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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

What Brung Ya To Mathematics?...

M.I.B.T.! ....
(Math Iz A Beautiful Thang!)

If you're following Sol Lederman's new podcast series over at 'Wild About Math' (that I've been linking to) you know that the question he is using as a jumping off point is, "How is it that some people are inspired by math... and how can we bottle that?" This is a pretty fundamental question that I imagine interests many of us.
For purposes of this blog, I'm less interested in the "bottling" part, which has mostly to do with teaching math and introducing it to young people in particular -- very important subjects, but ones dealt with (and debated over) by a great many other Websites already, without me entering the fray. But I am interested in why so many people can easily recognize the beauty of a piece of music or art, yet only a small subset seem moved by the beauty (granted, it's less sensory, more abstract/cerebral) of mathematics. An old, well-worn clip from Richard Feynman touches on the matter, and most of you have probably seen it, but as I always say, you just can't watch Feynman too often, sooooo:

(As an aside, I've never read a bad biography of Feynman, but I just finished last year's volume from Lawrence Krauss, entitled "Quantum Man," and it is particularly good and recommended.)

Anyway, the question Sol is posing to some well-known/recognized mathematicians I think probably has interesting answers from all manner of folk who find mathematics inspiring. I don't have nearly the readership of Sol (so don't know that I'll draw much response!), and I don't mean to steal his thunder, but thought I'd just use this post to open up the question to all math fans who care to express themselves: what is it about math that you find beautiful/inspiring, or what initially attracted you to it, whether that was at the age of 5 or 10 or 20 or much later? (...Did it involve a specific teacher, parent, class, book, or problem, or just seem innate?) -- express your views in the comments. (I'm especially interested to see what elements are common to many people, versus to what degree everyone's experience is a little different?)....


john thiret said...

I was originally drawn to math from a mathematical card trick my grandfather taught me at age 9. It caused me to want to learn more of this amazing thing we call math.

I began to look for ways to use math in "tricks" to amaze my peers. Which really boosted my confidence and ability to overcome my math anxiety. Over the years my interests grew,and I began looking for patterns,shortcuts, and other deeper meanings in numbers.

A high school algebra class sent me into learning number theory. We had a project to use the primitive solutions of the Pythagorean theorem to generate Pythagorean triples. I had been studying Fibonacci for some time prior to that and decided to use Fibonacci numbers to generate Pythagorean triples. I have a full post on the patterns I found on my blog Math Journal

When I turned in my project(a huge print-off from excel) I showed my teacher the patterns I found. That is where she, the most amazing math teacher I could have had, refereed me to some more resources and books on number theory, and worked with me to help me understand it better. Since then, I have studied all of the math books I could get my hands on, from used college textbooks to online resources and blogs.

"Shecky Riemann" said...

Thanks for the response John... that was something that had never occurred to me: a magic trick sparking an interest in math! and I wonder how many other folks can link their math initiation to a specific event like that?

For myself, numbers just always seemed innately fascinating and I simply don't know why that was (I can't remember a time I didn't find them interesting) -- as a child I even wanted my mother to read me bedtime stories that involved numbers and arithmetic rather than talking animals!

Sol Lederman said...

Shecky -- I'd be interested in who you and your readers think are inspired and still alive that I can interview for the series! I'm doing a 3rd interview right now and I have two more scheduled.

"Shecky Riemann" said...

gee Sol, so many to choose from and so little time ;-) Not sure if you wanted replies here or directly emailed to you, but I'll just throw out some names of popular writers I'm always interested to hear from (and I assume, btw, that James Tanton is already on your list)…:

Richard Elwes, Clifford Pickover, Alfred Posamentier, Steven Strogatz, William Byers, John Casti, Leonard Mlodinow, Ian Stewart, Marcus du Sautoy (Casti, btw, I think is still based very near you in Sante Fe…)

Also, how about Vi Hart or Salmon Khan as possibilities…? And a great many math bloggers to choose from as well….

Tim Gowers. Scott Aaronson, RJ Lipton, are among some 'heavier hitters' in mathematics to consider…

(a number of the folks I've mentioned are Brits… don't know if it's any less practical to coordinate a podcast with someone 'across the pond' or not???)

Lastly, I'm always interested to hear what Douglas Hofstadter has to say, though he's more computer scientist than mathematician and might not fit your format quite as well.

If any readers prefer to offer suggestions directly to Sol instead of responding here, you may email him at: WildAboutMath@gmail.com

Sol Lederman said...

Shecky - Great names. Thank you. I bet I can get a bunch of them to do an interview. I'll check the comments on this post from time to time to see if there are more names to consider.

Right now I'm going through the pile of books I've been wanting to review and asking for interviews with the authors who are a good fit with this series.

I just published interview #3 with the authors of the new "Taking Sudoku Seriously" book: http://wildaboutmath.com/2012/02/24/jason-rosenhouse-and-laura-taalman-inspired-by-math-3/

What is a Pythagorean Triple said...

when I was a student at that time I hate mathematics but later I realize that maths is very essential it is used everywhere in daily life even for simple work like counting money.