Math Becomes a Cult—Description of a Hope
Gero von Randow
Things have changed. Since the previous editions of this book mathematics has
become popular. No longer is there a painful silence at a party when someone says
he is a mathematician: admiration instead. Pretending to have no understanding of
mathematics is no longer in fashion. And that mathematicians are crackpot fogies?
This prejudice is also on the retreat.
How might this have happened?
The debate around PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment
of the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), and
its consequences must have contributed. The recognition has spread that all the
new ideas and things that have made our society a scientific one—from climate
simulation, through internet software, to biotechnology—have a mathematical soul;
indeed, globalization is a phenomenon driven by mathematics, since its kernel is
the disintegration of time and space through computer-mediated information and
capital flow.
At the same time mathematicians, supported by journalist sympathizers, have
learned how to bring their science closer to the public. Meanwhile no other branch
of research has approached the public with such good humor and as creatively as
has mathematics. And this is perhaps even more important than the PISA debate.
Citizens should grasp that mathematics is not just necessary but is fun: applied
mathematics because it is a creative engagement with interesting problems in the
world, and pure mathematics because it is a creative engagement with interesting
intellectual problems.
In other words, mathematics is not only necessity but freedom.
In a certain way mathematicians are more free than other scientists. They may,
they must, continually modify their calculations. Today they build this structure,
tomorrow that one. Today they refute this conjecture, tomorrow another.
They can make the impossible possible. For instance, they discover by example
a geometry in which a straight line may have many parallels passing through the
same point. Or a four-, a five-, a 100-, or an n-dimensional space. Theologians who
want to do similar things in their discipline will encounter silence.
Mathematicians can conceive the inconceivable because they can abstract from
ideas, because they formalize. A short anecdote: An engineer and a mathematician
are at a physics lecture in which spaces with eleven dimensions are mentioned.
Afterwards the engineer says is too deep for me, an eleven-dimensional space.”
The mathematician, “But it’s quite simple! Think of an n-dimensional space, and
then let n be equal to 11.”
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