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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Of Sheep, Literalism, and Language

I got a kick out of Evelyn Lamb's latest posting at her "Roots of Unity" blog:


I enjoyed two things in particular:

First she employs one of my favorite old math jokes... about the astronomer, physicist, and mathematician (in her Wikipedia-rendition) who see a black sheep in a Scottish field... I won't repeat it here (if you're unfamiliar with it just check out her post). What I love about this joke is not so much the humor, which is good, not great, but what it so succinctly says about how mathematicians approach the world, and are set apart from other scientists. Mathematicians want PROOF (or something akin to it)... other scientists deal in, and are satisfied with, evidence, generalization, induction (precarious indicators of truth). But no, no, not we math-types. Show us the proof! So what if a trillion silly values confirm the Riemann Hypothesis; get me some dang proof; enough of this idle speculation!

Secondly, I enjoyed learning that Evelyn is a "literalist," since I've used that term all my adult life, to describe myself, but never met another person employing it. The tendency to take words literally is an annoying way to go through life because of the sloppy, imprecise, ambiguous ways language is routinely (and inherently) used every day, but happily mathematics is a refuge from that.

Language, in business, advertising, politics, religion, culture, is very controlling of our lives (and certainly not always in good ways).  I've long been a proponent of General Semantics, wanting for some time to write a post here about Martin Gardner's dissing of G.S. -- one of the greatest mistakes he ever made in my opinion -- since G.S. teaches people to be skeptical of words and language (and as a sort of professional skeptic, Gardner should've appreciated it). One day I'll get around to it.
In the meantime, if you invite me to your party starting at 8pm., expect me to be there at 8pm (or even 7:58pm); if you want me to arrive "fashionably late" then put on the invite, "please arrive fashionably late." ;-)

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