I’m not proud to say it, but I majored in math because I wanted people to think I was smart. I chose the math major as a status symbol, a résumé-topper. I consider myself an innocent dreamer, a lover of curiosity and learning, so the fact that I navigated college with such calculating self-interest isn’t exactly a badge of honor. But that’s not my confession.
My confession is that I don’t think math is better than any other subject. Not in the ways that matter. Continue reading
Every so often, I comb through the Google search terms that have led people to my blog. Then I reply to them as if they were letters. It’s pretty fun. For me, anyway.
Q: ghraph of stupidity?
A: Happy to oblige! It looks something like this:
Q: why is doing math in your head bad?
A: First off, mental computation is a lovely skill. Sure, your calculator can compute 39 times 40 for you, but isn’t it nicer to sharpen your teeth by biting into such problems yourself? Mental math quickens the wits, builds number sense, and pleases the self-sufficient puzzle-solvers that live in our secret hearts.
What’s bad isn’t doing math in your head. It’s being unable or unwilling to do it on paper. Continue reading
My wife never finishes her coffee. She’ll sip, sip, take it home, sip, sip, microwave it, and sip some more, all day long. Only rarely does she glimpse the bottom of the cup. Given that she’s a mathematician (or, in Alfred Renyi’s words, “a machine for turning coffee into theorems”) you’ve got to admire her restraint.
I was watching her drink coffee recently. (She’s used to me watching her like a creep, because I find everything she does hilarious and adorable.) Suddenly a math problem leapt into my head. What if she drinks in progressively smaller sips? Will the cup slowly empty, or will some fixed quantity of liquid always remain?
Take this example. She drinks 1/2 the coffee on her first sip (an uncharacteristically large gulp). On the next sip, she drinks 1/3 of what’s remaining. On the next, she drinks ¼ of what’s remaining. Then 1/5 of what’s left, then 1/6, and so on, and so on, continuing forever.
Does she ever finish the coffee? Continue reading
The Asymptote. This representation of one of the coolest behaviors a function can have is also good for germaphobes afraid of physical contact.
The High 5, Mod 5. Ever wondered, “What exactly is the difference between a fist bump and a high-five?” The pedestrian mind might say, “One uses closed fists, and one uses open palms.” But I reply that in modular arithmetic, there is no difference at all.
Last week, 6,000 mathematicians met in Baltimore. They crowded in conference rooms, swapped gossip over beers, and wherever free food appeared, they lined up like ants.
On a table in the hallway of the convention center, I stationed paper, markers, and the following invitation:
I got 39 replies, 39 tributes to math’s power—in short, 39 ways to love mathematics. In no particular order: Continue reading