Friday, August 28, 2009

The beauty of mathematics

For many of us, “mathematics” and “beauty” sit oddly together. We may remember math as boring or even frightening, but hardly beautiful. Yet math is the key to science, and science dominates our age. And there is another way to look at it.
The single most compelling reason to explore the world of mathematics is that it is beautiful, and pondering its intriguing ideas is great fun…. To study the deep truth of number relationships feeds the spirit as surely as any of the other great human activities of art, music, or literature. -- Calvin Clawson
This quotation is taken from p. 239 of a wonderful book called A Passion for Mathematics: Numbers, Puzzles, Madness, Religion, and the Quest for Reality, by Clifford A. Pickover. It is full of games and quotes and ideas that parents and teachers will find useful to get kids of all ages and all backgrounds interested and involved with maths and geometry. Pickover himself believes that “mathematics is the loom upon which God weaves the fabric of the universe” (p. 53).

Looking back on the maths classes I sat through as a kid, I can't help wishing I had been taught the subject not as a collection of seemingly arbitrary rules and procedures but (1) historically (starting with Pythagoras), (2) aesthetically (in relation to music, painting, architecture), and (3) symbolically (with a view to qualities, meanings, analogies inherent in numbers and shapes) - not to mention (4) playfully.

The religious and secular use of numbers are related, as I tried to show in The Seven Sacraments (Crossroad) as well as in Beauty for Truth’s Sake. The numbers particularly prominent in Christian tradition are 1, 2, 3, 4, 7 10 and 12. One is the source of all other numbers, 2 is the beginning of multiplicity, there are three divine Persons and three theological virtues, four cardinal virtues and four Gospels, seven sacraments as well as seven days of creation, ten commandments, twelve apostles and twelve tribes. And all these numbers are interrelated: 7 is 3 plus 4, 10 is 3 plus 7, 12 is 3 times 4. So in a way the fundamental structural numbers only go as high as 4, and all the others are made up from these. That takes us back to the sacred Tetraktys of the Pythagoreans, whose influence on the Christian tradition has been underestimated.

There is a fascinating article by Karen Kilby called MATHEMATICS, BEAUTY AND THEOLOGY that I recommend to your attention if the subject interests you. (Just follow the link.) And I also want to mention "The Curriculum of Beauty" by David H. Albert and Joyce Reed in Life Learning magazine. Albert writes:

Our children have within themselves, or so I am led to believe by my experience of them, an inner yearning for the beautiful, a potential wonderment and a delicious longing and love and trembling waiting to be empowered on its quest. This yearning is not likely to be fulfilled in a high school hallway or on the shopping mall checkout line. So what if we were to set as our task – as parents and as educators – acquainting our children with the beautiful without and the cultivation of the beautiful – the yearning – within? How might we go about our homeschooling lives differently if we were to conceive of what we are doing as primarily an aesthetic task?

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