Count me in
The NYT is publishing a new series on the concepts, principles, and applied nature of mathematics, ranging from pre-school basics to “baffling” calculus. Authored by esteemed educator Steven Strogatz, math professor at Cornell University. An excerpt from the first article:
This dual aspect of numbers — as part- heaven, and part- earth — is perhaps the most paradoxical thing about them, and the feature that makes them so useful. It is what the physicist Eugene Wigner had in mind when he wrote of “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences.”
The creative process here is the same as the one that gave us numbers in the first place. Just as numbers are a shortcut for counting by ones, addition is a shortcut for counting by any amount. This is how mathematics grows. The right abstraction leads to new insight, and new power.
Yet despite this infinite vista, there are always constraints on our creativity. We can decide what we mean by things like 6 and +, but once we do, the results of equations like 6 + 6 are beyond our control. In mathematics, we’ll see in the coming weeks, our freedom lies in the questions we ask — and in how we pursue them — but not in the answers awaiting us.
UPDATE: For fun, here’s a video of “mathemagician” Arthur Benjamin performing at TED 2005: