The Social Side of Mathematics

Samantha Oestreicher is a recent Ph.D. in applied mathematics. She’s been blogging about social mathematics since 2007, but I only discovered her blog in December when she started a series of posts about math and tap dancing. She describes a rhythm game she used to play in tap class in terms of modular arithmetic, and in a later post, she connects tap to her climate science research.

A tap dancing class, perhaps about to embark on a lesson about modular arithmetic.

A tap dancing class, perhaps about to embark on a lesson about modular arithmetic or climate cycles.

Oestreicher says she hated math in high school but eventually decided that she was just going along with the crowd. Her undergraduate degree was in theater, and she spent some time in grad school working as the coordinating director of Math Thespian Presentations at the University of Minnesota. I think the combination of a math-averse past and her experience in the arts give her a perspective not seen on many math blogs.

Oestreicher recommends the Elegance Series to new blog readers. Unsurprisingly, it’s about elegance in mathematical proofs. What is it? Why do we like it? Where does it come from? Many other mathematicians have written about this topic, of course, but I thought she had some interesting things to add. In one post, she compares mathematical elegance to elegance in fashion. “Elegance is a social construct, an adjective to describe a simple, well designed, full-package beauty.” She asks, “Is social elegance reserved for the rich? Is mathematical elegance reserved for the mathematically advanced?” As my answer to the question of whether math is only for “math people” (of course not!) has been one of my hobby horses lately, I was interested in the connection she made between that idea and the idea of elegance.

Browsing through the archives, I also came across some posts about proofs, belief, and communicating mathematics. One post in the proof series offered an unusual perspective about the opaque proofs we read in journal articles.

I used to think bitter thoughts about some author’s proofs. Then my real analysis professor said something fascinating.  I think he may have been quoting someone else (any one out there know who he was quoting?).  A masterpiece of architecture would never be opened to the public with it’s scaffolding still up.  You are to see the final product and wonder at it’s beauty as apposed to analyzing how it was built.  For the same reason mathematicians remove the scaffolding from their proofs once they are complete.  They do the final finish work and publish incomprehensible and beautiful proofs.

Because mathematical proof is about communication and context (the proof may change drastically based on the audience), I don’t think I agree fully. I think authors should leave more of the scaffolding up for readers. But sometimes it’s not clear what is scaffolding and what is the building. A related issue, the right way to talk about math with non-mathematicians, appears in a post about “Speaking Math.”

With over 7 years of archives, there are quite a few other series and freestanding posts about mathematicians (both social and antisocial) and the mathematics hidden in everyday life, including Sudoku, video games, and art. As Oestereich’s research is related to climate science, there is also an EcoMathematics category. I’m looking forward to reading more.

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1 Response to The Social Side of Mathematics

  1. Avatar Amanda Mlangeni says:

    In primary school i was never interested much in mathematics but as i grew older my affinity for mathematics grew each and everyday. One of my favorite novel that is mathematics related is Zombies and Calculus that consists of 150 pages. There is quite a bit of very real calculus both embedded in the novel itself and in some rather more detailed appendices. It is intriguing for me to see how Calculus managed to be of help in the zombie situation. Science books are the best because they have the ability to give u more interest in knowing more about science and learning how other people use their math and science skills to resolve the problem faced. Calculus is one of my favorite modules and though it’s challenging I still love to challenge myself.


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