kitchen table math, the sequel: math museum

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

math museum

Ralph Gardner on math versus writing:
I don't want to say I'm skeptical about the idea of a museum devoted to mathematics. Indeed, I can recall the deep satisfaction I felt on the all-too-rare occasions at school when the concepts or formulas fell into place. It seemed an entirely different discipline from writing, where something arises from a blank page through a combination of hard work and patience, with a sliver of creativity. With math, the experience is more like discovering something that's always existed and finally decided to stop playing hard-to-get.
Making Math Fun (Seriously)
March 9, 2011
Wall Street Journal
I'm curious.

Do people who work in math or math-related fields feel this way?

Or is this more aptly a description of the way it feels to learn math when your expertise lies elsewhere?


lgm said...

I've only been to the Boston Science Museum a few times, but each time the math exhibit has been full...seems to be popular.

I never felt learning math was hard...I felt that I was learning a new way of looking at things and a logical set of rules to describe particular relationships. I didn't take any math past Intro to O.DiffEq and Linear Alg level so perhaps I don't qualify as having learned a lot of math...I think that may be saved for people who have learned Real Analysis. I thought math was more fun than english b/c words can be subject to different interpretations despite the author's intentions.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with the writer.

In both math and writing, the core idea that you are trying to express exists somewhere in the aether. In both math and writing, you start out staring at the blank page, trying to figure out how to summon the idea, make it yours, and commit it to the page. In both math and writing, you make false starts (unless you are very lucky) and work hard (unless you are very lucky) to express the idea with precision and clarity. In both math and writing, your familiarity with the idea that you are trying to express and your prior practice at expressing ideas can sometimes give you a head start in knowing in which direction to start.

Math is writing. Most of math is persuasive writing; math is an exquisitely structured argument.

(I am a professional mathematician.)

Jen said...

With math, the experience is more like discovering something that's always existed and finally decided to stop playing hard-to-get.

This is how I always felt about math. I had a learned sense about something that was the algorithm and what the teacher or book or parent had said and I kept it filed with the algorithm.

BUT then, sometimes a day later, sometimes a week or more later, or years later, it would suddenly click and I'd see it and I'd finally really understand what they'd meant!

And yes, I always did well in math, was in advanced classes, etc. though I wouldn't say that I liked it particularly at the time. Mostly it amused me that my math scores were always higher than my verbal on standardized tests.

Catherine Johnson said...

anonymous -

thanks for this!

That's what I was wondering -- whether math, when you are a mathematician, is going to be an awful lot like writing in the sense of 'stare at the blank sheet of paper until beads of blood appear on your forehead'....

Also, speaking as a nonfiction writer, I **feel** that when I finally figure something out (which basically means figuring out how to put several things together logically), I have discovered something that was already there---

I do like this passage as a description of learning math (for me, that is).

Jen - right!

The 'clicks' are fantastic.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Doing math or computer programming at a professional level is a lot like writing. Sometimes it flows naturally and fluently, and sometimes it is blocked and it is like struggling to lift a huge boulder to get anything done. For me, the math and the programming are more likely to flow than the writing.

Math and programming are less amenable to sloppy first-draft work than writing, though, as the details matter more and often can't be patched by subsequent editing.

(Note: I got as far as an MS in math before switching to CS for my PhD.)

Anonymous said...

yes of course math is like the arts.
writing and drawing and music and cooking and *all* that stuff.

"I can imagine how much fun math could be if you were actually good at it"
sez WSJ... and i say "hooey".

i can imagine how much fun music would be if you somehow magically got to be a rock star without having to, you know, learn to play or sing. money for nothing and chicks for free.

anybody willing to forget about everything else for a while can get the vibe. thinking you have to be good at it to play means you're never going to get it.

i can *imagine* being a pro *football* player for god sake (or could and did when i was a kid... mostly because i didn't know anything *about* the job).
how stupidly boring.

still, long live the math museum.