Why Beauty is Truth by Ian Stewart

butterfly in blueWhy Beauty is Truth: A History of Symmetry (2007 )

This is a pretty readable book on mathematics because it takes a creative nonfiction point of view to illustrate some of the points. He approaches the development of mathematical equations and discoveries by telling the stories of the people who developed or discovered them. As an artist who once took advanced placement math, and really liked algebra, but was doomed by geometry to end that pursuit, I still appreciate the mathematics of beauty and how beautiful mathematics, or elegant equations would stir the sample visual pleasure and the belief that if something is awkward and tough to fit into an equation, it must not be the right equation.

The Golden Ratio, the rule of thirds in photography, even the symmetry in asymmetry works; it is fascinating to identify the math underlying images perceived as beautiful.

Since I have not done algebra for decades and have only read about physics, some of my understanding of both is very amateur, but this book helped me understand why various things mattered and how they interconnect, and how mathematics is a crucial tool for the world.

When I saw an article recently on some school board trying to decide whether or not to keep on teaching algebra in school, I nearly wept. Clearly these people had (a) failed math, (b) failed to grasp the beauty of math, and (c) failed to grasp why it would be better to teach it constantly, in depth, from k-12. Right now they are doing such a weak job of it by not demanding more of their students (or students refusing and being spawn of the Me Generation, don’t give a damn if they learn it or not) so that when they grow up they will have an essential tool in their capacity to function in almost any career.

It is commonly known that many college students have to take remedial math because of the inadequate emphasis and comprehensive coverage as a requirement in school. Man, when I think of my father’s one room school education and the poetry he could quote from memory decades later, and the capacity he had to become a WWII bomber pilot because of his education, it makes me really see the dumbing of American relatively speaking. And not just Math, or STEM fields as they say, or some go so far as to and an A for the Arts, but literature as well. Generations of great writers get barely a glimmer of recognition by PhD adults.

Corporations have co-opted college to make them business schools, not liberal arts and bastions of intellectual freedom and critical analysis. It’s all about the money, both to keep raking in the tuition, via privatization of student loan practices (that are not allowed to be dismissed by bankruptcy any more, thanks Hillary, or to have the interest rate renegotiated), and people who get the degrees are offered the promise of being educated to be able to get better jobs, but those jobs aren’t there so much anymore. So they are left with a useless degree, crushing debt, and limited job prospects.

Except for the privileged few that really know their math well enough to go into the financial sector and plunder and pillage the stock market. But maybe algebra doesn’t help them, per se, but statistics might. Lies, damn lies, and statistics being reliably useful.

It would be so lovely to have taxpayer funded public education from k-20 as some are calling it JUST BECAUSE IT IS THE SMART AND RIGHT THING TO DO. Artists and musicians and other “non-essentials” are not truly thus. The propaganda machine needs these for their advertisements!

Technology is developed by creative thinkers. All education is an end in and of itself. It is not wage labor training so that people are taught just enough to be a cog in the machine but are capable of designing a better machine.

Theoretical physics might not seem useful to people who want to eliminate “hard” subjects like algebra from schools, but we can never be sure that someone with a clue about math could discover something crucial to life on earth. How to clean polluted water for example. How to stop climate change. How to build a skyscraper that is energy efficient and self-sustaining.

So many of the stories of these mathematicians and others are fascinating precisely because they were not necessarily looking for a particular answer to figure out how to cut a workforce to a minimal level while still being able to make billions in profits. So much depended on the right minds meeting like-minded people who knew parts of a particular puzzle, and publishing papers to share that knowledge. School is where you learn and meet such people, and discover other people’s discoveries.

Maybe if math were taught like this book was organized, it would be more engaging to people and they could experience the thrill of the beauty of math.




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