Math & Him

When I started graduate school 34 years ago I was 25 years old. I had scored sufficiently high on the math section of the GMAT to be accepted into a program that assumed all students would be comfortable with calculus. Not only was I years since my last math class but I had never taken calculus. The experience of starting a quantitative program of study for which I was mathematically unprepared was no fun whatsoever. But there is a funny story to share, another day. For now, all eyes on this book, which a while back I had read an excerpt of here:

Illustration by Nicholas Konrad / The New Yorker

How Mathematics Changed Me

If one is inclined toward mysteries, mathematics can lead one to the conclusion that behind the veil of life there is a structure and an order.

I have written about mathematics for The New Yorker and, lately, also in my book “A Divine Language: Learning Algebra, Geometry, and Calculus at the Edge of Old Age,” and I thought that I had said everything I had to say about mathematics and my simple engagement with it, but I find I can’t stop thinking about it…

María Medem

And then yesterday I followed that up by reading this op-ed, which on its own is also worth anyone’s reading:

Math Is the Great Secret

As a boy in the first weeks of algebra class, I felt confused and then I went sort of numb. Adolescents order the world from fragments of information. In its way, adolescence is a kind of algebra. The unknowns can be determined but doing so requires a special aptitude, not to mention a comfort with having things withheld. Straightforward, logical thinking is required, and a willingness to follow rules, which aren’t evenly distributed adolescent capabilities.

When I thought about mathematics at all as a boy it was to speculate about why I was being made to learn it, since it seemed plainly obvious that there was no need for it in adult life. Balancing a checkbook or drawing up a budget was the answer we were given for how math would prove necessary later, but you don’t need algebra or geometry or calculus to do either of those things.

But if I had understood how deeply mathematics is embedded in the world, how it figures in every gesture we make, whether crossing a crowded street or catching a ball, how it figures in painting and perspective and in architecture and in the natural world and so on, then perhaps I might have seen it the way the ancients had seen it, as a fundamental part of the world’s design, perhaps even the design itself. If I had felt that the world was connected in its parts, I might have been provoked to a kind of wonder and enthusiasm. I might have wanted to learn.

Five years ago, when I was 65, I decided to see if I could learn adolescent mathematics — algebra, geometry and calculus — because I had done poorly at algebra and geometry and I hadn’t taken calculus at all. I didn’t do well at it the second time, either, but I have become a kind of math evangelist.

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