How Mathematics Became Beautiful

This is a window to one year ago and beyond.

I was in a class, which I shall affectionately call “Algebra to Alcohol” because that spring coincided with my roommate and I stocking the fridge with 24 packs of beer.

There was a lot of cognitive science involved in this course. A lot of “Why is our culture math-phobic” being asked. Most students in the class were in the “Mathematics is amazing” camp and couldn’t see the other side of the fence. I was the lone student voicing a differentiated state of mind. I still remember the tears falling down my cheeks as the protist blob of a math teacher I had in 8th grade scolded me, branding me the laziest girl she knew. I probably took algebra 3 out of 4 years in high school each time being uniquely told that I was lazy and stupid for not catching on…and yes it was boring and repetitive. My first college adviser (who held all say in registration) one upped it all, and just plain didn’t allow me to sign up for any mathematics, because it would be “too difficult” for me. Besides, everyone I knew told me that I was damn good at writing, and that’s what I needed to be focusing on.

I was having issues with sleep, as well as issues caring about the work I did. I desperately wanted to understand what it meant when someone talked of the beauty in mathematics, but I could not. “Fake it ’till you make it,” my professor advised.

Due to seminar readings, I met a proof that changed my mind about math: Euclid’s proof of infinite prime numbers. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. Three people in seminar patiently spent 20 minutes explaining it to me, we played with it. Things started clicking. As the class regrouped my mind assumed a low hum. Ideas from readings about linguistics collided with the primes. Patterns snapped and popped, and I started scribbling furiously into my notebook, ignoring everything else around me. The class ended. I made it home that night, but I could not say how.

The next day, I asked my professor, “If they believe prime numbers occur randomly, how do they have prime number generators?” “Look it up,” he said. “Start with the sieve of Eratosthenes.” The next week he threw the sieve into a programming workshop with a mischievous grin. Over the next few days I witnessed myself buying color coded pens, writing every prime number down well past 1,987 and calculating the difference between them along with a few other variables. It was suddenly no longer foreign to get out of a bath, pen down some calculations and then wake up a few hours later slightly confused, my face in a puddle of numbers. I did a decent amount of research on primes and started building a rudimentary program to aid me in calculating my thoughts, but all too quickly, the quarter ended.

My first ever (organic) chemistry course kicked in. The ball was rolling, and I was going to fall off if I didn’t drop everything else.

I haven’t forgotten how that project made me feel, and I would still love to throw hours at it, but I have a lot of excuses and obstacles. I’ve begun learning statistics, which are important to number theory, scientific experimentation, & informed decisions.

Statistics is a small step to understanding infinity.

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3 responses to “How Mathematics Became Beautiful

  1. 🙂

  2. …One day I was walking through the engineering quad after a Fall hard rain. It was cool, quiet, and smelled like the epitome of awesome. I saw a drop of water fall from an eastern hemlock directly into a small puddle, and thought “Whoa…. Take a sinc(x) function, plot in cylindrical coordinates and rotate/integrate the surface from phi = 0 thru phi = 180 degrees”. Proof of nerddom, convergence of nature, engineering, music, and math, evidence of mathematical beauty. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinc_function. It’ll make sense when you see the graph, promise 🙂

    Incidentally I apparently think too much of myself and doubt that I discouraged you from choosing a math-path, but setting ego aside I sincerely apologize if I intimated or encouraged any avoidance of that sort.

    • If the graph alone is what I’m to take from this, and I translated your idea into concept appropriately, that is poetic. The integration of this into a fluent language, however, is confounding.

      I don’t think it would be possible for you to discourage me from a math path; my own stubbornness is more likely a culprit in that game. Moments we have clear realizations of what we’ve been working towards are particularly sacred.

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