A Memorandum on Pop Math


Where we learn that science would be nothin’
without math (oh, glorious math)

You know how people say, “because, science” in response to a question that is about anything from why diseases spread, to how diamonds are made, to why some bird migrations land in the same backyard, year after year?

And while we should always consider the source of who is saying “because, science” since the phrase could be used as an evasive way to manipulate a serious discussion – in general, “because, science” has become an acceptable shorthand used in casual conversations to denote that the details of a particular answer aren’t necessary to hash over. I mean, facts are facts and science is extra complicated facts. It’s those smarty mcsmartest specifics that, if we got into it, might actually make things more confusing to attempt to understand so let’s just leave it at “because, science” and we both know that means it is what it is and…there ya go.

For those who actually don’t want to just leave it and are curious to know more, yet they aren’t about to sign-up for a course or read a textbook about whatever particular scientific topic is at hand, they might then peruse the genre known as Popular Science, where you can get that well-researched fact-based scientific information (that may have those moments of squishing-your-brain with some minutiae that is integral to its factualness) but the main difference between Popular Science and…Unpopular Science(?) is that the popular one is written to be more accessible for a wider audience and it might also be a bit fun to read. And hey, as the genre name says, it’s popular!

Well, as a proud self-proclaimed math nerd, I’ve been wondering – for a really long time – why does science get to be the popular one, why not math? I mean, can you even make science happen without math? Chemistry? Astronomy? Ummm, hello, physics??!!? It’s just rude. Where would science be if math wasn’t there to support it? 

If an occasion comes up where I mention how much I love math, more often than not the person I’m talking with says some version of, “Oh, I’m no good at math.” And then it’s just dismissed. Mathematics has such a bad rap of being boring, confusing, and – worst of all – useless. No nononononononono and also No; come hither, please let me offer you a different perspective. Though there are more and more (popular math!) essays and books being written now more than ever, and it’s clear that today’s math educators are the ones tasked with obliterating the sentence “I’m no good at math” from ever being said by younger generations, there’s also a long(misunder)standing perception of what a math lover looks like.

Therefore, I want to welcome y’all into experiencing all-things-math the way that I do, and I think amplifying how math – especially higher math – is relatable to us as humans is the best direction to take.

In the very first page of (humanist) mathematician Reuben Hersh’s book, “What is Mathematics, Really?” he calls this out.

…from a viewpoint of philosophy, mathematics must be understood as a human activity, a social phenomenon, part of human culture, historically evolved, and intelligible only in a social context.

What Is Mathematics, Really?
pg. 1

Don’tcha think it’d be grand to have a lightbulb (figuratively) light-up above your head when you are in the thick of looking for an answer to a particularly troubling challenge, be it a personal or even a societal challenge? This is what happens to me in a lot of confusing moments, and the source of that lightbulb lighting up is, well, math. And, wow, it really grounds me. Specifically, usually, that scoop of realization is from my ever growing goody-bag of readings of theoretical math and the philosophy of math and the societal applications of math as it combines with the social constructs that I – and you – have jointly experienced in our day-to-day lives.  Math is at the root and math is the root. Math is the explanation and the soothing logic that brings you back to center and, in many ways, brings a sense of safety to situations that may otherwise feel deflating or perhaps even perilous.

Sometimes the moment is like: am I experiencing the very definition of Chaos? Or is this definitively a Category Theory sorta situation? Is this environment I find myself in right now — is this Phase Space, in every which way? For all those that consider themselves to be mathematical nerds minus the post-graduate schooling to become academically anointed a mathematician – or for those that never even thought or were tempted to pursue becoming a mathematician but you have the occasional But Why tickle in you at times – I think this blog may be for you.

I consider myself to be infinitely curious but I feel like the go-to descriptor for most of us math folks is about our affinity for all things logical in deference to any employment of curiosity; the “if this, then that” sort of logic, with no question as to how things initially arrived at this before it all proceeded on to that. Curiosity and logic are always dancing with each other in my head.

I’m definitely a But Why kind of gal, to a fault — I can concede to that. The thing I have come to realize is that by feeding that curiosity, then the logical part of me kicks in, like, in overdrive. And just like when you are shopping for a particular car where during that shopping process you see that dang (model/color/maker of) car everywhere, once my curiosity about a particular mathematical theorem or discipline is fed the logical part of me has that information on-the-ready to be applied IRL – in my work, in my social activities, in my own growth.

And when I arrive to THAT mind space, well, it’s equal to the coziest of blankets that I wrap myself in on my couch.

I experience math
the way mathematician Paul Lockhart describes it
in his book that is a true celebration of math

…the most important thing to understand is that mathematics is an art. Math is something you do. And what you are doing is exploring a very special and peculiar place – a place known as “Mathematical Reality.” This is of course an imaginary place, a landscape of elegant, fanciful structures, inhabited by wonderful, imaginary creatures who engage in all sorts of fascinating and curious behaviors. I want to give you a feeling for what Mathematical Reality looks and feels like and why it is so attractive to me, but first let me just say that this place is so breathtakingly beautiful and entrancing that I actually spend a good part of my waking life there. I think about it all the time, as do most other mathematicians. We like it there, and we just can’t stay away from the place.

A Mathematician’s Lament:
How School Cheats Us Out of Our Most Fascinating and Imaginative Art Form
pg 92

I just want to offer a resource that may answer those But Why (which are soon followed by the So, How) questions that seem to come up more and more as we all have greater access to each others experiences, when we innately hook into those relatable moments that can give clarity, steadiness, and perhaps even some comfort to each other.

Thanks, math, you’re the best.

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