It happens all the time. I'm at a social gathering, I meet someone new,

and the standard question comes up: ``So, what do you do?'' I'm tempted

to limit my reply to ``I'm a professor at the university'', but this

only postpones the inevitable. It's better to just get it over with:

``I'm a math professor at the university''.

At this point there are several common responses:

1. The person steps back in horror, as though I had just announced I had

the bubonic plague. Then, perhaps recalling that mathematics is not

contagious, or at least not fatal, they recover and reply: ``I was never

any good at math.''

I've never understood this. If I'd said I was a biology professor, would

the response be ``I was never any good at biology''? If I played the

bassoon in the orchestra, would they reply ``I was never any good at the

bassoon''? I doubt it. Yet a surprising number of people seem compelled to

immediately proclaim their incompetence in mathematics. I myself am

hopeless at any form of visual art, but I don't feel the need to

announce this every time I meet an artist. But what I really want to say to

the person, and sometimes do, is this: ``What makes you think you're no good

at math? I don't believe it!'' The same goes for any reader of this blog

who thinks they are ``no good at math'' or claims not to like math. In

this series of posts, I'm going to try to prove you're wrong.

2. ``oh, you must balance the checkbook in your family''. That's

hilarious, especially for Wendy. Even worse:

``So do you know Professor so-and-so in the Accounting Department?''

Huh? No, I don't know Professor so-and-so, nor do I know Professor

Whatshername in the Department of Finnish Literature. Well, I don't

actually say that, recognizing all too well what prompts the question:

For many people, ``math'' is the same thing as ``arithmetic''. I was

astonished to find a website asserting that ``there is no math in

Sudoku''. On the contrary, this popular game is PURE mathematics. What

the website author meant is that there is no arithmetic in Sudoku, which is

true, but the unfortunate choice of language insinuates that if there

was math in it, it couldn't be fun. On the contrary, if you like Sudoku

then you are a mathematician! I'll explain this in a later post.

In any case, I have nothing against accounting, but it has nothing to do

with the mathematics I love. Music would be much closer.

3. ``So you teach math?'' Well, yes. Often I leave it at that, which

leads to an easier, more pleasant conversation in which I can talk about

the courses I teach, what the students are like, and so on. Only in my

more optimistic moods do I venture to add: ``And I do research, which in

fact is about half of my job.''

This statement is often met with outright incredulity. ``You can do

research in MATH???'' A cousin of my wife's, in his early 20's at the

time, found the idea so absurd that he literally burst out laughing,

and asked: ``What do you do, look for new ways to find...[here he

paused, evidently searching for the most advanced, esoteric mathematical

concept he'd heard tell of]...square roots?''

I can understand why it comes as a surprise to most people that there is

such a thing as mathematical research. We mathematicians have to take

some of the blame for this state of affairs; evidently we've done a bad

job of explaining ourselves to the general public. What I don't

understand is this attitude of willful ignorance, all too common in our

country: ``If I can't imagine it, then it doesn't exist''.

Yes, you can do research in mathematics. People have been doing it for

three thousand years, and tens of thousands of people around the world

are doing it at this moment. And when I say you, I mean YOU! In the

course of these posts I'll mention some unsolved problems that anyone

can work on, or at least play around with.

4. ``Does it (mathematical research) have any practical applications?''

This is certainly a reasonable question, but a very frustrating one to

answer. On the one hand, there is no field of knowledge that has more

practical applications than mathematics. It has been pervasive for

centuries, and especially since the advent of computers. In fact, a

striking trend over the last fifty years or so is that EVERY branch of

pure mathematics, no matter how abstract or esoteric it might appear,

finds applications sooner or later. On the other hand, this is not why I

love mathematics, and therein lies the frustrating point. I love

mathematics for its intrinsic beauty; the applications are just a bonus.

I could talk about practical applications, many of which are quite

amazing, but that's not what I personally think about. So in these essays

I'll mention an application or two when I can, but my main goal is to

give some inkling at least of why mathematics in and of itself is so

fascinating. And fun!

The fun will begin in the next post. Meanwhile, if you had any bad

experiences with math in school, banish all such memories from your

brain. Did you find it boring to recite multiplication tables, solve

long lists of algebra equations, analyze equilateral triangles or memorize

trig identities? Excellent! This indicates good taste, and that you have

a future as a mathematician. Or perhaps you enjoyed geometry but not

algebra, or vice-versa. This too is excellent; mathematics is a vast

subject and there is nothing wrong with preferring one branch over

another. Most important of all, get rid of the idea that mathematics was

all written in stone a thousand years ago, and the Big Mathematical

Cheese in the Sky handed it down to a few select prophets on the

mountaintop. Mathematics is a vibrant, living, human enterprise. WE are

the mathematicians, and this includes YOU. Relax your mind. Return to

the innocent, unfettered curiosity that all children have. And enjoy!

This was amusing to read, and I can relate.

ReplyDeleteI get number 1 most often, and then I make the mistake of attempting to insist that most people can learn how to sing. Almost as frequently, however, I get "I didn't know people get paid to teach that."

Ugh.

The annoyance of the title is that "Professor of Voice" doesn't imply singing. It's confusing to muggles. So, I have often described myself as "Professor of Singing." Abby took "singing lessons" in London -- makes sense to me!

Looking forward to some math!