Would you like to like math or help others to like it? Then empathy might be what you need! This is what Steven Strogatz, professor of applied mathematics at Cornell University, proposes in his 2014 paper ‘Writing about Math for the Perplexed and the Traumatized’. As much as logic, clarity, and beautiful examples are important, empathy is the real secret for successfully teaching difficult subjects.
In 2009, Strogatz was asked to write a math column for the New York Times. In contrast to other famous articles and books on “popular math” that mainly target people who already love math, Strogatz was asked to especially focus on conveying the beauty of mathematics to readers who seemed lost with it.
Do you belong to the naturals, perplexed, or traumatized?
According to Strogatz, we can all be classified into one of three categories when it comes to our relationship with math. If you are a natural, you have a talent for math. This does not mean that you got good grades in your math class or work in a math-related job. But you have an affection for mathematics and it gives you pleasure and satisfaction to think about math. If math however seems rather pointless to you, you might belong to the large group of the perplexed. More than just seeming pointless, math can leave scars. Have you ever used phrases such as “I’m just not a math person.” or “I don’t have a head for numbers.” (Strogatz, 2014, p. 286)? Then you might be part of the group of people traumatized by mathematics.
Strogatz’s three routes to mathematical seduction
In his New York Times column, Strogatz addresses common challenges, such as phobia, anxiety or meaninglessness, that many people experience when confronted with math. The way that he tried to spark the love of math in anyone – from natural, to perplexed, and traumatized – is with empathy. By helping the readers to not only understand the answers, but to love the questions. How can this be achieved? How can you convey empathy, especially in writing? In his 2014 paper, Strogatz proposes “Three Routes to Mathematical Seduction” (p. 287) and provides interesting and inspiring examples from his own articles, as well as from three famous scientists: Richard Feynman, Stephen Jay Gould, and Lewis Thomas.
The first route to mathematical seduction is illumination. When have you last experienced an “Aha!” moment? An illumination that sparked your interest and motivation? Maybe you can have one of those “Aha!” experiences when you read about Strogatz explanation of why fractions are called rational numbers, or the beautifully graphical reasoning of the terms “2 squared” and “3 squared”.
Wouldn’t you agree that anything is easier to understand and to remember if you can connect it to something you already know and like? This is exactly what Strogatz means with the second route of mathematical seduction: Make connections. If you are interested in sports, you might feel more at home reading about difficult mathematical concepts in terms of dance steps or tennis moves. Connections can make you feel welcome and encourage you to learn, even if you are perplexed or traumatized.
The third route is a somewhat personal one: Be a friend. Imagine that you are not just writing to a generic reader, but that the reader is your friend. A person whom you want to help understand a difficult subject in the most welcoming way possible. With a friend you do not need to use sophisticated symbols or highlight your knowledge by doing complicated algebraic manipulations.
Being a friend, as well as the other two routes of illumination and making connections, could not only be helpful when teaching math. Should we not adopt this behavior in any of our communications? Wouldn’t a welcoming atmosphere that sparks interest and ties to real-world experiences provide a wonderful environment for any learning and discussion?
Heroes of empathy
Strogatz finds his inspiration for writing with empathy in three scientists from diverse fields: Richard Feynman, “…the master of illumination…” (p. 289) who conveys the concepts of modern physics in a “…conversational, direct, and funny…” (p. 288) way; Stephen Jay Gould, “…the master of connections” (p. 289), who introduces sophisticated subjects of evolution with “…something light and unthreatening…” (p. 289); and Lewis Thomas, who can point out the wonders and beauty in anything, even warts (Strogatz, 2014).
This article from Steven Strogatz did not only make me want to read his math column in the New York Times, but also learn more about physics from Feynman, evolution from Gould, and biology from Thomas. How about you? If you are as excited as me to venture further into any of these topics, you can find a list of links below.
Strogatz, S. (2014). Writing about Math for the Perplexed and the Traumatized. Notices of the AMS, 61(3), 286-291.
Steven Strogatz’s homepage
Video – Why learn math? by Strogatz (2013)
Strogatz’s lecture at Cornell University (2011): Blogging about math for the New York Times
New York Times column “Steven Strogatz on the elements of math”
Gould, S. J. (1980). The panda’s thumb: More reflections in natural history. WW Norton & Company.
Thomas, L. (1995). The medusa and the snail: More notes of a biology watcher. Penguin.