Mathematicians are glasses-wearing, pocket-protector-sporting, calculator-wielding geeks.
That’s the misconception UNM professors Reuben Hersh and Vera John-Steiner try to dispel in their just-released book, Loving Hating Mathematics.
Hersh said the book dismisses the stereotypes of eccentric, genius mathematicians and demystifies math for those who don’t understand it.
“(Mathematicians) are not athletes, not even comedians,” Hersh said. “They are just weird people who should go off in a corner and not bother other people. Don’t think we people who like math are strange. We are just like you, only we like math.”
Hersh is a mathematician of 50 years, so he’s got a bit of bias, but his associate, John-Steiner, is a psychologist who just happens to be interested in math. She said people who look at it logically and deductively aren’t looking close enough.
“And when you get closer to watching what mathematicians do and how they present their material, you see that they rely on a much broader range of human capabilities,” John-Steiner said. “Then there is the appeal for research mathematicians of a very beautiful and, at times, a system that provides certainty in singular answers.”
Thinking of math as beautiful is foreign to some people, Hersh said, and certainly there is a challenge in writing about it in that way.
Luckily, Hersh was an English undergraduate and worked for four years as a reporter for Scientific American Magazine. It wasn’t until he was 29 that he went back to school for his master’s in math.
“I always had that advantage over many other mathematicians of having a certain breadth and scope and capabilities in my view, and it did turn out not only doing math research, but writing books about math became my career,” he said.
The reasons why people hate math naturally arise, John-Steiner said. She said two reasons exist for this prickliness toward math, and the first has to do with the way it’s taught.
“Students are not given the chance to understand the relevance of these abstract concepts to things they are more at ease and familiar with, like cooking or shopping,” she said.
People argue that math at a calculus level is necessary for the country to compete economically, Hersh said, but he disagrees.
“It’s propaganda with no basis in fact,” he said. “I personally get turned off when I read over and over, when I read that in order to compete in the world economy that we have to produce a lot of students who are good at math. It’s just not true, and it’s a lousy reason to tell someone to study something.”
Hersh said he understands why people hate math, since it’s an everyday, school-mandated requirement.
“There’s lot of things that I mention in the book,” he said. “I can’t carry a tune. I have two left feet. I can’t climb a rope, and there were a lot of things I was lousy at, but I was OK because I didn’t have to do it.”
Accordingly, the two end the novel by calling for educational reform, specifically in the way math is taught. Whether it’ll be adopted is up in the air, but John-Steiner said this change would be for the better.
“What we do need is a deeper understanding of how humans reason and problem-solve and to provide various opportunities and various context areas for effective reasoning,” she said.
a talk with
Dr. Reuben Hersh &
Dr. Vera John-Steiner