Friday, January 13, 2012

Framing mathematics

No, not framing it for a crime. I just read the article A Revolution in Mathematics? What Really Happened a Century Ago and Why It Matters Today by Frank Quinn (math professor). It establishes a surrounding explanation for how modern mathematics came to be structured as it is. In the process, it contrasts two ways of thinking about mathematics: the "old" style, and mathematical sciences, wherein math relates to observable facts and is intuitive (but often yields incorrect results), and the "new" style, which he calls the "core" of mathematical research, wherein math is the study of abstract rules which do not relate to reality (but whose results are provably, rigorously correct).

It is fascinating.

I had never paused to consider the evolution of my discipline. Yet Prof. Quinn highlights and summarizes my experience of grade-school math education: everything seemed much clearer and more reasonable when -- finally! -- worked as abstract symbols according to rules. This is how I learned geometry (my first proofs!), trigonometry, and calculus. I cannot imagine attempting to learn calculus through intuition. What terror! (Does this infinite series feel like it converges? What's your hunch about the derivative of f(x)?) And of course now in retrospect I think of the math I learned earlier -- multiplication, fractions, arithmetic -- in the more advanced terms I learned later.

The article was summarized for me by this: "the old dysfunction was invisible, whereas the new opacity is obvious." Yes, math is opaque; I've studied for years and this is the first thing I'd admit. And my topics are squarely in the "new/core" section: I've done research in precise definitions, logical proofs, completeness. Carefully justifying each step is a technique that I use in my dreams. Math for me has always been its own arena of knowledge, one of three (the humanities, sciences, and math), each with its own methods. Even though we use the science word "discovery," a mathematical discovery is nothing of the sort. And as a grad student, I am amazed at what other grad students do as "research."

This post's theme word is anemometer, "an instrument for measuring the speed of wind." This magical anemometer predicts the trends in sociology research!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

"Sunrising jellyfish"

The 2011 National Geographic Photography Contest winners are posted. Although it only got honorable mention, Angel Fitor's "Sunrising Jellyfish" is my favorite.
It is very aesthetically pleasing, the colors and edge of the sun blending into the top of the jellyfish. Plus, for some reason, it makes me hungry.

This post's theme word is nankeen, "a yellow or buff color," or "a sturdy yellow or buff cotton fabric," or "(nankeens) Trousers made of this cloth," or "a Chinese porcelain having blue designs on a white background."

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The most sympathetic balloon

I got picked up from the airport, complete with roses and Eeyore, "the most sympathetic balloon." ("Princess Jasmine isn't sympathetic at all!") It was nice.

This post's theme word is crapehanger, "a gloomy person; a pessimist."

Friday, January 6, 2012

Concerning puppies and cruises

My plane this morning was full of people flying south to go on a cruise, possibly the same cruise (whose packages include round-trip airfare). The demi-bleached-blonde girl in yoga pants who sat next to me was going on a cruise.

How do I know? Well, during the flight, she took out her day planner (the only analog life process she had not yet ported to iPhone) and the entire upcoming week was marked "CRUISE!!!" For contrast, this week's calendar had only two items marked. Monday: pick up puppy! Tuesday: get nails done.
That is all she had to do this week. I would add the obvious: "Friday: abandon puppy in favor of tropical cruise."

This post's theme word is kine, "a plural of cow." The loudspeaker directed the kine to board the plane in order.

Thursday, January 5, 2012


The temperature this morning hovered at freezing as I walked to the office, and campus foot traffic was absent. I passed a hedge, defoliated for the winter, a collection of brown twigs protruding from the ground. It was making a strange noise; the plants sounded like a water fountain. No one else was walking by to corroborate my observation.

I stopped and listened for awhile. Light hailstones, or perhaps heavy snowflakes, were falling. As they hit the hedge, they ricocheted down the branches and made a soft pitter-patter rattling sound -- which I had mistaken for water drops falling into a pool.

The hail made no sound when it hit anything else: pavement, sidewalk, cars, me. I trudged off, across the salted ground and the lumpy frozen mud, denuded of grass. When I got to the office, it was empty of people, and light, and (mostly) heat.

This suits my mood.

This post's theme word is elacrymate, "to emit as tears." Elizabeth elacrymated her excessive emotions.