Tag Archives: mathematics

Math Is A Wonderful Thing

I don’t know whether it’s due to some paucity in my education, a natural curiosity, or a sort of intellectual masochism (or all three), but I’ve occasionally sought out books about topics that often don’t agree with my brain yet still fascinate me. Being free from the shackles of syllabus reading (however instructional and edifying it often was) has allowed me to dabble in whatever topics I want, leading me down educational pathways I rarely dared to traverse before. I’m thinking specifically about math, science, and the other non-writing disciplines I failed to grasp or hone throughout my structured education.

The Joy of x by Steven Strogatz, a mathematician, is my most recent addition to this “continuing education” subgenre of my reading, and a delightful one. Dubbed “a guided tour of math,” this collection of bite-sized surveys paints key mathematical domains like Numbers, Shapes, and Data in broad strokes, simplified enough for English majors like me to understand them yet dense enough to require complete attention and critical thinking. I view Jennifer Ouellette’s splendid Black Bodies and Quantum Cats in the same league: right-brained books written for left-brainers, gateway drugs to some deeper, weirder stuff that should only be handled by professionals.

And I’m happy to leave that stuff to people like Strogatz (or his counterpart in astrophysics: Neil deGrasse Tyson), who are adept at communicating the importance and often invisible influence of the heady material they study to laypeople like me. The more books like The Joy of x and Black Bodies that are out there on library shelves and bookstores and talk shows, the more likely their subject matter gets the sympathy and support it needs. Though I came from the humanities, I also want STEM to get all the love it needs.

Science Blows My Mind

Like many English majors, science and mathematics were two subjects that gave me trouble throughout my primary, secondary, and college education. I think it was geometry class sophomore year of high school where I hit a wall and everything after that was a blur. Ditto with chemistry that year (what in the name of Walter White is a mole anyway?). But that didn’t hinder me from being wholly fascinated with science and nature, and more particularly with the people who know way more about those things than I do.

I just finished reading Jennifer Ouellette’s Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales from the Annals of Physics, a collection of short essays on various topics within the world of physics. Ouellette, also a former English major and self-professed “physics phobe,” adapted the essays from her column in APS News, a monthly publication for members of the American Physical Society. She tackles scientific topics from the earliest and most fundamental – like DaVinci and the golden ratio, Galileo and the telescope – to more recent discoveries like X-rays, wireless radio, and thermodynamics.

True to her writing roots, Ouellette manages to take what can be very esoteric and labyrinthine scientific concepts and make them fascinating by linking them to things we regular people can understand: how Back to the Future explains Einstein’s theory of special relativity; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde representing the dual nature of light; induced nuclear fission as seen in Terminator 2: Judgement Day. These connections are lifesavers for right-brained humanities majors like me, who instead of seeing “SCIENCE” blaring on the cover and fleeing get to experience an “A-ha!” moment nearly every chapter.

But here’s the thing: I love science. I don’t love it like a scientist does, by learning theories and experimenting. I don’t love it because I understand it – Lord knows that’s not the case. Rather, I love it because of what it does. I am consistently flabbergasted by what have become quotidian occurrences in our 21th century lives. Telephone technology is so quaint these days, but the fact that I can pick up a small device, speak into it, and instantaneously be heard by someone thousands of miles away blows my mind. The fact that I can get inside a large container that will propel itself through the air and arrive at a destination relatively quickly blows my mind. The fact that we can send a small, man-made vehicle into outer space and have it land on another planet blows my freaking mind.

Science has improved our lives and advanced our knowledge of creation in a million ways. I’m simply grateful for the multitudes of geeks who have labored in that noble cause of discovery. Because of you, we have cell phones and airplanes and cameras and Velcro (did you know that term is a portmanteau of the French words velours [velvet] and crochet [hook]?) and Mars Curiosity and lasers (an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) and automobiles and Xerox machines and countless other inventions, many of them engineered by the men and women Ouellette spotlights in her book.

And that’s just physics. Think about what we know of biology, chemistry, geology, astronomy, and every other sub-category of science. If my mind hadn’t already been blown away earlier, it would have exploded now just thinking about what we know about our Earth and the things that it contains, and also what we have yet to discover.

Though our country is in turmoil, the Curiosity roves a distant planet. Though we often disagree about basic scientific principles, we still seek to discover. As Carl Sagan said: “For all our failings, despite our limitations and fallibilities, we humans are capable of greatness.” As a sci-curious liberal arts nerd, I can’t wait to see what else we can achieve.