When I was in graduate school I mostly worked really hard all the time. Like we all do, right? But occasionally, my officemates and I would get a bit punchy, and the need to blow off steam would momentarily supersede our desire to compute Dirichlet characters. At these moments, one of our favorite diversions was mathematical pictionary. Basically like regular pictionary, this game had us drawing the names of a famous theorems, concepts, or mathematicians. It provided hours of fun, and a gallery of incredibly bad math pictures. See example above. Happily, I was reminded of this recently when I was hanging out at one of my favorite blogs, Math with Bad Drawings.
The blog is written by Ben Orlin, a math teacher in Birmingham, England (so I suppose he’s actually a maths teacher). Orlin wields a dry-erase marker like a young Picasso, writes incredibly thoughtful posts about his observations in life as a teacher and learner of mathematics, and the product is something that is part narrative and part long-form comic. He says, “you could call this a “math blog,” or a “teaching blog,” but I would call it a blog about owning up to weakness and drawing strength from successes, however transient or trivial they may seem.”
In one recent post Orlin gives a thoughtful answer to the controversial question: Why do we pay pure mathematicians? Aside from the fact that pure mathematicians are really good at equations — even the really long ones — Orlin draws out some important ideas, namely, how essential the study of pure math is to the world we live in. Had those 19th century mathematicians not become obsessed with provability, we wouldn’t have iPhones today. Beyond the massive life-changing breakthroughts he points out that it’s also just really nice to look at, “come for the pretty patterns, stay for the cosmic insights.”
In an older, but equally thoughtful post, Orlin explains what it feels like to be bad at math. No surprise, it feels bad. But Orlin explores where the badness comes from and what people can do to cope with those hurt feelings.
Some posts are just a series of clever jokes (yes, math jokes exist) that seem to hit really close to home, like “Math Experts Split the Check,” or “A Math Professor Consults On A Hollywood Movie,” and my favorite, “The Student Every Teacher Dreams About.”
You can check out the archives on Math With Bad Drawings, and follow Orlin on Twitter @benorlin. And while you’re over on Twitter, let me know if you figured out the pictionary puzzles @extremefriday.