The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Monday, August 28, 2006

MATHEMATICS AND THE HARM THEY CAUSE: John Derbyshire, of National Review fame, or infamy, the adjective in this case depending wholly on your position on the political spectrum, has written a new book entitled Unknown quantity: a real and imaginary history of algebra. For those of you who may not know this, algebra is the gateway to the study of higher mathematics, a gateway that is as mysterious to me now as when I was flunking the subject in the tenth grade. But I will admit that I am not the best critic of such material; I only passed math class that year because some yeshiva students in Brooklyn broke into their principal’s office, mimeographed all the tests (remember mimeography and the smell of a freshly mimeographed pop quiz? Those were the days, my friends), and then sold the copies all over the state of New York.

The end result of this well-intentioned but somewhat misplaced sense of entrepreneurialism was that the state education department had to pass everyone who took a Regents (college prep) course in anything that year, and so it was that I passed an algebra test just a year after I had failed, and I am talking here of failure on a massive scale; I think my final exam grade of 12 was the lowest grade ever recorded by someone not actually trying to fail, and I think they spotted me five points just for spelling my name right; a class called General Mathematics, a class the state education department designed to help utter innumerates and other numbskulls recognize that numbers could serve a higher purpose than denoting the channels on a television set. So it was, then, that I came to pass the mathematics requirement needed for graduation, for in those days if you passed the Regents test in a given class you passed the class, even if you did nothing in class all year long except chat with your friends and try to score dates with cheerleaders when the teacher wasn’t looking. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t thank the good Lord above for those Jewish kids and their larcenous impulses, and this may be one of the many reasons why I am a great supporter of Israel even unto this day.

In any case, Mr. Derbyshire has apparently written an excellent book on the subject, if the review in the May 15th issue of Library Journal (yes, I am only now getting to the May issues and yes, I am behind in my book ordering; so sue me) by a Mr. Ian Gordon of Brock University Library, St. Catherines with a S, Ontario, Canada, is anything to go by. Mr. Gordon praises Mr. Derbyshire’s newest opus and tells us, the prospective library purchaser, that the book is “…written at the high school level for a general audience interested in recreational mathematics…” at which point I fell out of my chair, shocked to the very core of my being.

I will assume, for the purposes of our discussion, that Mr. Gordon is a Canadian. I will further assume that to the denizens of any nation so depraved and lacking in common decency the idea that there might be a general audience for so loathsome and heinous a practice as recreational mathematics to be one utterly unworthy of notice, especially in a nation so lost in the politically correct multicultural dreamscape that today afflicts so much Western thinking that the government will not prevent, and I know this will shock you as it did me, allegedly competent adults from putting mayonnaise on a French fry while there are small children in the room. I can assure Mr. Gordon, however, that here in this our Great Republic we will have none of this contemptible degeneracy. We will not stand idly by in the face of such harmful practices and make excuses for those who commit such enormities. It has taken American society the better part of a century to root out recreational mathematics once and for all, and there will be no going back to this vicious practice, despite the best efforts of Mr. Derbyshire and Mr. Gordon to resurrect it.

For millennia, the idea of recreational mathematics was an oxymoron of the highest order. Mathematics was the special province of an elite corps of highly trained mathematicians, men who protected the arcane secrets of numbers from the great unwashed. In this quest, governments helped the mathematicians keep their secrets, not that they understood the mathematics—very few governments do—or because they wanted to help the mathematicians—most government types have no clue what the mathematicians and the scientists are talking about anyway, but because they didn’t want the public to learn all the esoteric secrets of numbers and then find new and innovative ways to cheat on their income taxes.

Similarly, the Roman Catholic Church was deeply suspicious of mathematics, seeing the subject as possibly heretical and certainly dangerous to Christian morals. For many years, the Spanish Inquisition, with the connivance of the mathematics faculty at the University of Salamanca, investigated any person who knew more than the three times table, something that often had tragic consequences. In 1543, for example, the Inquisition burned Jose Antonio Lopez Garcia, a well-known horse thief and tax lawyer, at the stake in the Plaza Mayor in Seville for knowing how to multiply two fractions with different denominators. The Inquisition also burned his favorite horse, who, under the vile tutelage of this sociopathic fiend, could count to four with his left hoof and calculate the earned run average for a baseball team’s relief pitching staff for the season in just under a minute with its right. At the time everyone agreed that this was a shocking waste of perfectly good horseflesh, but the Inquisitors held that the protection of Catholic souls from sin outweighed the practical benefits of a mathematically minded horse, and to permit a horse to escape punishment for heresy might cause scandal amongst the believers and encourage the spread of heresy in every barn and livery stable in Spain.

Nor was such extreme caution peculiar to Spain and Catholic Europe. In England, for example, Sir Isaac Newton published his great Principia Mathematica in Latin so only a select few could actually read the book. The government further required that Newton sell the book only in bookstores on London Bridge, where this landmark book of mathematical and scientific thought sat on the shelves next to such masterpieces of the genre as Hot Brazilian Babes, Debbie Does Dunwich VIII, and Daniel Defoe’s Knaughty Knora’s Knockers, or life in Scotland. The booksellers, a skittish bunch afflicted with nervous tics caused by the perpetual need to keep one eye out for the vice squad, would only sell the Principia to men over the age of 25, and would only let the book out of their shops wrapped in a plain brown wrapper. Even with these restrictions, the Principia became something of a cult classic, although much of the book’s notoriety may have had more to do with the nude picture of the King’s mistress, Nell Gwyn, in the centerfold than any sudden public need to understand the laws of celestial motion.

No, it is not until the Gilded Age that mathematics becomes the guilty pleasure of a few sick individuals who try to lure others into their loathsome world. Recreational mathematics first raised its rancid head in Storyville, New Orleans’ fabled red light district, where Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver played the piano in bordellos while doing significant work in game theory and algebraic geometry, respectively. The inmates of these establishments, always looking for a new way to make a buck, began performing quadratic equations for their customers with their shoes on, a practice that led to the military shutting down Storyville once and for all in 1917. Too many soldiers and sailors were coming down with differential calculus at the time, damaging the war effort, and so the military first declared Storyville off-limits, and when that order proved unenforceable, they closed the district down once and for all.

Storyville went, but the taste for recreational mathematics it spawned remained, a constant undercurrent of filth beneath the pleasant tenor of twentieth century American life. Everyone knew that such things happened, of course, but certainly not where you lived and to people you knew. Parents warned their children not to take candy and multiplication tables from strangers, and police departments throughout the country kept an eye out for known miscreants with a mathematical bent, and for a long time this was enough to control the spread of this morally noisome practice.

And then the Sixties happened. Young people rebelled against the manners and mores of their elders and openly experimented with every manner of forbidden behavior. Many tried drugs, many more tried free love or protesting the war in Vietnam; some tried trigonometry or long division with base eight numbers. The results of this mass dive for the gutter were predictable, to say the least, and the disgusting details and the heartache they caused are warnings to us all of what happens when people indulge in this sort of thing.

Then there are those who enjoyed the experience, shocking as that might seem to anyone with a serviceable moral compass. Many of these people fled to Canada during the Vietnam War, due to constant FBI harassment; J. Edgar Hoover believed that recreational mathematics was a sure sign of Communistic tendencies. Most now live on wheat farms in southern Manitoba, although at last report there was a small colony in Saskatchewan as well. If I may venture a guess, Mr. Gordon has met and possibly even known one or two of these bestial wretches, and found them pleasant and sociable, if not entirely well-read; recreational mathematicians prefer to read phone books, add up all the numbers on a given page, and then calculate the square root of the result to the ten thousandth place; and no doubt wondered what all the fuss was about, Canadian multiculturalism having blinded him to the glaringly obvious threat to society and its mathematical norms. The constant reader may wish to purchase Mr. Derbyshire’s book, if only to learn more of the problem’s historical background. As for me, I think I will skip it; books about mathematics only aggravate my hay fever.


  • At 5:22 AM, Blogger John F. Opie said…

    Hi -

    Channeling Samuel Clemens, are we?

    Excellent post from someone who was equally mathematics-shy and discovered that going to a private school led to some ... remarkable entries regarding my math skills, which up to that point were virtually nonexistent and after which were rather nice on the transcript.

    And look at me now: I use differential equations each and every day. The difference is, I get PAID bloody great amounts of money to do this. Focuses your attention rather more nicely than the hope of not failing.

    Great post. :-)



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