Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Is math really beautiful?

The above tweet caught my eye recently. The author is a National Board Certified mathematics teacher in New York City who has an active social media presence. Is his claim correct? Not surprisingly, a number of other mathematics educators responded, and in the course of the exchange, the author modified his claim to include the word “just”, as in “It isn’t just about beauty …” In which case, I think he is absolutely correct.

Like many mathematicians who engage in public outreach, I have frequently discussed the inherent elegance and beauty of mathematics, the wonder of its purity, and the power of its abstraction. And as a body of human knowledge, I maintain (as do pretty well all other mathematicians) that such descriptions of the subject known as pure mathematics are totally justified. (Cue: for the standard quotation, Google “Bertrand Russell mathematical beauty”.) Anyone who is unable to recognize it as such surely has not (yet) understood what (pure) mathematics is truly about.

In contrast, the activity of doing mathematics is indeed “messy,” as Pershan claims. That is the case not only for the activity of using mathematics to solve problems in the real world, but also the activity of engaging in pure mathematics research. The former activity is messy because the world is. The latter is messy because the logical elegance and beauty of (many) mathematical theories and proofs are characteristics of the finished product, not the process of development.

And there, surely, we have the motivation for Pershan’s comment. When we teach mathematics to beginners, we don’t do them any service by making claims about beauty and elegance if what they are experiencing is anything but. With good teaching of a well-designed curriculum, we can ensure that they are exposed to the beauty, of course, and perhaps experience the elegance. But it’s surely better to let them know that the messiness, the uncertainty, the repeated stumbles, and the blind allies they are encountering are part of the package of doing mathematics that the pros experience all the time, whether the doing is trying to prove a theorem or using mathematics to solve a real-world problem.

By chance, the same day I read that tweet, I came across an excellent online article on Medium about the huge demand for mathematical thinking in today’s data-rich and data-driven world. Like me, the author is a pure mathematician who, later in his career, became involved in using mathematics and mathematical thinking in working on complex real-world problems. I strongly recommend it. Not only does it convey the inherent messiness of real-world problems, it convincingly makes the case that without at least one good mathematical thinker on the team, management decisions based on numerical data can go badly astray. As the author states in a final footnote, he takes pleasure in the process of applying the rigor of mathematics to the complex messiness of real-world problems.

To my mind, therein lies another kind of mathematical beauty: the beauty of making productive use of the interplay between the abstract purity of formal rigor and the messy stuff of everyday life.