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Let’s Not Always See the Same Hands.

We saw A Disappearing Number yesterday, a play addressing, from a great distance, the life of mathematical genius Ramanujan. Despite a lack of formal mathematical training, he produced a staggering quantity of valuable work in number theory before dying young. His real achievements are often overshadowed by his gift for calculational parlor tricks, such as the anecdote in which he instantly recognizes 1729 as the smallest integer expressible in two distinct ways as the sum of two cubes, and a reputation for occasionally haphazard work, a product of his informal mathematical education and reliance on intuition.

So much I knew before arriving at the theater. I cannot comment much on the play because I feel I didn’t understand it. Or perhaps, as Eileene suggests, I did but simply feel I’m missing something because I expected more to be there to find. A tragic modern romance parallels to some degree Ramanujan’s own tragic death and friendship with G. H. Hardy. Both stories seem to be meant to reflect the mathematics as well, though I don’t see how, exactly. The mathematics is viewed from such a distance that making out any details is impossible. I cannot tell whether the playwright and performers thought the audience was unprepared for any mathematical content, or whether playwright and performers themselves understood nothing of the mathematics. Quite possibly both.

So it is that particular—the removal of the math from a discussion of math—and not the play as a whole that I want to address, and not the play as a whole. The play and its presentation fed directly into the pernicious notion that math is so far beyond the reach of ordinary humanity that nobody should even bother to try to understand it, a notion that I find both deeply offensive and dangerous to education.

To be sure, original research on the very frontiers of mathematical knowledge belongs almost exclusively to the professionals, with a little room left over for the literal one-in-billions genius from nowhere such as Ramanujan. By its very nature, the frontiers of knowledge are areas that are not understood very well even by experts. Much of the work done there is highly specialized, sometimes to the point that perhaps a half dozen people are qualified to judge whether a discovery is even valid, and many discoveries offer little promise of being applicable, even to other abstruse fields of mathematics. Producing an original and technically rigorous solution, however, is a very different thing from understanding in broad terms what the question is and, if we’re lucky, someone else’s completed solution. This is particularly true of the great discoveries, the ones worthy of plays and newspaper columns outside the professional journals, because by their nature great discoveries touch on many subjects, and solve a great many problems with surprisingly simple ideas. Power and simplicity together is termed “elegance,” and is the standard of mathematical beauty.

You have encountered mathematical elegance before. Newton’s laws are a widely known example. Objects maintain a constant velocity until acted upon by an outside force. An outside force changes an objects velocity proportionally to the size of the force, and an object resists the change proportionally to its mass. Total momentum in a closed system is constant. The music of the spheres in three simple, bite-sized statements. The variations on those principles defy count: the effects of rotation, the differences between elastic and inelastic collisions, the effects of friction…on and on. Sitting down to calculate and predict the behavior of a particular system of masses and forces can prove quite challenging, even physically impossible despite the best computers available. But anyone can grasp the basic principle of F=ma in an afternoon.

Mathematics—good mathematics, mathematics with real meaning and presented thoughtfully—is accessible, and treating it as something the man on the street can’t even begin to grasp is both deceitful and disempowering. It suggests we can’t understand, and therefore have no right to decide, problems intimately tied to our own lives, such as whether we want our voting districts gerrymandered, or whether we want to run a national deficit, or whether our drinking water is sufficiently safe.

So it offends me when A Disappearing Number reassures the audience in the program, before the play even begins, that they won’t be called upon to understand any math today. It offends me when the opening monologue of an egghead at a chalkboard is interrupted and made to seem ridiculous when the real opening monologue begins, relieving the tension with a wink and a chuckle, encouraging the audience to laugh at the absurdity of an egghead at a chalkboard trying to speak to real people, or of real people hoping to comprehend. It offends me when mathematical conversations portrayed in the play last perhaps a sentence or two, long enough to establish only who has an idea and how excited he is about it, before the words are replaced by a percussive chant of nonsense syllables, “takka ta takka takka ta ti takka…” suggesting that it’s all just gibberish, anyway. It offends me that the math-challenged husband, intelligent enough to run a successful market speculation business but unable to find the sum of 1+1/2+1/4+1/8… as we did in 7th grade is treated as the normal spouse, the everyman with whom the audience is to identify, while his mathematical wife is treated as as the incomprehensible oddity, worshipped from afar.

Reassuring the audience that innumeracy is normal and that numeracy is bizarre reinforces our society’s prejudices against math specifically and intellectual activity generally, in the same way that Teen Talk Barbie “math class is tough” validates a separation between girls and math. Ironically, it builds the very obstacle the play sets out to overcome: the gulf between mathematical thought and a general audience. Even more ironically, it betrays the fundamental subject of the play: hero worship of a lowly clerk able to shine among the loftiest towers of academia. By telling the audience that, not only are they unable to understand the material, but that it’s okay not to understand, and even that it’s okay not to bother trying, they validate future neglect of some child’s education in Harlem or Rwanda or Chengdu who might otherwise be the next Ramanujan. Perpetuating that neglect is a crime that runs directly contrary to the play’s intentions.

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