Sunday, September 09, 2012

Mathematics Colloquium: Also known as "How to Love the World"

"So a Writer walks into a Math Seminar..."

Sounds like the start of a joke, right? From a 3rd person perspective: what could be a more interesting and hilarious than sending an English Major into a room full of mathematicians for a presentation on math?

Dr. Roe has been the faculty advisor for Calvary Elements for a long while. He's spoken for our Monday night gathering a few times. He worked on the planning team for a one day conference called Faith for Thought. He makes a mean, improvised sea food and veggie stew and enjoys punning.

He's also very wise. And very British.

So when he invited me to attend his colloquium in which "no mathematics higher than algebra will be used," I decided to go. I wasn't sure what a colloquium but it didn't seem like it would hurt me at all.

114 Macalistair was very, very full. It is the beginning of the semester and the beginning of many graduate student's first years. Everyone was in attendance and all of the food was long gone by the time I arrived.

The presentation was titled "Sustaining Mathematics". It was, in a sense, an open letter to the new department head and to the community of mathematicians at Penn State. It addressed the value of sustaining math in four places:
  • Personally
  • Math Culture
  • Public Support
  • World
What I loved the most about this presentation was that the ideas in it could be applied to almost every area of study. It was about loving something well. Loving math well. And loving the world better by loving math. 

He talked about the necessity of "feeding joy" in one's work. To not stop loving math because it is beautiful to you. "This theorum gives me goosebumps every time because it is so beautiful," he said as he took the room through the second pythagoreum theorum. "What could it mean," he later asked, "if math was taught like a joyful intellectual adventure?"

"Sustaining Mathematics" made it feel possible that my learning experience with math could have been different--that I wouldn't have given up somewhere in fourth grade so that I was stubbornly, seriously behind in my understanding the whole way through college math. The lowest math I could take at PSU, get the credit I needed, and still get an A was Math 022. I took it (unhappily), passed, and never looked back. Not till Thursday afternoon.

Towards the end, it began raining quite hard outside and created quite a clatter on the roof. Then it began thundering and all attention was lost. Mercifully, Dr. Roe didn't seem too bothered by this and graciously permitted all the attention to rush to the window where it was hailing violently.

I am grateful I went. It was an hour shot through with ideas like redemption and restoration in the world, just by loving one's work and loving it well. But sustaining a way of thinking, a "playground" that the world needs.

Who knew math could be so inspiring?

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