#WeHateMath Review: “A Mathematician’s Lament”

(From time to time, I’d like to post a quick review of math-related books or other media in which I think readers might [ or should ] be interested.)

Consider my mind officially blown.

I’ve just finished reading “A Mathematician’s Lament” by Paul Lockhart. It’s not a long read (a bit over 100 pages) but each page is filled with a passion and eloquence that you don’t normally associate with a mathematician. This is the first book about math where I could really feel that the author not only openly admitted his love for the subject but expressed that love in a way that we as readers are swept along with him. Let me give you an example:

“As I said before, the most important thing to understand is that mathematics is an art. Math is something you do. And what you are doing is exploring a very special and peculiar place—a place known as “Mathematical Reality.” This is of course an imaginary place, a landscape of elegant, fanciful structures, inhabited by wonderful, imaginary creatures who engage in all sorts of fascinating and curious behaviors. I want to give you a feeling for what Mathematical Reality looks and feels like and why it is so attractive to me, but first let me just say that this place is so breathtakingly beautiful and entrancing that I actually spend a good part of my waking life there. I think about it all the time, as do most other mathematicians. We like it there, and we just can’t stay away from the place.”

Excerpt From: Paul Lockhart. “A Mathematician’s Lament.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/X0iYw.l

This is not one of those books where the author presents math as some rarified, ivory tower, ‘secret language of the universe’ life mission. Rather, Lockhart presents a convincing case for math as a quintessentially human activity, on par with art or literature, that requires the best of our intuition, creativity and imagination.

The book is in two parts: Lamentation and Exultation. Part One (Lamentation) is a very angry (but well-reasoned) indictment of the modern system of math education. I think one of the things that drew me to this book was that Lockhart has many of the same complaints that I do but he takes my own thoughts even further. As part of his argument, he inserts an ongoing dialogue between two characters, Salviati and Simplicio, who discuss about the current points that Lockhart brings up. (These are the same names that Galileo used with a similar technique in his pamphlet arguing that the Earth revolved around the Sun) If you teach math, are studying math or have ever taken a math class, this section should get you righteously angry.

Part Two (Exultation) acts as a cool, palate cleansing sorbet. In it, Lockhart not only expresses his love for math but brings you into his world so you can share in his passion. He takes you through several math-related puzzles in a very natural fashion, not with the intent of finding The Solution but rather to show just how wonderful and mysterious this universe of ours insists on being.

“A Mathematician’s Lament” is a breezy (but emotional) read and anyone who is involved in any way with math education (including math students themselves) needs to have a copy. It’s available in both print and electronic format from the usual suspects.

References

Lockhart, P. (2009). A mathematician’s lament. New York, NY: Bellevue Literary Press.

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