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The Beauty of Mathematics through Fish and Rocks

February 11, 2010

I didn’t like math in grade school. I found it boring and tedious. I did all right in it though and I LOVED science, so I learned.

I didn’t like math in High school. By now, I had a few standardized tests to verify that I was pretty much average in math and, since all my other scores were great, I figured I would be better off focusing on my strengths. One of those strengths was science though, so I couldn’t ditch math altogether.

I didn’t like math in College – at first. Calculus was the worst. It was everything I disliked about math – tedious, boring, unintuitive – you didn’t explore calculus; you plugged the numbers into the algorithms and followed the steps precisely and you got the answer even if you didn’t understand why the steps worked. Differential equations didn’t even bother with explaining where the algorithms came from – you were just given them and told when to use which one.

It wasn’t until Modern Algebra (discrete functions and set theory with a sprinkling of logic and a generous helping of proofs to balance things out) that I realized that math was actually interesting. I actually understood why division worked the way it did! Arithmetic rules worked even when your number sets were different! Modulo arithmetic is actually kind of cool! And it has all sorts of applications too! And I discovered all this through a class I almost didn’t take – one that only filled an elective that I thought I had already filled. I almost missed it all!

And I didn’t need to.

Steven Strogatz wants to ensure other people don’t miss the beauty of mathematics. And if you have until now, he wants to help you discover it – that it’s not too late. And he’s using the New York Times to do it.

He is writing a series of blog entries at their “opinionator” blog that cover the elements of Math “pre-school to grad school, for anyone out there who’d like to have a second chance at the subject — but this time from an adult perspective.”  And he’s starting with fish.

He intends to write an article a week – you can bookmark the rss feed here.  his second one is on exploring numbers as concrete objects – where he explains square numbers and shows how the fact that numbers can be real things can help us add all the numbers from one to 100 quickly and easily.  He also introduces us to someone who wants to change the way we learn math so what happened to me doesn’t happen to anyone else again.

Which is why I’m linking to him here 🙂


“Real education must ultimately be limited to men who insist on knowing, the rest is mere sheep-herding.”

Ezra Pound

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