Sunday, September 27, 2015
The Essence of Mathematics
"Mathematics and contemporary art may seem to make an odd pair. Many people think of mathematics as something akin to pure logic, cold reckoning, soulless computation. But as the mathematician and educator Paul Lockhart has put it, 'There is nothing as dreamy and poetic, nothing as radical, subversive, and psychedelic, as mathematics.' The chilly analogies win out, Lockhart argues, because mathematics is misrepresented in our schools, with curricula that often favor dry, technical and repetitive tasks over any emphasis on the 'private, personal experience of being a struggling artist'…
"…During his four minutes, Alain Connes, a professor at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques, described reality as being far more 'subtle' than materialism would suggest. To understand our world we require analogy -- the quintessentially human ability to make connections ('reflections' he called them, or 'correspondences') between disparate things. The mathematician takes into another hoping that they will take, and not be rejected by the recipient domain. The creator of 'noncommutative geometry', Connes himself has applied geometrical ideas to quantum mechanics. Metaphors, he argued, are the essence of mathematical thought.
"Sir Michael Atiyah, a former director of the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Cambridge, used his four minutes to speak about mathematical ideas 'like visions, pictures before the eyes.' As if painting a picture or dreaming up a scene in a novel, the mathematician creates and explores these visions using intuition and imagination. Atiyah's voice, soft and earnest, made attentive listeners of everyone in the room. Not a single cough or whisper intervened. Truth, he continued, is a goal of mathematics, though it can only ever be grasped partially, whereas beauty is immediate and personal and certain. 'Beauty puts us on the right path.'"
-- Daniel Tammet, from "Thinking In Numbers"