A Valentine for Mathematics
Last updated on February 11th, 2024
Today is my birthday. A year ago, when I turned 42, I posted this essay on Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. There is a part of me that wants to continue being 42 for at least another year. The age of 43 doesn’t seem so special.
One of my goals for this blog is to help math-anxious people identify their feelings. Doing so by talking about my own struggles with math anxiety. Showing people they can change their relationship with mathematics too.
Another purpose is to show people that you can feel positive emotions for math. People take pleasure in their pursuits in mathematics the same way they enjoy books or films. The idea of writing this essay has always been on my mind.
So, here are some reasons why I love math.
- Truth in Mathematics
On the Alone Together podcast, I said my interest in mathematics was that it is true. Though I need to develop a more nuanced perspective. I am not the first to express such a sentiment.
This quote from Simone Weil appears in “Mathematics for Human Flourishing”.
“The exceptional gifts of my brother, who had a childhood and youth comparable to those of Pascal, brought my own inferiority home to me. I do not mind having no visible successes, but what did grieve me was the idea of being excluded from that transcendent kingdom to which only the truly great have access and wherein truth abides. I preferred death rather than life without that truth.”
My interest in math is also a yearning to understand that truth. There is nothing more that I want to do than hop over my next mathematical hurdle. Finally getting into proofs and abstract mathematics. I still struggle with mathematical logic. I do not think that I am an illogical person. It is that I haven’t acquired the insight I need for it to make sense. I see this as the same issue that I had when multiplication stumped me. This obstacle too can be overcome.
I get frustrated with people who see my troubles as a failure. That I should quit my pursuits. I did briefly go back to school for a bachelor’s in mathematics. My teacher told me, “You don’t have to get a degree, Susan.” It might take me another ten years to do it but I’m not backing down. I see myself on a sabbatical from school but I do want to return in the future.
- Math with Meaning
There is a statement that I made in my first essay on mathematics.
“I believe people like math when it becomes personally meaningful to them.” - A Writer’s Illicit Love Affair With Mathematics
We have to help people find something in math that is more than fear.
This is one of the main reasons why I am such an enthusiastic supporter of math communicators. I’ve even curated this collection of media in this space. We all have individual perspectives on what matters most to us. It is important to capture that and share it with the public.
I do want to take the time to list a few things which hold meaning for me.
- One of my favorite blogs is the one I wrote on the design and mathematics of dice. I was the community manager for a tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPG ) publisher. My most popular campaign was “Show Us Your Dice”. People would send in photos of their dice collections. It is the one item that almost all roleplayers use (some TTRPGs use things like cards instead). Getting your first dice set is an initiation into the hobby. It is not something you forget.
- Some people may find this too simplistic to be interesting but it is my favorite math fact about e. Looking at the function ex we see that the value of a point on the curve is ex. The slope of the curve at that point is ex and the area under the curve is also ex. This matters to me for a specific reason. We only have one life and we are stuck with ourselves until the end. So, we should like ourselves. It is important to me to embrace who I am and not live with fear (I am by no means perfect about this). This property of e reminds me of that idea. It is a function that knows itself! The curve of personal growth. I am going to get ex as my second tattoo when I can afford it (another cool fact about e is that it is a transcendental number).
- Visiting Bletchley Park had a profound impact on me. At an Alan Turing exhibit, they had a case with various personal objects. That is where I met his teddy bear Porgy. Turing bought Porgy as an adult to talk to so he could practice his lectures. I never felt more connected to someone from history. I love people who aren’t afraid to appear childish.
The greatest gift of adulthood is that we can make new choices. Give ourselves the things denied to us as kids. Whether that is an emotion like unconditional love or an object like a teddy bear. This story means so much to me that I commissioned Annie Perkins to crochet my own Porgy.
I will write more of these stories in the future!
- Virtues of Mathematics
I am reading “Mathematics for Human Flourishing” by Francis Su. He covers topics like exploration, truth, meaning, and play. Subjects that I also write about. Su uses these topics to talk about the virtues of mathematics that lead to our best lives.
Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” definition of virtue is what I am familiar with. He tells us that virtues are habits. They are something that we can practice. Such that they become a permanent part of our character. Leading to human flourishing the ultimate good for humans. This is by no means a complete explanation but it does cover one of the main ideas of the text.
Su defines human flourishing:
“Human Flourishing refers to a wholeness – of being and doing, of realizing one’s potential and helping others do the same, of acting with honor and treating others with dignity, of living with integrity even in challenging circumstances.”
This is not about happiness or what makes people happy as some think. It is how to face life with resilience. The ways of reaching your full potential for good in the world. The meaning of a life well lived.
As habits, virtues are also teachable. In this way, we can think of mathematics in the same ways that we appreciate art and literature. Using these virtues to think about mathematical works. Su’s book would make an excellent college course.
My Birthday Wish
When I talk about math, I am talking about myself. Who I am as a person. Writing about it is an act of self-love. I struggled for many years to find someone who would accept and validate my math feelings. I’ve not only found one person but a whole community of people.
I would like to open things up to the community. To share their thoughts and feelings about mathematics. Please reach out to me on Mathstodon, X (Twitter), or by email. If you give me permission, I would like to quote you and add it to this post. This is me inviting you to the party. All are welcome.
Thanks for reading.
p.s - I am also working on a math communications conference for the US.
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