2017: The Road To Mathematical Happiness

Next year, my book, Pi of Life: The Hidden Happiness of Mathematics will be published by Rowman and Littlefield. I have spent many years on a path that could not be better described than as the road not taken. And, as is the Robert Frost conclusion, it has made all the difference:)

Below is the Introduction to the eleven chapter book. I would like to share it with all of you. Each chapter is titled with a mathematical concept, but then subtitled with a universal idea — humility, simplicity, courage,etc. These are precursors for happiness. I hope this tiny window into math’s true vista writes a new hope of how we see mathematics.

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We are born to be happy. Childhood, for the obvious reasons of endless play and laughter, will always be our most natural vessel for happiness. It is a gift. We get it for free. But, in some cruel twist of fate, the ending of childhood marks one of the most unnecessary journeys in so many lives.

This would be the slow, death march through education’s desert — mathematics. Thirsting for relevance, context and meaning, so many of us have wandered aimlessly without a nary of hope or belief in a worthy destination or purpose. The vast majority of us, regardless of how or why we survived in this parched environment, have been reporting back to society — for decades now — that any promised oasis was never revealed. We just gulped down school’s castor oil and believed its dispensers message — you need it, it’s important in life.

The confirmation of these tortuous metaphors is littered all over social media. Just search Twitter and Facebook for “Math Sucks” or “I Hate Math” and you will find dozens of communities in the thousands exacting revenge through tweets, posts and memes. Unfortunately, all of this is the result of a light take on Newton’s Third Law — for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In this case, all the frustration, anxiety, confusion, and boredom that classroom mathematics caused millions of students is being volleyed back with a disdain that is not only real — it is valid. But, this was not only completely avoidable; it went against the very nature of our being. You see, we were also born to love mathematics.

The fact that a sizable population drifted into a hardened contempt for what is basically a human endeavor is not just an oversight or an error to be cataloged in the banal files of “Some People Are Not Good at Math”. It is a tragedy. In King Lear, the titular character disinherits Cordelia, the daughter he should have loved the most. In education, students banish mathematics with the same hostility. Yet, unlike Shakespeare’s classic play, there is no reconciliation or amends at the end. Mathematics was sadly written to be anti-climactic and unresolved. If this were truly the theater, its production would have been shut down after the first performance. It’s confusing and disconnected narrative, directed by education, would not have lasted — as it actually has — for over 100 years.

In 2012, Deepak Malhotra, professor at the Harvard Business School, gave a luminary speech to the graduating MBA class of that same year. The talk was titled “Tragedy and Genius”. It has now over 300,000 views on YouTube. It is a 45-minute presentation that frames its contemplative theme in just the few minutes.

“Tragedy is the gulf between how happy you should have been and how happy you actually are. Genius is closing that delta”
Deepak Malhotra, Harvard Business School

Mathematics has suffered a similar fate. The gulf between how happy mathematics should have made most of us and how unhappy it actually does, is as gap that is yawning beyond anything you could ever imagine! Compounding matters is that the beauty of mathematics is often heavily cloaked in poorly explained formulas or just flat our ignored — number theory and geometry are embedded everywhere in nature!

“Joy in looking and comprehending is nature’s most beautiful gift”
Albert Einstein

Looking at the chalkboard in class would have been valuable if you also would have looked out the window — to see trees, flowers and grass, dancing and breathing mathematics. Math is bursting with color and poetry, and our mission should be to collectively decode it in a way that warms the heart first, then interacts with our brain. If your knowledge of mathematics ever eclipses your love for it, then both will be doomed. Mathematics is a code for the universe created by humans. That alone should be prompting the joy and curiosity that Einstein suggested. It doesn’t. There are other barriers.

You don’t have to have a lick of musical talent to completely appreciate the brilliance of a concert pianist. You just need to have the ability to hear. Your brain will translate the audible mathematics to release dopamine, the signal that you are appreciating and understanding what you are hearing. You could have had trouble with even a basic Paint-By-Numbers kit, but still get completely lost in a longing gaze at a painting by a great artist. The visual mathematics of lines and proportion will often yield pleasing responses. Often, the more complex the mathematics in a piece of art, the more visually drawn we will be to that image. Is your cooking so horrible that you can’t even make toast? Doesn’t matter. You don’t have to be a gourmand to slump in your seat like a satisfied Anthony Bourdain after eating at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Napa Valley. So much of this beautiful world can be seen, read, heard and tasted. While we may not be able to reach such creative heights, we will always have the senses and sensibilities to value the artist and their craft. The admiration and understanding will have never have impedance. The artistic currency will never suffer any devaluation. There will be no exhaustive and costly debates as to what value is added to our lives by these basic expressions of human potential.

This is not the case for mathematics. Never has been. Primarily, because it has never been looked upon as an art form by society — more like cerebral ditch digging, to implement and explain practical matters to those who would be interested in such drudgery. In spite of it having brilliant writers, painters, and composers, and having a 20 000-year-old story that is filled with heroism, endurance, pleasure and pain, the lasting verdict by society is that it seems to be a necessary…evil. Without mathematics, it would not be an exaggeration to say it would be Dickensian squalor meets The Flintstones. No computers. No medical devices. No telescopes. No televisions. No cell phones. That’s for starters. But, that is not why you or the author should be interested in mathematics, the humble servant of advancing societies.

No. Our collective interest should be in seeing mathematics reflected, refracted and illuminated through a softer, more human, historical lens — appealing to our heart. Having emotional connections to its patterning and symmetry that are deep that can contribute to our spirit for life is where the bar must be set. To merely convey it as some disconnected heap of information with practicality that is trivial or exaggerated to baffle our brains is low hanging fruit — which still goes unpicked by so many of us.

“Mathematics is one of the essential emanations of the human spirit, a thing to be valued in and for itself, like art or poetry”
Oscar Veblen

Rewinding back to Malhotra’s speech, when he introduced the title of his talk to a packed audience of people with the highest potential for wealth, health, and social standing in the entire world, he also issued a statistical warning. He said that many of the people in the audience, in spite of having the top 1/100th of 1 percent potential for all those aforementioned measures of success, will be unhappy at some point in their lives. This is proof that happiness is not a function of luck, hard work, or external acquisition. It is an internal occupation, as is passionately communicated in Sylvia Boorstein’s book, Happiness Is an Inside Job. The beauty of mathematics lies in this internal occupation of trying to see its permanence. Ideas that will last forever. Actually, gorgeous ideas drawn up with the same aesthetic of any masterpiece found in art, literature and music.

This book is not only about giving you the reader a more human insight into the universe’s most elegant and important language. It is also about discussing it in ways that reflect the cadence of our own communication — little conversations, joyful storytelling and pleasant diversions. It is in this network of honest conversations do the pillars of our happiness live — the thankfully non-quantifiable virtues and aspirations of being human. And, nestled deeply in these universal markers for being happy are rich mathematical ideas. Society has been teaching us math for the longest time. It’s time to examine what math can teach society beyond facts, figures and applications.

The style of writing in this book was purposefully crafted to make math a verb, to make it active — to make it sing, dance, laugh and cry. To make it as real and raw as possible. The author would hope that every part of this book would be the way that he would talk about mathematics in settings that are part of our social and recreational vernacular — at a noisy bar on a Thursday night, around a campfire past midnight, and on a bus talking to a stranger. Come to think of it, he already has! The story of mathematics is a most compelling yarn. The author wants to sit with you on a breezy porch with a beer in hand and confess it all, thinking he has all the time in the world — when he does not.

“Life’s splendor forever lies in wait about each one of us in all its fullness, but veiled from view, deep down, invisible, far off. It is there, though, not hostile, not reluctant, not deaf. If you summon it by the right word, by its right name, it will come.”
Franz Kafka

It’s time to go deep within ourselves with mathematics as a gentle guide and discover what has always truly been mathematics’ most important contribution to us — happiness. In our sometimes exhausting search for joy and meaning in life, we somehow neglected to examine the softer yolk inside math’s shell. That beauty and joy of life have always been available. Victor Hugo once said there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.

The Happiness of Mathematics awaits you…

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