That Mathematics Is The Best

  • As a general rule, people do not listen to music because it is useful. They listen to it because they can appreciate it on many levels, from the poetry of the words, the emotional tenor of the melodies and harmonics, the driving urge of the rhythms, and the overarching story told by the composer. Nobody (or almost nobody) argues that listening to music is a waste of time because it did not help them on their job. Music is the reward not the labor, though for musicians and composers it can be both.

    I think wh
    • Agreed, and I'd like to go a bit further with the art/music analogy. I think mathematics is an integral (pun intended) part of our culture, like it or not. You might not like classical music, but you'll probably appreciate its influences on more modern music.

      This is somewhat related to the idea of math as a tool. For instance, I'd like young people to appreciate all the scientific research that went into creating their shiny electronic toys. But there's a lot more than the utilitarian aspect. A lot of ou

  • At first, when I read the title I thought to myself, "how arrogant." What about people who are primarily verbal - and don't do math, or don't care to do math? Are they not equally fulfilled in their lives? How rich - a scientist who makes sweeping generalizations in a scientific journal.

    If he had prefaced it with, "I have observed in some people that...blah blah blah," then yeah, that would be defensible.

  • Complex analysis and google isn't being very helpful.
  • Mathematician presents some "Math(s) is bwetiful auwsome" nonsense at a math(s) conference and gets a standing ovation from other mathematicians.

    I'm stunned, I tell you!

  • There is an odd but persistent correlation between mathematics and insanity. A prison math program could convert an ordinary robber into a crazed serial killer who becomes a political hero to other wackjobs: https://www.google.com/search?... [google.com]

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