Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Comments and the Mystery of Math

Watching TV tonight I had the thought to do a non-class specific post. First I'd like to invite people to use the comments feature provided. If something I post is not clear, or you wish to comment, contribute or continue a conversation, feel free to click on the Comment link, and post your thoughts. Yes, it requires you to enter an email address and yes it is moderated, both of which would be consistant with our school policies and my own sense of "common internet sense". But that shouldn't be a roadblock to sharing a thought or two.

It will also help me feel like these updates have some value.

The primary thing I wanted to focus on, however, was the new TV show airing on ABC: No Ordinary Family. In this show, the son discovers that his super power is the ability to quickly and easily comprehend Mathematics. Watching the show I realized that they are using a similar effect to one used in the movie A Beautiful Mind and in the TV show Numb3rs.  They are making mathematics appear magical. As the problems are being solved, the words on the page just rearrange themselves. Images appear in space, working out a solution right there in real time, with little or no effort.

This is a small point of concern because little I have seen about mathematics education says that it has to be that way.  I'll explain further under the cut:

Now to be sure, there are people who are gifted, people who can look a geometric proof and in moments go from point A to point B, filling in all the points between, the speed of which is limited only by the speed at which they can move a pencil. But this isn't the full story for most of us.

A much better demonstration of "real math" in film, I think, is the small film Proof, based on the play of the same name. In this movie the main character Catherine solves a very very challenging proof over a period of weeks, working at it page by page, idea by idea. It is not something that comes magically, but through hard intellectual labor. Being a relatively unknown movie, I recommend it to anyone who has not seen it; it is a very well written and powerful character drama that just happens to be about mathematicians. Two of whom are very attractive people. Really.

But I'm digressing...

My point is that while I appreciate seeing math shown as part of these shows and movies, I worry that it reinforces the false perception that ability to do math is a gift onto itself. It doesn't have to be.

I am not Jimi Hendrix or Eddie Van Halen or Eric Clapton.  But I was able to learn enough chords that with enough invested time, and a lot of painful practice, I could play in a few small folk groups. Yes, there are incredibly talented and gifted guitarists and no, I am not one of them. But with a bit of work, and a lot of patience I was able to "pass" what I needed to.

Mathematics need be no different.

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