Blogging Challenge 2010: My Mathematical Self

Thanks to Dangerously Irrelevant, I found out about this blogging challenge. I don’t know that I’ll do all the questions, because I find that my blogging experience has changed as a result of changing schools.  However, this week’s question about mathematics and being a mathematician away from school has got me fired up, so I’m going to try to answer it. The question is:

When you’re not at school are you still a mathematician? How do you use math to solve problems in your daily life? How did you use it today?

And the answer is, all the time.  I’m a mathematician all the time.  I have a gradebook at school, of course, and a set of digital tools that I use to manage student papers.  But the truth is, that I’m always fussing with sources of information that are mathematical in nature.  They’re relevant to my work as a citizen, in trying to understand the news. Mathematics helps me interpret graphs about poverty in Africa, global patterns of imports and exports, and how Congress may be affected by the upcoming elections.  Everything is Number, wrote Pythagoras the Samnian (or someone of the same name) in the 6th century BC, and he may have been right.

And at home, I’m a mathematician.  I’m always measuring stuff — food portions for recipes, fabric for curtains for my new apartment, bookshelf space (can I really afford to get the complete Penguin Books?), and how much money is in my bank account (no, I really can’t buy the Penguin Books).

I’m even a mathematician in my spiritual life.  Recently, I joined the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA).  It is possible to think of Druidry as a religion, but I’m using it as a program of personal spiritual growth. I think of myself as an Episcopalian still, despite tremendous frustrations with the positions of certain conservative bishops, I find a certain resonance in nature.  One of the projects you can do as a candidate in AODA is play with geometrical forms on a regular basis, learning how to create squares, triangles, dodecahedrons and other shapes with only a compass and straight edge.  It’s tremendously satisfying, almost giddying, to discover the relationship between a triangle and a dodecahedron, or between a circle and a square.  I recommend it to anyone, particularly using these books. Of course, the process of using a straight edge and compass on a regular basis turns out to be enormously calming and enriching, even more so than playing other sorts of number games.

And, of course, I like playing with Celtic design, and number underlies this work too.  Not as clearly, perhaps, as with pure geometry, but it’s here too.  And number and geometry even turn up in my paintings.  One could even argue (as many have) that number and geometry and mathematics even underly my physical yoga practice.  When I was still writing poetry on a regular basis, number even underlay my work with iambic pentameter.

I find that increasingly, I think we have to give kids a sense of the range of our outside interests, when we’re away from the classroom.  I’m a painter, an artist, a spiritual being, a humanist, a scientist, a poet, a social scientist, and a citizen.  History is only a narrow subset of what I do, and amazingly enough, mathematics underlies a great deal of my life.

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