Episode Information

CMS: Math for the Nonmathletic
Share this Content

In this episode:

Hate math? Take heart! Steven Strogatz explains everything from how we count to imaginary numbers.


Episode Audio

49:30 minutes (23.77 MB)
Download this Episode

Ten or 15 years ago, when I was in my forties, I agreed to take the SAT's again and write about it for Men's Health. Long story short, I got an 800 on the verbal, because -- really -- what else had I done for the intervening 20 or 30 years but move words around?

On the math, not so much.  On the math I was classified, technically, as a farm product. There are really two Americas. Math and verbal.  There are people who live fludily and gracefully in both worlds ... and we hate them.

And yet, we verbal people know, at some level, because we've read essays about it, that there is an inherent beauty in math, that there are deep truths, that there is some dark place and which Goedel's theory of uncertainty reaches out and touches Camus and Mondrian and Thelonius Monk.

The problem is, we never heard anything in any math class we ever took that would confirm that. Maybe today?

You can join the conversation. Leave your comments below, e-mail [email protected] or Tweet us @wnprcolin.

Related Content:

Listener E-mail from Dennis

It was incredibly refreshing to hear your guest discuss and quote that his belief is that learning is an experience to help us lead richer lives.

Having been in the roles of a life long learner, student and instructor I have often thought that the inadequacy of an "education" is our present system is that it is a memorization drill with the goal of preparing the best "memorizers" to be on the show Jeopardy.

I can only hope among your listeners were anyone in the Deparment of Education who really want to solve inadaquacies of the current time dependant learning system.

Listener E-mail from Aya

Thank you for airing such an interesting topic yesterday!  I'm sorry you
weren't able to take my call, and I wanted to add a point that may be of

I have to admit it set my teeth just a little on edge when Colin, you
asked if there is a personality type that is better at math, and I
wasn't much surprised when your guest was hesitant to answer.  

As someone who has tutored both languages and math, I think we do
students a disservice when we presuppose that there is a math/science
personality, especially when we set it up as somehow at odds with
languages and the arts.  The fact that a caller brought up the
math-music connection and that two of your guests spoke of elegant
proofs as akin to art, speaks to the deep connection between these

In my own studies, I was drawn to math, languages and music, but found
that as my studies advanced I was expected to choose either arts or
sciences.  I couldn't understand it myself as I've always thought of
math and music as languages in their own right, but in high school I
wound up having to fight my school administrators in order to take my
Cambridge "A" Level exams (British system) in French, Spanish and *Math*
(instead of the more traditional English Lit.)  

It really wasn't until my junior or senior year of music school, in a
music theory class in which the professor discussed the Golden Mean and
the Fibonacci Series found throughout music, art, natural science,
architecture, poetry, etc. in terms of advanced calculus, that I finally
understood why my love of math so peacefully coexists with my artistic

At this point we well know that our idea of "left-brained" and
"right-brained" as an either/or proposition is a fallacy created by pop
psychology, I just wish someone would remind our educators of this fact
before we create even more generations who think you have to be a
character on "Big Bang Theory" to understand the difference between
$0.02 and 0.02 cents.  (That customer service call was priceless, by the
way.  Thanks for that.)

Dr. Lockhart was really

Dr. Lockhart was really interesting. I would like to hear more of what that guy has to say. I like his forthrightness and I think you should have him back.

Listener E-mail from Claudia

There is a GRAPHIC NOVEL  I think  you would enjoy:  Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth   by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou (Paperback - Sept. 29, 2009)

from Amazon.com:
"This exceptional graphic novel recounts the spiritual odyssey of philosopher Bertrand Russell. In his agonized search for absolute truth, Russell crosses paths with legendary thinkers like Gottlob Frege, David Hilbert, and Kurt Gödel, and finds a passionate student in the great Ludwig Wittgenstein. But his most ambitious goal--to establish unshakable logical foundations of mathematics--continues to loom before him. Through love and hate, peace and war, Russell persists in the dogged mission that threatens to claim both his career and his personal happiness, finally driving him to the brink of insanity."

The creators of Logicomix introduce us to Bertrand Russell in 1939 during one of his public lectures. Russell explores the question, "What is logic?" by telling the story of "one of [logic’s] most ardent fans"--himself. The book's creators reimagine the life of a  young man with a passion for his search.

Thanks for today's show about math !  Hope you do another.  And then another . . .

Actually, thanks for all your shows !

Listener E-mail from Johnathon

I love fractals and geometery and my compound interest application on my palm pre, but I took 099 algebra in college 4 times before getting my degree in, you guessed it, communication tv/broadcasting. We need theater people teaching math! 

Oh, and the 9 table in multplication rocks.

Listener E-mail from Sally

I didn't have a fundamental understanding of WHY algebra was important. There was no foundation taught on which to build. No practical application in the real world and this was a major road block in my ability to understand. Geometry, on the other hand was taught to me with real world applications therefore I found that learning it was much easier and actually enjoyable.

Listener E-mail from Georg

Studies have shown, contrary to popular conception, is that math majors make poor computer programers. The best are music majors. It is felt that comp prog. requires logic. By its nature, math is a theory and not logical until you accept unproven facts which by nature is not logical. Music requires logical progression. Computer programing is pure logic. There are no axioms in pure logic.

Listener E-mail from David

I had an unfortunate math teacher in seventh grade. I am now forty and a committed verbalist. How do I start over? David