For 1095 days, I left math for philosophy. I’ve decided to give math another chance, and it has been exciting and depressing—exciting because math is so wonderfully fun, depressing because I began to see how I’ve been cheated in the past 18 annums, cheated out of the joy of mathematics.
Here’s for all us humanities people out there—go and explore math! Rest assured: the C in Algebra II does not make you a bad mathematician, and the monotony of School-Math is idiosyncratic to its branch of Non-Mathematics.
Some Encouragements & Observations for our STEM-averse-humaniters
a) Math is not the technical beast with its mindless computations which we think it is. It’s more like the liberal arts (as in, “liberal arts” barring college brochure cliches).
b) Learning math, though, is hard. But it’s no harder than reading Heidegger, Kant or Hegel—or Plato/Aristotle/Dickens/Tolstoy—and it’s just as fun. Doing math, likewise, isn’t any harder than writing, composing, or painting—and, again, just as awesome.
c) Math only seems harder because it’s more tricky to BS yourself into illusions of understanding. When I read Tolstoy, how I’ve been inattentive won’t really show until I start asking myself (if I ever do) deep and meaningful questions and request Tolstoy to help. When I learn math, I won’t progress through the first few pages if I bs myself like that.
d) Reframe it in this way: The hardness of math is exactly why we should give it a shot. We’re better relaxing with our fan-fictions, Disney+, and NYT (or Astrology/Psychology/Sociology), and we’re better learning things that give the most growth/unit time—hence, math.
e) Benefits and side-effects of this hardness: Math kills time—in the good I-just-killed-baby-Hitler kinda way—because you’re forced to concentrate and go into flow (with all that “tight feed-back loop”, “edge of ability”, “quantifiable progress” jazz). It’s a sweet murder that feels really, really GOOD, and also has the side-effect of growing your ability to think deeply, creatively, and logically, which will surely make easier all the humanities work you’re gonna do, though I don’t want to overpromise on next week’s post-colonialist-post-human-post-feminist-queer-theory reading. But it at least works different muscles than P-C-P-H-C-P-F-Q-T, so it’s nonetheless a good study break that keeps things fresh.
f) Outside of the above trivial reasons—THE MOST IMPORTANT THING: Us humaniters can finally get rid of (some of) that feeling of inferiority to the STEM kids next building whose starting salary is 5x ours. BITCH, I know math. Do you know P-C-P-H-C-P-F-Q-T?
If you’re semi-sold, and want to read more
A. Lockhart’s Lament—you’ll get a sense of how mathematicians see math (i.e., the art of thinking and figuring-out and tinkering; the joy of exploring and creating and understanding). And if you’re sold, Measure embodies Lockhart’s philosophy with an actionable book.
B. 3Blue1Brown and Mathologer on YT for some mind-blowing introductions to things you might encounter in math.
C. And some more books to get you going: https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/151243.3blue1brown_recommendations
Appendix: Some things that I’ve learned studying Philosophy that are probably applicable to math as well.
- Go slowly, really slowly: Measure not how many pages you’ve read, but how much you’ve thought and grown.
- Prioritize quantity-of-thought over knowledge: Part of going slowly is to give yourself permission to think. What’s valuable is not recitations of theories and axioms, but insightful thinking. Just like how being able to play technically hard pieces does not make you a good pianist (that’s Warren who has finally given up his piano dream), but the ability to interpret pieces beautifully.
- Play. Wonder. Have fun: Thinking is playful. Pause, loiter, and savor. Don’t make math so serious. It’s just a human endeavor for human beings. Be fun- and process-oriented rather than goal-directed. Explore new lines of flight, attack the concept that you’re learning from different angles, and if you’re interested in some weird detail mentioned somewhere, go down the rabbit hole and learn about it–it’s only going to get curiouser and curiouser!
- Don’t listen to advices if they’re making things boring. There’s enough boring stuff in the world.
P.S. This is Week 1 of me seriously engaging with math. Hoping to get to the point where I can stand Harvard’s (in)famous MATH 55 in the Fall as a non-competitive mather. I’m doing 4hrs a day, but you can do less and enjoy the math nonetheless.