Friday, September 24, 2010

Working to Create Wonder

Finally, can you not change the world through working to create wonder?

I came across this statement today on a student philosophy forum I am following. It caught my attention because of a recent NPR Science Friday program that touched on wonder (in math) - and because of a question I was asked this week by a fellow juror - and because of a conversation I had with a friend this morning in which we touched on topics of physics, faith, Beethoven and mathematics.

What was beautiful about that conversation was a sense of wonder.

What I try to convey in my teaching is a sense of wonder.

I'm often asked (not only by students but by acquaintances and even strangers) why people need to learn math and whether or not anyone EVER USES algebra.

Certainly we all have likes and dislikes. I'm a very picky eater and don't like or appreciate comestible delicacies that others savor and rave about. I would love to appreciate a wider variety of foods, because the ability to appreciate is a gift and enriches life.

I think the same is true of just about everything from sports to wine to academics to music to art to nature.

We can approach any of these things with a "What's it good for and how can I USE it?" attitude. But to only validate things for their USE to us seems to me to diminish the experience of the whole of life.

Yes, for most people math is intimidating or at least not inviting.

No, most people don't use algebraic formulas in their daily life or in their work.

EVER.

Though I would say, other than reading, math CAN BE one of the most readily applicable topics we learn in school and is useful in everyday life in everything from balancing checkbooks to determining gas mileage to cooking to splitting the bill at a restaurant to deciding on purchases to remodeling to making appropriate logical decisions after hearing political arguments. Of course you can avoid using math in this by not balancing your checkbook and by ignoring whether or not you get good gas mileage and by letting someone else figure out how to split the bill. So do you NEED math in your everyday life?

No.

It's also applicable through the technologies we have that people who understand math have figured out for us - computers, televisions, satellite dishes, airplanes, medical imaging technology, and so much more! But here too, we can just say, "I'll leave that to someone else who likes math and knows how to do it. I don't care how these things are made - just so they work."

OK.

But math isn't just about producing a product.

One other thing math (algebra and beyond) is about is training the mind to think. It's about logic and abstraction and strengthening that brain "muscle."

Another thing math is about is having a fuller understanding of the universe we live in, in all its aspects. Galileo said, "Mathematics is the alphabet with which God has created the universe." He also said that the universe "cannot be read until we have learnt the language and become familiar with the characters in which it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and the letters are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without which means it is humanly impossible to comprehend a single word." So if you want to go a little deeper in understanding how the world and universe hold together, you need to know a little math. You don't have to explore deeply the wonder of creation; you can take it or leave it, but here we are ALIVE and in the middle of an amazing world and universe, which is a really cool thing to explore and savor while in this short life we have the chance to do so!

Some people, including my favorite poet, Emily Dickinson, have expressed that mathematizing things makes them sterile and ruins the wonder. Dickinson says: "Arcturus is his other name. I'd rather call him 'Star.' It's very mean of science to go and interfere."

But does knowing the math or science of something really diminish it's wonder or beauty? I love Emily Dickinson, but I prefer Richard Feynman's view when approached by a friend who thought science diminished the beauty of a flower: "[There are] All kinds of interesting questions [for] which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don't understand how it subtracts."

Another Feynman quote that gets to the heart of the matter, and for which I would insert "math" just as much as physics, is:

"Physics is like sex. Sure, it may give some practical results, but that's not why we do it."


When people ask me about learning math, they want to know how they can USE it, and I feel trapped in a corner because the question already presupposes that the only reason we might learn math is for how we will APPLY it in life or work. If we go about all our learning in this way - history, geography, chemistry, physics, math, literature, music - honestly, no one HAS TO USE any of these things in their everyday lives.

A third reason to learn math is because, just like music and art, it is (when viewed and presented properly) beautiful in its own right.

A significant part of education is to open eyes to see wonder.

I understand, not everybody is going to like math. I get that. I don't like blueberries - even though people think that's crazy. But I'd sure like to move the focus away from thinking EVERYTHING we learn has to be OF USE and on to at least trying to find the beauty and sense of wonder in things we encounter in life - whether they be Beethoven's Symphonies, food, galaxies, fine wines - or even - math!

The student comment I opened with was: "Finally, can you not change the world through working to create wonder?"

That is what I try to do with math in my classes and in my conversations. It is my hope that people will allow themselves to be open to the wonder - rather than shutting it down with the seeming coup-de-grace, "How am I ever going to USE it?"

And maybe I'll even give blueberries another try!

1 comment:

JoAnne said...

Thanks, Heidi, for this and other postings that cheer for mathematics.
JoAnne (http://poetrywithmathemtics.blogspot.com)