Math and all that

John Mcreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Sat, 15 Apr 1995 15:56:25 JST

>From a note to Ruby Rohrlich,

"it is far too immodest to describe what I know as knowledge
of physics and mathematics. It is, at best, some fragments around and
about them, the remnants of a math education that got me barely
started on calculus, one course in formal logic, a roommate who was
heavily into math and liked to talk about it, a brush with statistics
and occasional reading of books directed to the sympathetic layperson.
Kaku's book on Hyperspace is a great example of the genre."

I think it's important to emphasize this. It may or may not be
useful for an anthropologist to know mathematics. I've found it useful
to have a handle on a few mathematical ideas that crop up as major
factors in the history of science and may be "good to think" with
in dealing with anthropological issues.

Tibor Benke has mentioned the possibility of looking at mathematical
pedagogy. A good idea, I think. At this point, I am aware of two
approaches that haven't worked too well as far as I can see, and one
that has worked, a bit, for me.

One that didn't work too well is the classic drum it in by doing lots
of problems. Here ideas get lost in the minutiae of technique and
unless the problems are directly relevant to something a student is
interested in, doing them is just a pain, period.

Another was the "New math." Knowing a bit of set theory is surely not
a bad thing, but again lack of relevance makes it chore and too easy
to forget.

For me the first revelation came when taking a course in formal logic
and trying to parse arguments phrased in natural language to abstract
their logical structure. The second came from approaching math
historically, reading about the lives of mathematicians and why they
got excited about the problems they worked on.Both led to the
realization that math is a way of thinking about the world in more
sophisticated ways than commonsense offers and an art who's results
are often as surprising and beautiful as great poems or works of

John McCreery