Loving Mathematically

March 28, 2017
Last week on iAt, we featured articles focused on Mathematics and Human Flourishing with themes on play, beauty, and truth. Return to iAt tomorrow for the final article of the series which will focus on mathematics and justice.

For a subject so closely associated with pure, objective reason, mathematics inspires a surprising amount of emotion. For those who have experienced math as an inscrutable collection of symbols and rules, the most common emotions may be fear, loathing, or anxiety. For others, however, math inspires passion, even love. Berkeley professor Edward Frenkel writes in Love & Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality that a mathematical formula “can carry the same passion and emotional charge as a poem.”1

The discovery of new mathematics in particular can be a captivating, ecstatic sort of experience. Andrew Wiles, who famously proved Fermat’s Last Theorem over 350 years after it was first stated, speaks of stumbling around in the dark in a beautiful mansion until you finally find and turn on the light switch and see how everything around you fits together.2 For David Mumford, “ has always seemed like secret gardens, special places where I could try to grow exotic and beautiful theories.”3 Marcus du Sautoy writes that “Doing mathematics is like taking a drug. Once you have experienced the buzz of cracking an unsolved problem…you spend your life trying to repeat that feeling.”4 Personally, I will never forget my exhilaration when, after months of what felt like spinning my wheels, a single idea unexpectedly pulled together disparate results into a fragile but coherent whole which would go on to form the core of my doctoral thesis.

From a Christian perspective, it is not surprising that a discipline which unveils hidden dimensions of God’s glorious creativity would be capable of inspiring love and devotion. Nevertheless, we would do well to examine the nature of our love of mathematics. Do we glory in being the first to discover new “secret gardens” and thereby receiving the recognition that that entails? Or do we take delight in being able to share our new secrets with others, inviting and enabling them to discover for themselves?

To use an architectural metaphor, are we intent on building a mathematical Tower of Babel, to make a name for ourselves? Or will we aim to construct a mathematical Basilica de la Sagrada Familia, a labor of love which opens up space for all to encounter the wonders of mathematics (much as Gaudi’s actual Sagrada Familia does, with its hyperboloids, Platonic solids, and magic squares)? Does our eros “love of” mathematics aim to elevate us at others’ expense? Or is it balanced by an agape “love through” mathematics which both welcomes and serves others?

Opportunities abound to serve others with math. Mathematical models underlie many of our attempts to understand and steward both society and the natural world. Moreover, mathematical techniques play a crucial role in the development of virtually all modern-day technologies, from credit cards to solar panels to cancer drugs. Each such attempt to apply math to serve the needs of those around us is an act of love.

Ironically, though, even as math-saturated technologies surround us, they tend to hide their mathematical secrets from view. For this reason, the users of these technologies typically remain blissfully unaware of math’s ubiquitous presence, able to delight in its benefits, but not in its nature. If it is fairly straightforward to find ways to serve others with mathematics, it is more challenging to welcome others into the enjoyment of the mathematics itself.

Practicing mathematical hospitality is not as simple as leading someone by the hand into the secret garden you have discovered and then inviting them to open their eyes. As Mumford himself writes about his “gardens,” each person needs his or her own “key to get in, a key that you earn by letting mathematical structures turn in your head until they are as real as the room you are sitting in.”5 These mathematical structures, built out of layer upon layer of abstract thought, can take years of careful study to fully grasp.

Welcoming others into our mathematical world, then, whether through long and patient apprenticeship in abstraction, or through embodying mathematical theory in the design of something as concrete and accessible as an actual cathedral, requires that we heed the words of Philippians 2:5-7 (NRSV):

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.

As mathematicians, we can regard our fluency in the exclusive language of mathematics as something not to be exploited for our sole benefit or glory. We can be willing to empty ourselves, to “lay aside our privileges” and higher-level mathematical understanding, freeing ourselves to contextualize and embody mathematical truths in ways that are meaningful to as wide of an audience as possible. In this way, we can treat mathematics not just as an object of our love, but as a vehicle for its expression, in hope that the math-inspired worship that we offer to our Creator will spring up in new hearts.

About the Author
  • Bryant Mathews is Chair and Associate Professor in the Department of Mathematics and Physics at Azusa Pacific University.

  1. Frenkel, Edward (2013).  Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality.  Basic Books-Perseus.  

  2. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/physics/andrew-wiles-fermat.html  

  3. Cook, Mariana (2009). Mathematicians: An Outer View of the Inner World. Princeton University Press.  

  4. Ibid  

  5. Ibid 

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