Personal Blog About Math 1

Nov 7, 2018 | West Houston

In his book, “Love and Math”, awarded the 2015 Euler Book Prize, author Edward Frenkel tells two intertwined stories: of the wonders of mathematics and of his own journey learning and living it. In his preface, he concludes the following: “People think they don’t understand math, but it’s all about how you explain it to them[…]”. This is especially true of young students and we, at Mathnasium, are very much aware of it.

 

The author invites readers “to this rich and dazzling world [of Math]”. Furthermore, he indicated that he  “wrote it for readers without any background in mathematics”. He encourages readers as follows: “If you think that math is hard, that you won’t get it, if you are terrified by math, but at the same time curious whether there is something there worth knowing – then this book is for you.” – he concludes.

 

We share Mr. Frenkel’s view. Mathematics is a wonderful world and we are here to teach math in a way that makes sense to our students.

 

Here are some excerpts which illustrate very well our shared point of view on the wonders of Math.

 

«Mathematical knowledge is unlike any other knowledge. While our perception of the physical world can always be distorted, our perception of mathematical truths can’t be. They are objective, persistent, necessary truths. A mathematical formula or theorem means the same thing to anyone anywhere – no matter what gender, religion, or skin color; it will mean the same thing to anyone a thousand years from now. And what’s also amazing is that we own all of them. No one can patent a mathematical formula, it’s ours to share. There is nothing in this world that is so deep and exquisite and yet so readily available to all. That such a reservoir of knowledge really exists is nearly unbelievable. It’s too precious to be given away to the “initiated few.” It belongs to all of us.

 

One of the key functions of mathematics is the ordering of information. This is what distinguishes the brush strokes of Van Gogh from a mere blob of paint. With the advent of 3D printing, the reality we are used to is undergoing a radical transformation: everything is migrating from the sphere of physical objects to the sphere of information and data. We will soon be able to convert information into matter on demand by using 3D printers just as easily as we now convert a PDF file into a book or an MP3 file into a piece of music. In this brave new world, the role of mathematics will become even more central: as the way to organize and order information, and as the means to facilitate the conversion of information into physical reality.

In this book, I will describe one of the biggest ideas to come out of mathematics in the last fifty years: the Langlands Program, considered by many as the Grand Unified Theory of mathematics. It’s a fascinating theory that weaves a web of tantalizing connections between mathematical fields that at first glance seem to be light years apart: algebra, geometry, number theory, analysis, and quantum physics. If we think of those fields as continents in the hidden world of mathematics, then the Langlands Program is the ultimate teleportation device, capable of getting us instantly from one of them to another, and back.

 

Launched in the late 1960s by Robert Langlands, the mathematician who currently occupies Albert Einstein’s office at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, the Langlands Program had its roots in a groundbreaking mathematical theory of symmetry. Its foundations were laid two centuries ago by a French prodigy, just before he was killed in a duel, at age twenty. It was subsequently enriched by another stunning discovery, which not only led to the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, but revolutionized the way we think about numbers and equations. Yet another penetrating insight was that mathematics has its own Rosetta stone and is full of mysterious analogies and metaphors. Following these analogies as creeks in the enchanted land of math, the ideas of the Langlands Program spilled into the realms of geometry and quantum physics, creating order and harmony want to tell you about all this to expose the sides of mathematics we rarely get to see: inspiration, profound ideas, startling revelations. Mathematics is a way to break the barriers of the conventional, an expression of unbounded imagination in the search for truth. Georg Cantor, creator of the theory of infinity, wrote: “The essence of mathematics lies in its freedom.” Mathematics teaches us to rigorously analyze reality, study the facts, follow them wherever they lead. It liberates us from dogmas and prejudice, nurtures the capacity for innovation. It thus provides tools that transcend the subject itself.

 

These tools can be used for good and for ill, forcing us to reckon with math’s real-world effects. For example, the global economic crisis was caused to a large extent by the widespread use of inadequate mathematical models in the financial markets. Many of the decision makers didn’t fully understand these models due to their mathematical illiteracy, but were arrogantly using them anyway – driven by greed – until this practice almost wrecked the entire system. They were taking unfair advantage of the asymmetric access to information and hoping that no one would call their bluff because others weren’t inclined to ask how these mathematical models worked either. Perhaps, if more people understood how these models functioned, how the system really worked, we wouldn’t have been fooled for so long.

 

As another example, consider this: in 1996, a commission appointed by the U.S. government gathered in secret and altered a formula for the Consumer Price Index, the measure of inflation that determines the tax brackets, Social Security, Medicare, and other indexed payments. Tens of millions of Americans were affected, but there was little public discussion of the new formula and its consequences. And recently there was another attempt to exploit this arcane formula as a backdoor on the U.S. economy.

 

Far fewer of these sorts of backroom deals could be made in a mathematically literate society. Mathematics equals rigor plus intellectual integrity times reliance on facts. We should all have access to the mathematical knowledge and tools needed to protect us from arbitrary decisions made by the powerful few in an increasingly math-driven world. Where there is no mathematics, there is no freedom.

 

Mathematics is as much part of our cultural heritage as art, literature, and music. As humans, we have a hunger to discover something new, reach new meaning, understand better the universe and our place in it. Alas, we can’t discover a new continent like Columbus or be the first to set foot on the Moon. But what if I told you that you don’t have to sail across an ocean or fly into space to discover the wonders of the world? They are right here, intertwined with our present reality. In a sense, within us. Mathematics directs the flow of the universe, lurks behind its shapes and curves, holds the reins of everything from tiny atoms to the biggest stars[…]

 

[…]There is a common fallacy that one has to study mathematics for years to appreciate it. Some even think that most “people have an innate learning disability when it comes to math. I disagree: most of us have heard of and have at least a rudimentary understanding of such concepts as the solar system, atoms and elementary particles, the double helix of DNA, and much more, without taking courses in physics and biology. And nobody is surprised that these sophisticated ideas are part of our culture, our collective consciousness. Likewise, everybody can grasp key mathematical concepts and ideas, if they are explained in the right way. To do this, it is not necessary to study math for years; in many cases, we can cut right to the point and jump over tedious steps.

 

The problem is: while the world at large is always talking about planets, atoms, and DNA, chances are no one has ever talked to you about the fascinating ideas of modern math, such as symmetry groups, novel numerical systems in which 2 and 2 isn’t always 4, and beautiful geometric shapes like Riemann surfaces. It’s like they keep showing you a little cat and telling you that this is what a tiger looks like. But actually the tiger is an entirely different animal. I’ll show it to you in all of its splendor, and you’ll be able to appreciate its “fearful symmetry,” as William Blake eloquently said.

 

[….]Think about it this way: learning a small number of chords will enable you to play quite a few songs on a guitar. It won’t make you the world’s best guitar player, but it will enrich your life. In this book I will show you the chords of modern math, which have been hidden from you. And I promise that this will enrich your life. […] the great Israel Gelfand, used to say: “People think they don’t understand math, but it’s all about how you explain it to them. If you ask a drunkard what number is larger, 2/3 or 3/5, he won’t be able to tell you. But if you rephrase the question: what is better, 2 bottles of vodka for 3 people or 3 bottles of vodka for 5 people, he will tell you right away: 2 bottles for 3 people, of course.”

 

My goal is to explain this stuff [Math] to you in terms that you will understand

 

Edward Frenkel. “Love and Math.”, 2013, Basic Books, Preface pp. 20 – 31

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