By Rory Gilchrist
Take a look at this excellent, excellent article in The New York Times from yesterday on popular appreciation of mathematics. Mathematics in its broadest scope has as much beauty and profundity as any art form, and yet our quotidian interactions with it barely skim the surface. I love and am fascinated by math for its sheer breadth. I’m compelled by conundra from Zeno’s paradoxes to the Collatz conjecture. In fact, the existence of conjecture, this idea that we can be pretty sure that something’s true, and that there’s a proof of it out there somewhere, we just haven’t found it yet, is terribly compelling to me.
That’s why I think it’s a shame people divorce themselves from their natural curiosities about these subjects. St. John’s looks to rekindle these passions, approaching mathematics from its traditional perspective as a liberal art, uncovering mathematics not as tedium (or worse) but as a record of systematic reasoning, a reflection of fundamental reality.
Currently in math, the Freshman are working on Euclidian geometry, the Sophomores gaze upwards with Ptolemaic astronomy, the Juniors integrate and differentiate alongside Newton, and the Seniors grapple with Einstein’s theories of relativity. All four of these topics are difficult, but they appeal to a much greater yearning for truth in the universe. Here we try our best to come to terms with abstruse or counter-intuitive notions of these mathematical entities, be they the grand structures of the cosmos, or the mind-bending ways in which infinity makes its presence felt. At the heart of all this is the appreciation for the beauty and truth within the works of the master mathematicians on the Program. As the author of that article puts it,
“Perhaps the most essential message to get across is that with math you can reach not just for the sky or the stars or the edges of the universe, but for timeless constellations of ideas that lie beyond.” ∗