Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Why is Clara learning Math?

One of our readers asked about a note in the corner of our whiteboard in the kitchen. It has my to do list for every day, three things: learn math, learn dutch, finger puppets. The reader understood the bit about Dutch, and who knows about the finger puppets, but what is this about learning math? Owen already knows math, but why is Clara spending her time every day learning math? Here are some reasons. 

Which makes the implication false?
Because I am married to a mathematician. 
As the wife of a mathematician it is totally socially acceptable for me to say, "oh I don't know anything about math" or "I don't understand any of it!" It's totally acceptable for wives of mathematicians, biologists, computer scientists, etc. to not know or care about their husbands' work. This not a thing I like. In a letter to Owen I remember saying that when I'm dealing with math I feel like trying to scuba dive with only snorkeling equipment. I know there's incredible stuff to see down there, but I don't have the resources (be it time, education, or perhaps determination) to dive down and actually see it. Owen compared our individual fields to countries. Theater-land is very tourist friendly. It's made for visitors. But Mathland? "It's a nice place to live, but I wouldn't want to visit." This is probably part of why it is so standard for the friends and families of mathematicians to be okay with not knowing about math. But I don't want to be acceptably ignorant.

Because I spent three years with the PEGs.
Perhaps one of the reasons I don't want to be "acceptably ignorant" is because of three years living and working in the Program for the Exceptionally Gifted, with girls (affectionately known as PEGs) as young as twelve going to college early. There was no such thing as "acceptably ignorant" in that dorm. I was surrounded by young women who wanted to create whole worlds, who would sell geeky Math Club valentines in February, who worked with animation. PEGs who did cognitive and behavioral research with shrews, slicing the brains of their experimented-on shrews to understand more about how our own brains function under certain stimulus. PEGs who loved math classes best of all, perhaps because no one was telling them it was a thing for boys

Because I want to become the role model I would want my kids (or nieces, or nephews) to have.
Amelia Earhart? Not a mathematician, but her quote holds
I love a lot of things associated with traditional femininity and domesticity. I like to cook, and I'm glad that I can have built up kitchen skills for adapting recipes, substituting ingredients with confidence and ease. I play the violin. I like costume dramas, and have read all of Jane Austen's novels. I have two masters degrees in Shakespeare. I love fairytales. I have a lot of poetry memorized. I knit. I crochet. I sew. I even embroider. I do a lot of papercrafting, and although I'm not sure I would qualify the work of my hands as art, I certainly fall into the highly skilled side of the crafting frontier. I love children's books, and have been told dozens of times, "You will be such a great mom!" With all these (often) gendered skills and activities, it would be easy for me to just stay in the "right brain" side of the world. There's enough in art and music, in fairytales and all these interests to last me a lifetime. It would be easy to stick to the creative and artsy humanities side of things. Let other people (guys?) do the math and science "left brain" stuff. But I don't want to be that example for the world's next generation. I don't want to encourage girls to go into math and science because I approve of that idea, or because it frustrates me that our world still thinks of math and science as things that women aren't good at. I want to be a woman who is competent and capable with numbers. I want to actually think that math is fascinating and beautiful. 

Paper engineering? I love this stuff.  
Because math is fascinating and beautiful.
A lot of things I've loved my whole life are math-y things. Origami, patterns, logical thinking puzzles. In college I took a class on "Advanced Logic" which was really a giant excuse to read Godel, Escher, Bach-- which is a gorgeous, complex book, full of ideas so fascinating I still lie awake thinking about them six years after taking the class. One of the reasons I fell in love with Owen was all the years of hearing about math from him. He would tell me about theorems or paradoxes which fundamentally changed the way I thought. Learning to think in new ways made my world bigger, full of even more questions, more things to discover. This sort of learning feels great. Don't believe me? Listen to RadioLab online. Watch Planet Earth on Netflix. Or just watch some Vihart videos, like this one about Fibonacci numbers (I bet I can tell you how many petals are in a flower!) . Or if you think that factorization isn't beautiful? Watch this, fast forwarding when you like but make sure you get to 243. Owen got all excited when our friends' house number was 243, and I didn't get it till I saw the animation. Which is another thing that's crazy and wonderful. Owen sees numbers as special and interesting, the way I think about words, not just a combination of digits but entities with meaning and relationships. I want to dive down into that. 

Owen used tea to explain logical implication. (see first image)
IBM has a bunch of short films out with little girls interviewing women working in technology for IBM, and they end every interview saying "Let's build a smarter planet!" I like this plan, but I'm also excited about us all just becoming smarter people. Stanford offers a ton of classes online for free! I'm taking the one on Mathematical Thinking, and it's great. I'm glad I have so much opportunity to learn here. Learning Dutch. Learning about a whole country and its history and its place in the history of the world. Learning to edit video, learning screenwriting, and yes, learning math.


  1. Clara,

    I so identify with your memories of Advanced Logic. Obviously, as a music theorist, I enjoy math-y things, although it has been long enough since Calc II and Differential Equations that I don't really remember any calculus. But I identify so much with your wanting to learn, to be smarter - not just as an end in itself, but to get to know this world that God has made and to think more clearly about it and how to live in it.

    Love you! I'll respond to your email soon.

  2. I am kind of jealous of this time in your life, to be honest.


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