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Feb 19, 2006 11:18 am

Things Noted Here and There

Alan Caine,"How to Take the Square Out of the Hypotenuse," Financial Times, 17 February, reviews David Berlinski's Infinite Ascent: A Short History of Mathematics. [Prize for worst newspaper column of the week goes to: Richard Cohen for"What is the Value of Algebra?" Washington Post, 16 February. See: P. Z. Myers,"Richard Cohen, Advocate for Ignorance," Pharyngula, 16 February; and"Say It Loud: I'm Dumb and I'm Proud!" Mr. Sun, 17 February.]

Richard McGregor,"China's Great Wall: A Symbolic Separator," Financial Times, 17 February, reviews Julia Lovell's The Great Wall: China Against the World: 1000 BC to 2000 AD.

Robert Hughes,"Connoisseur of the Ordinary," The Guardian, 11 February. On the 400th anniversary of his birth and the eve of a major exhibit of his work in Amsterdam, Rembrandt's artistic accomplishment is re-assessed.

Francine Du Plessix Gray,"Vanderbilt Family Values," New York Times, 19 February, reviews Amanda MacKenzie Stewart's new, trans-Atlantic dual biography, Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age.

Christopher Hitchens,"Robert Conquest's realities and delusions," TLS, 15 February, reviews Conquest's The Dragons of Expectation: Reality and Delusion in the Course of History.

According to both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, members of the Harvard Corporation are consulting with members of the University's Faculty of Arts and Sciences in regard to tensions with President Lawrence Summers. A second vote of no confidence in him is scheduled within the FAS for 28 February.

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Oscar Chamberlain - 2/20/2006

You are right about the algebra example. I do such calculating in the stores all the time. But that's a very basic algebra. I was assuming that Cohen was referring to something more complex: quadratic equations for example.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/19/2006

Our world is designed in a way that minimimizes our need to know many things beyond our daily tasks. That is particularly true concerning math.

I disagree. The basic operations of algebra are absolutely essential in shopping -- is this a good deal per ounce being the first question that comes to mind -- and other "daily" economic functions. If it wasn't for algebra (and history), I wouldn't have any real understanding of statistics, which is necessary to understand even the most basic political and scientific discourses.

OK, I'm probably repeating Pharyngula at this point, but I don't see any reason why we shouldn't call gross ignorance by its proper name, instead of sloughing it off as a "lifestyle choice."

Robert KC Johnson - 2/19/2006

The WSJ and NYT reports would seem to suggest the beginning of the end for Summers. That the university has delayed a new fundraising drive can't be a good sign for the president.

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/19/2006

Nice comeback from Pharngula to Cohen. However, maybe we better slow down for a second and take a second look.

Right now I'm in my basement. Much in this room I know or can know quickly. The content of many (though not all!) of the books, the sports babble on the tube. the generaly sense that gravity will quickly settle the snow in a snow globe after it is shaken.

But I also sit in the web of an invisible world of which I know little or nothing. The cheap curtains, how were they made? The computer in front of me, what exactly happens when I turn it on; how does my spyware protection work, and to what extent is the protection it gives real as opposed to an expensive knock-on-wood?

I could learn how a computer works, I think, but there is not world enough or time for me to court all realms of knowledge. So I find what I hope are knowledgeable sources, take their advice, and do a leap of faith.

Cohen does have a point. Our world is designed in a way that minimimizes our need to know many things beyond our daily tasks. That is particularly true concerning math. Of course, as Pharyngula notes, that leaves one blind to the beauties that more knowledge opens. It also leaves one more vulnerable to the frauds and stupidities of the market in which we are immersed.

But in fact, we live in a world that minimizes what we need to know about how it is designed and how it functions. In a world in which gross ingorance of much of what surrounds us is inevitable, and in which we can survive despite such ignorance, why not choose what is important according to our personal skills and our personal desires?

Why not choose to ignore math? Or history for that matter?

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