Subscribe to SLJ
Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Come On In the Water is Fine: Math

I had a 5 hour flight back from California Monday evening, and nothing to read so dashed to one of those terminal bookshops and did what one does — purchased a couple of books interesting enough to buy withouth knowing much about them. The Number Mysteries by Marcus Du Sautoy covered some familiar ground about prime numbers, Fibonacci numbers, codes etc., but with some writing flair, so it came with me on the plane. The author said two things that I thought we really ought to discuss here. In his intro he admits that some of the math he is going to discuss is difficult. But, he points out, so is reading Shakespeare (not to speak of Joyce, Stein, or some other modernists), just as while listening to great music is easy, playing it is hard. So, he urges, “if some of the mathematics feels tough, enjoy what you can and remember the feeling of reading Shakespeare for the first time.” What a great idea, I thought: we don’t give up on a poem, a novel, a piece of music, a painting (what did you think of any recent art installation when you first saw it?), a weird modern dance piece just because it is hard. We take what we can from that artwork, maybe making a mental note to come back, or savoring moments we caught and liked while noting how much was baffling. But with math it is different, so often I hear people in our field supposedly admitting failure (“I was never good at math”) but really consigning numeracy to some other realm (“we here are English majors, math types go there”). I loved his sense that we should explore, take what we can, then perhaps explore more. Dive in!
One problem with the anti-math sentiment in our field is that it is culturally specific. Girls who come from outside of the US, especially South and East Asia, Africa, Europe, very often do well in math, feel comfortable with math, do not know they are not supposed to like it. The more the adult teachers, librarians, care-givers pass along the sense that to be an American female is not to “get” math, the more they make assimilation into American culture a step away from thinking and knowledge. That is simply wrong.
I think there is a hidden factor here, one that is larger than math. I’ve often written here about the fallacy of the “it is all relative” argument — the sense that we each make our own meaning, our own truths, our own interpretations, and there is no one true history (for example). This mixture of post-modernist and subjectivist thinking is popular, I often hear it in my graduate students. And indeed it can free up an ability to inquire, think, and formulate new ideas about texts (literary or historical). But, as Du Sautoy points out, (quoting another mathematician) prime numbers (numbers that can only be divided by themselves or 1) are prime “not beacuse we think so, or beacuse our minds are shaped in one way rather than another, but because it is so, because mathematical reality is built that way.”
In other words, truths in math are true because they are true, not because of our subjective desire or impulse to see them that way. The truth is outside of us — such that when we have sent probes out into the universe in the hope that some other life forms might find them, we have included sequences of prime numbers, since any intelligent life would recognize them as such. And I think that the hard rock of math clashes with the subjectivist impulse — I am free to think as I like. But it, in reverse, it provides a bed rock, a grounding, an inner lattice of logic, upon which we can rest.
We need to do a better job of featuring math, praising math, showing young people its beauties — the invisible architecture of the universe — even if, often, we have to admit we only partially understand it.


  1. Shirley Budhos says:

    Ah, the myths we live by! The female math phobia is a creation of what the feminists would call “thee patriarchal system,” which keeps economics, money, numbers, abstractions in the hands of males, and we, dependent females, must accede to the powerfully gifted male math mavens. It ain’t so, as you mentioned, because other cultures promote facility with math for both sexes (though the future for women is not as glowing in fields involving higher math, science, etc).

    Now in my dotage, I often have conversations with my female contemporaries about the vagaries of handling a budget, checkbook, realistic expectations of how to live on one’s income (if one knows it while married), and the reply is always the same when I ask who handles(d) the money, husband, father, of course.

    It’s political, Marc, as the kids say today. I know that because my immigrant mother with the equivalent of a high school education could figure out compound interest on mortgages without resorting to paper-all in her head.) And, I know another who handled the business side of her husband’s artistic career.