The Intrepid Mathematician

%22A classroom of kids cheer with joy. Later that day a boy runs in the front door of his house and says_ 'Mom, teacher said we didn’t have to do math today!'%22

And that’s how The Intrepid Mathematician got me hooked. Anthony Bonato, a math professor at Ryerson University in Toronto who specializes in network theory, writes this blog dedicated to the teaching, learning, living and loving of math, as well as his recent foray into science fiction writing.

But it’s his take on the learning and living math part that really got me. Which brings me back to the quote about the kid who got a day off from math. In the post “Let’s not do math today,” Bonato writes about this fabled kid who is treated to a math-free day — which of course, is insane, because who wants a day without math!? He uses this as a launching pad to discus how deeply our cultural attitudes around math affect the way our children acquire numeracy, citing relatively recent research from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment.

Anthony Bonato, a math professor at Ryerson University, is The Intrepid Mathematician.

Anthony Bonato, a math professor at Ryerson University, is The Intrepid Mathematician.

Bonato has a good insight into some of the stumbling blocks of early mathematicianhood. He goes on to tackle math anxiety (in particular, some of the gendered aspects of it) in “Math Anxiety and Gender.” In the piece he points out that the content of mathematics is unique in that it is totally free of gender, race, country, or class and it should in some respects be the most accessible of all subjects. But of course we know that for a variety of reasons, this is not the case. Bonito goes on to point out, “Like any other subject, however, mathematics is taught and studied by people.” His post is a great primer on the idea of how the human hand seeps into the mathematics, one which should be followed up by a mega binge-read of mathbabe’s commentary on algorithms and accountability.

Bonato also delves into some of the really tricky parts of understanding and appreciating math. In “Is mathematics an art or a science” he considers the evolution of concepts in art and science, and whether or not they seem particularly mathy.

A challenge with thinking of mathematics as an art is that it hard to appreciate it unless you have the proper training. Most people enjoy music, a good novel, or a well-crafted painting. It is more challenging to convince a friend to read a brilliant paper or sit through a lecture by a leading mathematician.

This is so true. But what is it about math that makes the paywall so high? Is it just a matter of jargon? Or is it that the concepts themselves are actually so difficult? This is something I love to think about, and Bonato covers it in “This is your brain on mathematics” citing some current research that observed brain activity while thinking about math and problem solving, versus linguistic concepts.

As students of mathematics know, a great deal of linguistic recognition is needed to learn the subject. If I state Tutte’s conjecture as “Every bridgeless graph has a nowhere-zero 5-flow,” then the sentence is meaningless unless you understand the context of the phrases “bridgeless graph” and “nowhere-zero 5-flow.” However, understanding the real meaning behind Tutte’s conjecture requires mathematical, not just linguistic knowledge. In fact, no one really understands it, as it is an open problem!

And that is really the fun part of math, when you say “I don’t understand,” that can mean any number of things! Ah, the joy of confusion. For more from The Intrepid Mathematician, check the blog for updates every Wednesday or follow Bonato on Twitter @Anthony_Bonato.

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