Once upon a time, while in college, I decided to take my first intro-to-proofs class. I was so excited. "This is it!" I thought, "now I get to learn how to think like a mathematician." You see, for the longest time, my mathematical upbringing was very... not mathematical. As a student in high school and well into college, I was very good at being a robot. Memorize this formula? No problem. Plug in these numbers? You got it. Think critically and deeply about the ideas being conveyed by the mathematics? Nope. It wasn't because I didn't want to think deeply. I just wasn't aware there was anything to think about. I thought math was the art of symbol-manipulation and speedy arithmetic computations. I'm not good at either of those things, and I never understood why people did them anyway. But I was excellent at following directions. So when teachers would say "Do this computation," I would do it, and I would do it well. I just didn't know what I was doing. By the time I signed up for that intro-to-proofs class, though, I was fully aware of the robot-symptoms and their harmful side effects. By then, I knew that math not just fancy hieroglyphics and that even people who aren't super-computers can still be mathematicians because—would you believe it?—"mathematician" is not synonymous with "human calculator." There are even—get this—ideas in mathematics, which is something I could relate to. ("I know how to have ideas," I surmised one day, "so maybe I can do math, too!") One of my instructors in college was instrumental in helping to rid me of robot-syndrome. One day he told me, "To fully understand a piece of mathematics, you have to grapple with it. You have to work hard to fully understand every aspect of it." Then he pulled out his cell phone, started rotating it about, and said, "It's like this phone. If you want to understand everything about it, you have to analyze it from all angles. You have to know where each button is, where each ridge is, where each port is. You have to open it up and see how it the circuitry works. You have to study it—really study it—to develop a deep understanding." "And that" he went on to say, "is what studying math is like."
A nice little essay on mathematics for old and young alike–and particularly for those who think they don’t understand or “get” math. It’s ultimately not what you think it is, there’s something beautiful lurking underneath.
In fact, I might say that unless you can honestly describe mathematics as “beautiful”, you should read this essay and delve a bit deeper until you get the understanding that’s typically not taught in mathematics until far too late in most people’s academic lives.Syndicated copies to: