Sunday, December 15, 2013


One day, the secretary to the Famous Professor gave a couple of us students some letters that had come to the Professor.  Letters - you know, those things written on paper, stuffed into envelopes and mailed with stamps.  She said, read them, and answer them if you want to.  It is OK if you don't, the Professor gets too many of these to answer.

I never replied to any of them, it didn't seem worth the time.  I do remember one of the letters, in outline, if not in detail.  It was from the foreman of a machine shop, and he felt that a younger worker was undermining him.  He had sketched out some shapes, and he wanted the Professor to help him.

What I gathered from beyond the particulars of the letter, was that the the younger worker had some knowledge of elementary geometry and trigonometry, enabling him to calculate dimensions of shapes that his foreman could not.  I did not know how to advise the letter writer that he ought to learn some mathematics, and that was one reason I did not reply.

This memory came back to me when I read Bee's essay on mathematics.  One thing Bee wrote was:
I think that most people are also lying when they say they were always bad at math. They most likely weren’t bad, they were just lazy, never made an effort and got away with it, just as I did with my spotty Latin.
which provoked a CIP reaction:
I think she is a bit delusional on this point. Math, unlike language, is an unnatural activity in the sense that our remote ancestors almost never needed it. 
I think the question to be answered is:- can we improve people's math. skills enough to make a positive difference in their lives?  For both the practical applications, as well as an improved understanding of the world? As Bee put it:
If you work in a profession that uses math productively or creatively, you need to speak math. But for the sake of understanding, being able to read math is sufficient. It’s the difference between knowing the meaning of a differential equation, and being able to derive and solve it. It’s the difference between understanding the relevance of a theorem, and leading the proof. I believe that the ability to ‘read’ math alone would enrich almost everybody’s life and it would also benefit scientific literacy generally.  
 There is also an understanding of the power of abstraction that people need to appreciate.

I think the answer to that question is yes; and what keeps us from doing it is the general anti-mathematics nature of popular culture.