The anti-intellectual culture of the day must be quite a treat for the subomegaloids who watch Fox News and frequent Tea Party gatherings. One of the country's major political powers is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of the know-nothing right wing, indicating a kind of high-water mark for bumptious ignorance and anti-science. Still, it remains something of a disappointment when the waves slop over onto New York magazine. You'd think that a publication naming itself after the cosmopolitan Big Apple would keep a stiff upper lip and refuse to frolic among the scum-sucking bottom-dwellers.
Well, you'd be wrong.
This past week New York magazine decided to go for some easy yuks by mocking some math classes. It was a piece of cake. A group of five people—yes, it took five people to do this—pored over the course offerings at several American liberal arts colleges, found some math courses they didn't understand, and merrily made fun of them.
What a treat for New York's readers. (The ignorant ones, at least.)
Let's join the fun, shall we?
Topology is not a trivial topic. By what metric do the writers gauge this to be a “ridiculous-sounding” course? They're off to an embarrassing start (assuming they're capable of embarrassment).
October 19, 2010
Every year, liberal-arts majors anxiously scour their college's course listings looking for classes that will fulfill their math requirement but aren't so, you know, math-y. Here's what they're signed up for this year.
10. Topology: The Nature of Shape and Space: “In geometry we ask: How big is it? How long is it? But in topology we ask: Is it connected? Is it compact? Does it have holes?” [Sarah Lawrence]
9. The Mathematics of Chance: “Most topics are introduced in a case-study fashion, usually by reading an article in a current periodical such as the New York Times.” [Bard]And already it gets worse. Probability and statistics pervade our technological culture but are often misunderstood. If people had better number sense, they would be fooled less often by nostrum-peddlers and dishonest politicians. Scanning a periodical is an excellent way to find numerical arguments (e.g., polling data, unemployment figures, medical claims) that should be subjected to some critical thinking.
8. Mathematics in Many Cultures: “Mathematical ideas are found in many cultures, among both literate and non-literate peoples. This course examines both mathematics and the role it plays in the cultures. Examples chosen from the mathematical ideas of present-day peoples of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas, as well as historic Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Islam and China.” [Pomona]Mathematics is a human endeavor that spans cultures and exhibits the variety of our thinking. The course title is straightforward and the description apt, yet the New York contributors deemed this another “ridiculous-sounding” math class.
7. The Magic of Numbers: “This course will explore the beauty and mystery of mathematics through a study of the patterns and properties of the natural numbers 1, 2, [and] 3." [Harvard]I clicked through to the course link on this one. Sure enough, the writers had “improved” the course description by omitting the ellipsis after the numerals. (The natural numbers go on forever. And what does Harvard say about this “ridiculous” course? Here's the rest of the description: “We discuss various special classes of numbers, such as prime numbers, factorials, and binomial coefficients, and the many ways they arise in mathematics. We will discuss questions in probability (such as: the likelihood that two people in a class of 25 have the same birthday). We also study modular arithmetic and secret codes based on it.”
Yeah. Sounds stupid, doesn't it?
This terse description is sufficient to identify exponential growth as one of the topics (for population, naturally) and Fibonacci sequences for sunflower growth (and other cases, too), and probably the over-hyped but still nontrivial golden ratio.
So inane. The New York contributors must have dislocated their jaws from yawning (when they weren't sniggering, of course).
5. Mathematical Origamist’s Toolkit: “Topics include modular origami and how this models the creation of polyhedra and coloring of graphs, comparison of origami-axiomatic constructions to straight-edge and compass constructions, the combinatorics of possible crease patterns, the mathematics of origami design (circle packing, optimization), matrix models for paperfolding, spherical geometry, Descartes’ Theorem, and Gaussian curvature.” [Hampshire]I can think of only one possible reason for the inclusion of this course: The writers (and I use the term loosely) thought that “origamist” was just too funny for words. This course is full of clever and subtle stuff that a good instructor could have a lot of fun with—and I don't mean the kind of mocking fun that New York magazine is trying to have at its expense.
4. Mathematics and Narrative: “Many literary works (Arcadia, Proof, and Uncle Petros and the Goldbach Conjecture) use mathematics as an integral part of their narrative. Movie and television narratives such as Good Will Hunting and Numb3rs are also mathematically based. Nonfiction works about mathematics and mathematical biographies like Chaos, Fermat's Enigma, and A Beautiful Mind provide further examples of the connection between mathematics and narrative.” [Vassar]Sir Tom Stoppard? David Auburn? Apostolos Doxiadis? Heck, no one has ever heard of these writers. Right? At least, the New York writers appear to have failed to see the value of exploring the mathematical underpinnings of major recent literary works. Why, they didn't even appreciate Good Will Hunting, which was a movie they could watch in slack-jawed amusement while munching popcorn (while ogling Matt Damon). I doubt, however, that they would appreciate the accuracy of the mathematical boardwork that appeared in the movie. (I did!)
The inclusion of this course is beyond outrageous. The New York magazine ni kulturni don't recognize the significance of mathematics in the work of Borges, who famously imagined “The Library of Babel” and thereby created a fascinating combinatorial icon that has persisted in literature and mathematics.
2. Mathematics and Science as Art in Contemporary Theatre: “Playwrights such as Tom Stoppard, Rinne Groff, Michael Frayn, and others have effectively explored mathematical and scientific themes for artistic purposes. Through readings and exercises, and by conducting labs and staging scenes, this class will gain some first-hand insight into the complementary ways in which science and art aim to seek out their respective truths.” [Middlebury]Aha! A theme! (And three in a row.) These people don't like any explorations of the connections between lit and math. And they were also getting desperate to pad their list out to ten.
1. Meaning, Math, And Motion: “Quoting a charming articulation by Kinsman (a mathematician-turned-oceanographer, in the preface to Wind Waves): 'To the beginner, science is a conversation that has been in progress for a very long time.' Our collective work is to catch up on the conversation.” [Evergreen]At this point, my patience is exhausted and I'm unwilling to give the benefit of any doubt to the writers. This one might be just a little light-weight and silly, but I've come to regard their disdain as a mark of distinction. Go ahead and take the class, students of Evergreen College. It's probably better than its rather vapid description.
The list of “ridiculous-sounding” courses ends with a bit of snark:
This is why Asia is winning, by the way.I have a better suggestion, but the New York contributors won't like it (even though they consider mockery an art form).