Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Where was Peter Kohn when I needed him in high school trigonometry class?

I saw Peter Kohn at the gym yesterday. Peter is a J.M.U. math professor and a funny guy.

I made some lame mention of the Nobel Prize for Mathematics, forgetting--I hope for just the moment--that there isn't one. Peter pointed this out and then passed on a great piece of historical gossip: Alfred Nobel didn't fund a mathematics prize because a mathematician had run off with his wife and thus left him mad at all mathematicians in perpetuity. Peter said this probably wasn't a true (it appears he is right), but it was, nevertheless, a good story.

Peter was responsible for a great leap in my own personal understanding. My husband, Charlie, and I recently got sucked in by a PBS program on fractals. We were mesmerized  by Benoit Mandelbrot's 1975 identification (discovery?) of these "rough or fragmented geometric shapes[s] that can be split into part[s], each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole."

Beautiful, yes. Pleasing, certainly. But why should we care? What is the point? Charlie and I spent much time over the next few evenings puzzling over fractals. And then we asked Peter to lunch.

Over lunch, Peter first explained fractals so clearly and simply that we (I think) really got them. But I still didn't get the point of fractals. Like the lilies of the field, they didn't seem to reap or sow. They just sat there--whether in visual or in mathematical form.

The point, Peter said, is that they are fun. Mathematicians have fun with numbers in the same way you have fun with words.

Peter's statement was a real ah-ha moment for me. Why hadn't someone said that in my high school trigonometry class, when I was constantly worrying about the deeper meaning, the practical ramifications of all those numbers and squiggles? What was I missing? What was I failing to grasp?

It seems to me that if my teacher had given me permission to have fun with numbers, I could have just relaxed and gotten on with things.

There's a great deal to be said for talking with people who know different things than you do. We never, ever outgrow the joy of ah-ha moments, do we?


  1. Puts me in mind of Abigail James and even closer to home, Rebecca Neary (3rd grade math teacher at Keister Elementary), both of whom speak of the need for a new approach to teaching math, a traditionally male-dominated field. In James' view, math is a subject that women would find just as fascinating and fun as boys/men do if a different approach to teaching it were developed.

    Rebecca Neary spoke last year at a parent teacher event at Keister and encouraged attending mothers not to validate their girls' complaints that they couldn't "do it" by saying that they were never good at it either. (Oh how my mother used to do that!) She also encouraged parents to play math games and downplay the idea that their is a "right" or a "wrong" answer -- an attitude kids seem to automatically display by constantly offering guesses to problems rather instead of going through the "process" of solving the problem.

  2. I certainly agree with putting an end to negative messages -- about yr favorites, Martha, reading and writing, as well as that other "R" -- but I don't know how much the elimination of negative messages leads to math or arithmetic being fun. I think we humans all exist on a spectrum -- with the Rain Man on one end and innumerates at the other. For the Rain Man types (and I have a touch of this) numbers are just always present; it's really not so much about fun as about how one thinks. Other people resist numbers, and I don't think it's just because of social messages; I think they really don't think that way. We humans have dozens of ways of being intelligent, and nobody has a grasp of all of them. (Am I saying that mathematicians are Rain Men? Only a little... anyway, arithmetic and higher math are very different, it seems to me.)