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Math in the News(paper)

Last year, Professor Steven Strogatz of Cornell University wrote a series of op-eds for the New York Times that discussed the presence of mathematics in unlikely places. I discussed one of these columns here.  Now, either those articles were well-received, or Professor Strogatz is well-connected, because this year he’s back in the Times with a much more ambitious series of articles.  This time around, Strogatz is attempting to “[write] about the elements of mathematics, from preschool to grad school, for anyone out there who’d like to have a second chance at the subject.”

Preschool to grad school is a significant amount of ground to cover, but thus far Strogatz has used his articles to assault this goal with gusto.  To date, he has tackled counting, patterns in addition, negative numbers, division, and basic high school algebra.  This doesn’t really do justice to his content, though.  Along the way he gives the reader some Sesame Street, and discusses a number of tangential topics, including the inability of Verizon employees to do math, the half-your-age-plus-seven rule, and pre-WWI European history.  The latter comes about in a discussion of that old adage which is familiar to anyone who saw the first Alien vs. Predator movie: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Predators must be awesome at math.

While some of Professor Strogatz’s explanations are a bit hand wavy (in particular, his explanation of why (-1) x (-1) = 1 is a lacking), on the whole they are quite good.  In particular, he offers a nice explanation of what it is for a mathematical argument to be “elegant.”  But even more impressive than his writing is its location – to have a discussion of mathematics with as wide an audience as the New York Times readership is commendable.  Even if people are not inspired to learn more mathematics after reading these pieces, hopefully they will have at least learned something.  As with exercise, a little mathematics is better than no mathematics at all.

Moreover, these articles highlight aspects of math not usually seen in popular discourse.  Much like Paul Lockhart’s A Mathematician’s Lament (which Strogatz references), these snack-size essays are focused on simple mathematical ideas, and the beautiful (and sometimes unexpected) results that follow.  Nowhere here does Professor Strogatz multiply two really big numbers together; in fact, he’s quite sympathetic to the fact that for many people, there is nothing more tedious than calculation.  By leading the conversation in this way, he’s hopefully able to give a taste of what makes math beautiful to an audience for whom such a statement might otherwise be labeled heresy.

I don’t know where this series of articles is headed, but I look forward to finding out, and hope you do to.  Professor Strogatz’s articles are grouped together here.

(Hat tip to dad for sending me a few of these articles.)