The Skeptical Methodologist

Software, Rants and Management

Pecking at Prometheus’ Abdomen

I was recently intrigued by the this video. It walks you through some hand wavy steps on how we can actually assign a number, in this case, -1/12th, to the series 1 + 2 + 3 + 4…. It makes a few appeals to intuition on why this may be correct. It got me really interested in how it worked, sending me off to Wikipedia to learn about the Riemann Zeta function, extensions to calculus, and so on. I think it is a great example of making mathematics fascinating to larger numbers of people, a great thing in our world where so many mathematics educators seem to think it is their duty to pass as few kids as possible.

Little did I know about the shit storm of engineering undergrads who apparently knew more than Euler when it came to this form of analysis. With fingers waving wildly, they tore the video apart, explaining just how wrong it was, some going so far as to talk about the damage it could do to we mere unwashed masses.

The lesson they’d rather teach? Math is boring, hard to understand, and we like it that way. STAY OUT.

I could go into a deconstruction of these types of personalities – how they identify with their ability to excel at increasingly difficult arithmatic with genuine mathematical ability throughout high school. How they most likely chose to pursue an engineering degree (no small feat, mind you) rather than a pure mathematical degree plan because of the unease they met finding out that math is actually quite different than mindlessly following rules. This video is just a reminder that they didn’t really ‘get’ how math could be equally invention, art and science.

When geniuses like Euler invent new rules and terminology to solve the problems that vex them, that shows just how freeing mathematics can be. But its precisely that freedom that scares a lot of arithmaticians shitless because it violates their precious black and white rules.

Truly, these folks are little more than crows pecking at Prometheus’ abdomen – the punishment any good educator receives when they have sufficiently ‘dumbed things down’ enough to convert the unengaged into the engaged from those who were quite happy being the few who understood before. In a way, you can’t blame them – their knowledge is being inflated away, as more and more people grasp the basics. What they saw as precious and theirs is shared with everyone else – not diminished in any way, but certainly no longer an attribute that makes them unique.

So they can but caw and cackle as they point at technicalities, sad that no matter how much liver they tear away, the fire has been lit.


January 21, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment