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The Grey Lady teaches Math
April 11, 2010 6:57 PM   Subscribe

"Crazy as it sounds, over the next several weeks I’m going to try to do something close to that. I’ll be writing about the elements of mathematics, from pre-school to grad school, for anyone out there who’d like to have a second chance at the subject — but this time from an adult perspective. It’s not intended to be remedial. The goal is to give you a better feeling for what math is all about and why it’s so enthralling to those who get it." Mathematics in the pages of the New York Times!

The author is Stephen Strogatz, professor of applied mathematics at Cornell University. In 2007 he received the Communications Award, a lifetime achievement award for the communication of mathematics to the general public.

Does Strogatz succeed in conveying the wonder of math? YMMV, but take the piece on subtraction and negative numbers for example: In it, he shows us why two negative numbers multiplied together must be positive. And then he give us this marvelous riff:

"Admittedly, life sometimes seems to play by different rules. In conventional morality, two wrongs don’t make a right. Likewise, double negatives don’t always amount to positives; they can make negatives more intense, as in “I can’t get no satisfaction.” (Actually, languages can be very tricky in this respect. The eminent linguistic philosopher J. L. Austin of Oxford once gave a lecture in which he asserted that there are many languages in which a double negative makes a positive, but none in which a double positive makes a negative — to which the Columbia philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser, sitting in the audience, sarcastically replied, “Yeah, yeah.”)
posted by storybored (21 comments total) 174 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is excellent. Thanks. I'm also making my way through the Khan Academy lessons.
posted by purephase at 6:59 PM on April 11, 2010 [6 favorites]


(Man, I love me some Morgenbesser. This Strogatz guy looks good too. Thanks!)
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:19 PM on April 11, 2010 [2 favorites]




I don't know about double negatives and double positives, but Strogatz's inaugural column (the one quoted in this post) was linked in an FPP in January.

That said, the comment thread there was about Wigner, not Strogatz's column, so it seems worthwhile to talk about the column here.
posted by escabeche at 7:22 PM on April 11, 2010


I think a double notification of a double post on MetaFilter is technically a meta-Meta-double-double.
posted by escabeche at 7:23 PM on April 11, 2010 [3 favorites]


Steve Strogatz is wonderful. He's done so much work to smash common misperceptions of math as a lofty, impossibly abstract subject, and seems to really enjoy making the connections between math and other disparate subjects.

Strogatz on RadioLab:
There Is No Lord of the (Fire)Flies
Genes on the Move
Calculove
Limits of Science
The Wonder of Youth

Strogatz on L.A. Theatre Works:
Tom Stoppard's Arcadia (chaos theory)
John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation ("small world" theory)
David Auburn's Proof coming in July.
posted by mykescipark at 7:28 PM on April 11, 2010 [5 favorites]


Awesome. I took Strogatz's class on Nonlinear Dynamics and Chaos at Cornell and he was by far the best teacher I've ever had. This series at the NY Times exemplifies his knack for making complex concepts clear.
posted by peacheater at 7:55 PM on April 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


When it comes to math, once was enough.
posted by cmgonzalez at 8:10 PM on April 11, 2010


Funny, I just heard him talking about this on the Science Friday podcast. Thanks for the link, I'll be following this column.
posted by knave at 8:15 PM on April 11, 2010


When it comes to math, once was enough.

I had a teacher in Grade Six who was passionate about math. He taught us with great enthusiasm, filling up great chunks of blackboard with all manner of squiggles and scrawls, always reminding us of how much FUN this could all be.

I never got it.
posted by philip-random at 9:14 PM on April 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


Awesome. Thanks!
posted by flippant at 9:21 PM on April 11, 2010


When it comes to math, once was enough

You should have studied maths.

/not seriously seeking to invoke that fucking annoying shibboleth
posted by the quidnunc kid at 9:43 PM on April 11, 2010


Sidney Morgenbesser walks into a bar and asks the bartender what kind of martinis they have. She says gin martinis and vodka martinis. Sidney Morgenbesser says he’ll have the gin martini. She comes back in a moment and says that they also have a rum martini. So Sidney Morgenbesser says “In that case, I’ll have the vodka martini.”
posted by twoleftfeet at 10:48 PM on April 11, 2010 [5 favorites]


Cool thread. Thanks !
posted by nicolin at 2:05 AM on April 12, 2010


I recently enjoyed his book "Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order", though I wished there had actually been more math in it. He describes the equations and models really well but then doesn't show them. Even though I went right into a criticism of it, what I mean to say is– I found it fascinating and would recommend it to almost anybody.
posted by bobobox at 4:45 AM on April 12, 2010


I am one of those people who gets headaches when trying to think about math. My partner, on the other hand, is an engineer to whom math makes some kind of inherent sense. So, I took a gander at this to try and see if it could "explain" things to me.

And honestly: that bit with the rocks? BLEW MY EFFIN' MIND. This is amazing.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 6:18 AM on April 12, 2010


WHAT THE EFFING EFF IS A RUM MARTINI? Now where'd I put my tar and feathers....

The canonical version of that joke — at least in my neck of the woods — is about a diner, with pie. You can claim to have three different kinds of pie without being shunned by polite society.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:31 AM on April 12, 2010


I recently enjoyed his book "Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order", though I wished there had actually been more math in it. He describes the equations and models really well but then doesn't show them. Even though I went right into a criticism of it, what I mean to say is– I found it fascinating and would recommend it to almost anybody.
If you liked Sync, maybe you should give his textbook Nonlinear Dynamics and Chaos a try. I first encountered it in the second year of undergrad and was able to work through most of the exercises with only two semesters of calculus. It's written in the same engaging style.
posted by peacheater at 8:39 AM on April 12, 2010


I think a double notification of a double post on MetaFilter is technically a meta-Meta-double-double.

Is that something you need to have an In-N-Out Burger to understand?
posted by revgeorge at 10:52 AM on April 12, 2010


This blogger's try at explaining mathematics was pretty good. Too bad he got a job and gave it up...
posted by anthill at 1:47 PM on April 12, 2010



"A mathematician is like a Frenchman. If you tell him something, he immediately translates it into his own language, and forthwith, it is something entirely different." --Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

"A scientist worthy of the name, above all a mathematician, experiences in his work the same impression as an artist; his pleasure is as great and of the same nature." -- Henri Poincare

"He that gives a portion of his time and talent to the investigation of mathematical truth will come to all other questions with a decided advantage." -- Walter Colton

"The whole of mathematics consists in the organization of a series of aids to the imagination in the process of reasoning." -- Alfred North Whitehead

"I tell them that if they will occupy themselves with the study of mathematics they will find in it the best remedy against the lusts of the flesh." -- Thomas Mann

"Mathematics offers the exact sciences a certain measure of security which, without mathematics, they could not attain." -- A. Einstein

"As far as the propositions of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality." -- A. Einstein

"There are things which seem incredible to most men who have not studied mathematics." -- Archimedes

"The imaginary numbers are a wonderful flight of God's spirit; they are almost an amphibian between being and not-being." -- Leibniz

posted by neuron at 9:17 PM on April 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


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