Mathochism: Real math
One woman’s attempt to revisit the math that plagued her in school. But can determination make up for 25 years of math neglect?
We’ve moved into antiderivatives, which remind me, perversely, of logarithms.
Before I get piled on by indignant mathematicians, let me explain. When we first learned about exponential equations and logarithms, there was a very specific relationship between the two. To put it crudely, you dismantle the exponential, then put it together sort of backwards, and get a logarithm. For someone used to doing things a certain way, it’s a bit mind-bending. I got it eventually, but it took a while.
With an antiderivative, you take a derivative and return it to the original function. Well, almost the original — in most cases, you also add a C, for constant.
I understand how it works, but it really is a lot like learning a dance routine, then having to learn it again with the steps reversed. Yes, there’s a formula, and that makes it better. But my brain is still addled from sinus and other issues from last week. Therefore, my coordination is off, and I found myself lurking at the back of the class, admiring the more adept hoofers as they twirled around the variables with ease.
When we started this week’s lectures, the professor wrapped up chapter 4, focusing on Newton’s Method. As she explained it, she also told us that we were finally getting into “real math.” I was curious about this statement, and thought about a link a kind reader left a few weeks ago that said much the same thing.
I was also a bit dismayed. Did she mean everything I have learned so far is not real? I went home and did some research, and realized she was talking about pure math (she is not a native English speaker, and this was one of those times when things got lost in translation). And apparently people have been discussing the difference between pure math and applied math for millennia. And some of the pure math fans have always been ever-so-slightly snooty about applied math. (Not that this sort of thing doesn’t happen in the humanities. Fiction versus literature, anyone?)
Wanting to be precise (precision has always been a big deal for me, even before I started math again), I asked her after our next class if by real math she meant pure math, as in the sort of math that reaches levels of abstraction that often place it in the same realm as philosophy.
It was like I gave her an early Christmas present. Her face lit up, and she said yes, that was it, and that, as a fan of pure math, she is also interested in philosophy, and enjoys reading philosophy books in her spare time, calling philosophy “very logical”.
Sadly, we couldn’t have a longer discussion on the topic. I would have loved to hear more. I would also have loved to hear her thoughts on the relationship between math and theology, since theology and philosophy so often go hand in hand.
History is full of mathematicians looking for deities in numbers, from Pythagoras, who turned math into a cult, to Blaise Pascal, who all but abandoned a promising math career for religion, to Newton himself, who held views many called heretical.
I can understand the allure of pure math. Whether I could truly understand pure math is another question. Maybe I could, with time, and plenty of practice and support. It’s definitely interesting.
All text copyrighted by A.K. Whitney, and cannot be used without permission.