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Date: 01/22/2002
Writer:
Jack King
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"Believe me. It happens all the time," said David Finston, head of New Mexico State University's department of mathematical sciences. "You'll be on a plane and the person beside you asks what you do. You tell them and they'll reply, 'Wow, I can't even balance my checkbook.'"

of the movie "A Beautiful Mind," a biopic of Princeton mathematician John Nash, has given mathematicians nationwide a chance to bemoan the stereotypes that label them as number crunchers and reinforce a widespread math phobia.

In a nationally distributed column last week, Howard University computer science professor Wayne Patterson praised "A Beautiful Mind," but noted that other Hollywood depictions of mathematicians have been caricatures. "Mathematics is an extremely important part of culture, but a part that has been largely abandoned by society," he wrote.

Finston said this lack of appreciation in popular culture is especially galling in light of the fact that the world around us is virtually awash in mathematics.

"The scanner at the supermarket needs a bar code, but that bar code isn't random," he said. "The bar code is actually a 12-digit number. The first 11 digits identify the product and the twelfth is chosen so that a certain computation comes out correctly. It's elementary algebra."

John Harding, an associate professor of logic in the department, noted that one branch of logic, the theory of order, is used to design computer algorithms and another branch, "fuzzy logic," is used to design the computer chips in automatic cameras and toasters, machines required to perform functions -- such as providing perfectly browned toast -- while processing imprecise information. Yet, in both cases, the logical studies from which the applications derive really involve complex series of abstract equations.

"Sometimes the most applicable things have been created by a mathematician just playing around," Harding said.

David Pengelley is a professor whose research specialty is algebraic topology, a discipline that uses modern algebraic methods to examine the features of geometric objects. To understand what he does, he said, try thinking of an inner tube as a structure composed of two intersecting holes, one in the middle and one inside the tube. Then, think of describing that structure mathematically.

Perhaps one reason so many of us are math phobic is that we think of math as something rigid and fixed in stone, instead of as the creative process it is, Pengelley said.

"One thing that mathematicians are good at is making connections between things," he explained. "Often, when I'm studying an object it will be a morass of algebraic equations, so much detail that I can't see the forest for the trees. Then, all of a sudden I'll see a pattern, and that pattern rings a bell. If I'm lucky I'll find the same pattern in another object that has been well understood and be able to apply what's known to what I'm studying."

"There's a tremendous amount of intuition in mathematics. It's what helps you find the right way of doing things and avoid the dead ends," he added.

Josefina Alvarez, a professor of analysis who also teaches a class in mathematics for non-science majors, said that if the majority of people aren't fascinated by math, mathematicians are at least partly to blame.

"If someone is only shown one aspect of a thing, we can't blame her or him for thinking that is the way it is," she said.

"I was very impressed by a recent article by Keith Devlin, dean of science at Saint Mary's College of California. He proposes that we should spend more time teaching what math is really about and its role in society," she said.

When students enter her math appreciation class, Alvarez said, she asks them to answer three questions: "What subjects do you enjoy?" "What does mathematics appreciation mean to you?" and "What do you wish to get out of this class?"

She said she is convinced she can show every one of her students that mathematics is present in the subjects that interest them. It's important to respect students' points of view, rather than to try to pound predigested information into their heads, she said.

Jack King

Jan. 22, 2002

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