Numbers are remarkably tricky. We tend not to notice because we live in a world that is immersed in a sea of numbers. We see and deal with numbers all the time, to the point where most basic manipulations seem simple and obvious. It was not always this way of course. In times past anything much beyond counting on fingers was the domain of the educated few. If I ask you what half of 60 is, you’ll tell me 30 straight away; if I ask you to stop and think about how you know that to be true you’ll have to think a little more, and start to realise that there is a significant amount of learning there; learning that you now take for granted. Almost everyone uses numbers regularly every day in our current society, be it through money, weights and measures, times of day, or in the course of their work. Through this constant exposure and use we’ve come to instinctively manipulate numbers without having to even think about it anymore (in much the same way that you no longer have to sound out words letter by letter to read). That means that when we meet a new abstraction, like the symmetries discussed in Shifting Patterns, it seems comparatively complex and unnatural. In reality the algebra of symmetries is in many ways just as natural as the algebra of numbers, we just lack experience. Thus, the only way forward is to look at more examples, and see how they might apply to the world around us.
Archive for May, 2007
Mathematical arguments can be very persuasive. They lead inexorably toward their conclusion; barring any mistakes in the argument, to argue is to argue with the foundations of logic itself. That is why it is particularly disconcerting when a mathematical argument leads you down an unexpected path and leaves you face to face with a bewildering conclusion. Naturally you run back and retrace the path, looking, often in vain, for the wrong turn where things went off track. People often don’t deal well with challenges to their world-view. When a winding mountain path leads around a corner to present a view of a new and strange landscape, you realise that the world may be much larger, and much stranger, than you had ever imagined. When faced with such a realisation, some people flee in horror and pretend that such a place doesn’t exist; the true challenge is to accept it, and try to understand the vast new world. It is time for us to round a corner and glimpse new and strange landscapes; I invite you to follow me down, in the coming entries, and explore the strange hidden valley.