Friday, October 2, 2015

Letter to a calculus student – The Sequel

Devlin’s Angle for July 2006 was titled Letter to a calculus student. In it, I tried to describe, as briefly but as effectively as I could, the deep beauty there is in calculus, a beauty that arises from the depth of human brilliance that it took for the human mind to find a way to tame the infinite, and bend it to our use, a beauty made the more so by the enormous impact calculus has had on life on Earth.

In my essay, I acknowledged that there was little chance any calculus student would be able to understand what I was trying to convey. I wrote:

“Those techniques [of calculus] are so different from anything you have previously encountered in mathematics, that it will take you every bit of effort and concentration simply to learn and follow the rules. Understanding those rules and knowing why they hold can come only later, if at all. Appreciation of the inner beauty of the subject comes later still. Again, if at all.

I fear, then, that at this stage in your career there is little chance that you will be able to truly see the beauty in the subject. Beauty - true, deep beauty, not superficial gloss - comes only with experience and familiarity. To see and appreciate true beauty in music we have to listen to a lot of music - even better we learn to play an instrument. To see the deep underlying beauty in art we must first look at a great many paintings, and ideally try our own hands at putting paint onto canvas. It is only by consuming a great deal of wine - over many years I should stress - that we acquire the taste to discern a great wine. And it is only after we have watched many hours of football or baseball, or any other sport, that we can truly appreciate the great artistry of its master practitioners. Reading descriptions about the beauty in the activities or creations of experts can never do more than hint at what the writer is trying to convey.

My hope then is not that you will read my words and say, "Yes, I get it. Boy this guy Devlin is right. Calculus is beautiful. Awesome!" What I do hope is that I can at least convince you that I (and my fellow mathematicians) can see the great beauty in our subject (including calculus). And maybe one day, many years from now, if you continue to study and use mathematics, you will remember reading these words, and at that stage you will nod your head knowingly and think, "Yes, now I can see what he was getting at. Now I too can see the beauty."

I then proceeded to describe, as articulately as I could, the beauty there is to be seen in calculus, or at least the beauty I see in it, taking the reader on a guided tour of the standard definition of the derivative, but from the perspective of how it takes advantage of what the human brain can do, while circumventing what it cannot.

I ended my essay by quoting poet William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence, saying:

That's what [the derivative limit formula] asks you to do: to hold infinity in the palm of your hand. To see an infinite (and hence unending) process as a single, completed thing. Did any work of art, any other piece of human creativity, ever demand more of the observer? And to such enormous consequence for Humankind? If ever any painting, novel, poem, or statue can be thought of as having a beauty that goes beneath the surface, then the definition of the derivative may justly claim to have more beauty by far.

As I noted above, I was really writing for my fellow mathematicians. I knew then, as I still acknowledge today, that what I had written was true: it is impossible to experience the beauty in many human creations until one has sufficient experience.

It was then, with great pleasure, that I received the following email a few weeks ago (on August 17), which I reproduce in its entirety, unedited, with the permission of the sender. I hope you enjoy it to. And, if you are a math instructor at a college or university, maybe print off this blog post and pin it somewhere on a corridor in the department as a little seed waiting to germinate.

* * * * * *
Western Washington University, in Bellingham, WA

Hi Dr. Devlin,

My name is Murray Pendergrass. I am a math student at Western Washington University, a small public liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest where I am pursuing a BS in Mathematics.

Sometime around 2006 you authored a post on Devlin's Angle titled "Letter to a calculus student" and I suppose someone in the math department at my school enjoyed it because it has been tacked to a bulletin board on the math floor for quite sometime. I would have only been going into the 8th grade when it was originally posted, with absolutely no idea that I would ever become interested in mathematics. I did take a calculus course my junior year of high school, but I don't think I could even briefly explain what a derivative was by the time the course was over (time well spent, obviously).

I must have first seen your article either my sophomore or junior year of college, 2014 most likely. I would have either been in precalculus or calculus I (differential calculus), and still completely unaware that I would end up declaring a math major. At that time I would have still been a member of the business school. I was probably waiting outside a professor's office for office hours when the title caught my eye,

" 'Letter to a calculus student' … Hmm, maybe I should read this."

However being the impatient person that I am, I believe I started in and thought "ok this is boring, I'll check the next page and see if it gets better,

"Nope, second page is boring too. Oh well."

And I have to admit, it was not until last night that I actually read the whole thing through for the first time.

But not long after that first initial and brief encounter with the letter my passion for mathematics truly began to develop and I realized that you can actually major in math without being a child prodigy (yes I actually thought this for quite sometime). It would have been shortly after this time, less than a year ago, that I realized I wanted to major in math. Since changing majors, very few hours have been spent not working on math.

I was studying at school late last evening when I decided to take a break and cruise up and down the hallway when for the second time in my life I noticed the letter tacked to the bulletin board. I must walk past it every single day but it was not until last night that it caught my eye again and I thought "I've seen this before! Oh wow I should give it a shot now that I am passionate about math."

In the very first sentence you open with a quote by Bertrand Russell, someone I have taken great interest in over the last year since mathematical logic has become a particular interest of mine. I immediately knew this was going to be a whole different experience reading this letter, and I was right.

What provoked me to feel the need to write you this letter was that I feel I am a precise example of the reader you are mentioning when you say,

"And maybe one day, many years from now, if you continue to study and use mathematics, you will remember reading these words, and at that stage you will nod your head knowingly and think, 'Yes, now I can see what he was getting at. Now I too can see the beauty.' "

Just as you predicted, the first time I made an attempt to read the letter "there was little chance I could see the true beauty in math", a statement so true that I could not only fail to see the beauty in math but I could not even read a letter about someone else promising me that even though I couldn't see the beauty, it was there.

It was quite a shock to me to read the letter last night and realize what a strange coincidental experience it was to randomly come across it a year after diving head first into the world of mathematics. It felt like a testament to myself of the progress I have made in math over the last year, a type of progress that cannot be explained or noticed through grades or high marks but by reading and truly relating to a mathematicians admiration for the beauty in math.

Before college I lived a bit of a bumpy life, it was a long and interesting road getting to where I am now. I will spare you the details as this letter has already turned out to be longer than I expected but I can truly say that finding math has been the best thing that has ever happened to me. In a lot of ways it has set me free.  I am very grateful to have the opportunity to study math at a university, to study something I am passionate about, and to reflect on how my relationship with math has evolved. I also must note that I hope I don't sound naive! I know I have only been doing math for a little over a year, which might sound like child's play to a Doctor of Philosophy in Mathematics. I am ecstatic that I have reached the point where I can appreciate mathematical beauty and I am also confident that math will continue to fascinate me and reveal its beauty for many years to come. Like most things, math is a journey not a destination.

Overall, I just felt the need to write to you because I thought you might enjoy knowing that even 9 years after you wrote it there are still students thinking for the first time:

"Yes, now I can see what he was getting at. Now I too can see the beauty".

Thank you,

Murray Pendergrass

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