N.B. The content of this post is replicated as the “About the blog” page, but I thought it was important enough to merit putting in two places. If we’re going to be taking this non-apple-related journey together, you should know why we’re doing it.
The mission statement for the Not About Apples blog is simply this: to present mathematical ideas to a general audience, to make some sense of what it is that mathematician think about and why. Underneath the formulas and rules and quadratic equations that most people think of when they hear the word “math”, there is a heart of mathematics, a Zen of mathematics, a deep poetry that most people are completely unaware of, and I want to shed a little bit of light on it.
The need for such a thing is made obvious to me almost every day. I’ve been a mathematician for some time, and whenever that comes up — chatting with a barista at a coffeeshop, meeting someone at a party, making small talk on an airplane — the response is almost always a variation of “Oh.. I can’t do math.”
This is mystifying to me; I went to college with a number of English majors, and no one would ever say “Oh, an English major? I can’t read.” No one would ever say it, even it were true! This says a lot of things about our society. To unpack them all would take us too far from the main point I want to make here, so let’s consider another example. Something else no one would ever say is “Oh, a music major? I don’t like music.” Even if they don’t listen to classical music, even if they hated their childhood piano lessons, even if all they do is hum along with the radio every once in a while, people get that music has aesthetic value.
I would argue the analogy between math and music here is better than you might think. It’s no exaggeration to say that I personally study mathematics for chiefly aesthetic reasons. (I am not saying math doesn’t have myriad practical applications, just that they have almost nothing to do with my motivation.) The difference is that we introduce music to each other, as a society, by singing to each other and playing for each other. Music appreciation comes naturally, but aesthetic appreciation of mathematics does not come naturally, and it is never talked about in math class. It should be, but it isn’t. The mathematicians are the ones who figured out, all on their own, that there is something deep and complex and beautiful there.
Imagine a world where we taught “music” to all the elementary school children by showing them what sheet music is, what the names for all the notes and symbols are, and a wealth of rules for what kinds of combinations of things tend to be musically good — chord progressions, key changes, etc., all presented in terms of sheet music, of configurations of black marks on white paper. A small minority of people might figure out, just on their own in an intuitive leap, that those marks on the page could be interpreted as things that they could do with that piano gathering dust in the living room, and damn that’s a catchy song. Just imagine what figuring that out would be like. They’d come to music class with a bounce in their step, excited to be there, while the vast majority of people are thinking that if they never write another dotted sixteenth note it would be too soon.
We’d have a world where only the most dedicated of musicians even get to know what music — as distinct from sheet music as a visual medium — is. I think we can agree that would be tragic.
So think of this as a forum for the aesthetic appreciation of mathematical ideas. Math isn’t about memorizing the quadratic formula any more than music is about sheet music.
The intended audience here is construed pretty broadly. Sure, I hope some other mathematicians will drop in on the blog from time to time. It’s true that I’m interested in what other mathematicians have to say about what I write, and I’m certainly interested in any comments that mathematicians may have which might explain things better than my communication skills allow. But I”m not writing for them, not really.
First and foremost I’m writing for people who don’t spend much time thinking about mathematics on their own, for people who haven’t figured out yet how to see the beauty in it. As my plans for this blog unfold, you and I will get to take a walking tour through many areas of mathematics. The material will live at a variety of levels, from basic arithmetic to open questions like the Riemann Hypothesis, but I will try to assume as little prior knowledge as possible. It’s not my intention to exclude anyone. You don’t need an extensive math background, just a little curiosity in your mind and a little poetry in your soul.
I will post articles on Monday and Thursday mornings, a schedule that will last at least through the end of 2009. I may also post interesting links and minor posts at other times as my whimsy dictates.