Mathematical Animals


Dammit, I skipped Applied Vis 2006. And I am skipping today’s math class, laying out out for the first time all semester. It occurs to me that, like a wounded animal, the introvert seeks solitude and silence to recover. Today I’m listening to Afro Celt Sound System, making chicken soup, lying in bed, and having ice cream for breakfast. Today I shy even from the mail carrier.

I am an introvert, but believe me, many people who know me might find that hard to believe. I am mighty gregarious for an introvert, and tend to like extremes — heavy interaction, heavy solitude. I am also stable and cheerful, so antisocial days like this are hard on me. But I think this downtime is helping.

Today I was thinking about two things that really helped me to feel like math is a friendlier thing. Because to paraphrase Albert Einstein, the real question is, Is the math friendly or not? So this is for Pyracantha and anyone else who’s ever struggled with my old friend Math.

One thing that helped me was something math prof said. He was pep-talking us in the days before a test, advising us on how to approach the evaluation of an integral we weren’t sure how to solve. He said not to fear the integral, and to play with it — rewrite it, take it apart, mess with it in any legal way we liked. He said that it had existed since the beginning of time, and we couldn’t harm it with our manipulations. It was eternal and indestructible.

Math prof’s latter idea is what spoke to me, made me see math more clearly as a natural thing. It made me think of the expressions that I deal with in class as artifacts of sorts, as expressions of the laws of the universe. Any true mathematical statement you can come up with obeys certain fundamental laws of the universe, is a “mathematical animal” that’s part of the mathematical jungle. Which is a world without substance, but as natural as an acorn, a rock, a rainbow. Math is a realm of nature. Integrals are the creatures that live in that realm. Eternal, unchanging and completely natural.

The other thing that made me feel better was an evening of studying with a friend. We went to Port City Java with her laptop, and she read a psych book by the fireside as I studied calculus (how collegiate!). Our server was a young man I’d tutored at my former college’s math lab. And all around me were ordinary people who, if they’d known what I was doing, would in all likelihood have thought of me as a math genius. They don’t know that calculus really isn’t even that hard. They don’t know that to do it all you do is do it. Learn it. Study it. Just like anything else. I mean, knitting is hard, until you rappel over the learning curve. Calculus is no different.

But still, I had cachet! I was the math genius! Whenever you wander around in calculus, however stumblingly (try not to let on), you really are doing something undeniably powerful, interesting, rare, and really cool. Behold, I take the derivative! I declare that this series converges! No matter how badly you do it, to do it at all is, to the world at large, quite remarkable.

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