Wednesday, March 9, 2011

My Math Class (No, Really!)

When we lived in New Hampshire, I was fascinated by the Monadnock Summer Lyceum, a series of public lectures and performances for adults (you can read about the lyceum movement in the U.S. here). The lectures sounded so cultured and like such a grown-up thing to do, but they were held in far-off Peterborough on the other side of the state so I was never able to attend.


Now that we are retired and living in Las Cruces, we have discovered the Academy for Learning in Retirement and I believe that I have found my lyceum at last. 


Our first series of lectures is called The Beauty of Mathematics, Old and New. I was a little worried about being able to keep up, but have done pretty well so far. Well, with one exception--the first lecture was on symmetry in the art of M.C. Escher and everything was going swimmingly until the professor uttered the word polynomial and I instantly drifted off in that embarrassing head-lurching way that almost gives you whiplash. Beez poked me back to consciousness and I was hanging on by a thread until the word quadratic sent me bobbing and weaving again. 


The second lecture was on Fermat's Last Theorem and the lecturer really brought the subject to life. We learned about Sophie Germain (1776-1831), one of the first female mathematical thinkers and researchers. Sophie proposed a plan to solve Fermat's problem, and the professor guided us through the first few steps in a way we could all understand. I loved this lecture--in fact, I wanted to be Sophie and I itched for stacks of clean paper, sharpened pencils, and an infinite amount of time to work out mathematical proofs. 


I later came across a review for a book called Yearning for the Impossible; The Surprising Truths of Mathematics, by John Stillwell. The review stated, in part, "Stillwell weaves historical details into his writing seamlessly, helping to give the reader the true feeling that mathematics is more than just a bunch of people playing games with symbols, but rather a rich and rewarding intellectual endeavor important to the human enterprise."


Now, that is exactly how I felt after the excellent lecture on Fermat and Germain. Not bad for an English major (me)--I tell you, that professor is something else!

6 comments:

Mary Hulser said...

Clair, this sounds so cool, although I'll pass on the math. Lately I've been teaching multiplying and dividing fractions to kids with learning differences....it's not pretty. But I DO look forward to some of the other lectures and I bet Pat could get a job there teaching computer skills. Can't wait!

Linda said...

Your title on the thumbnail on my blog really drew me in! I'm a maths dunce, but would love to understand it. Good for you!

Sandy ~~~ said...

Hey, this sounds very kewl. I am a perpetual learner (figure I'm dead if I'm not learning something all the time) and will need to try to participate in something like that after we get to NM!

Deb said...

Clair, remember in Anne of Green Gables when Anne kept looking for her kindred spirit? I do believe you are one of mine!

hehehe:
my word verification is "warudebo" (where are you, Debo!) Just thought I'd pass that along....

Nan said...

Is it just lectures - no work, no tests? If so, that sounds perfect. I've always thought that if I'd had the right teachers I could have done better in math. I'm quite fond of numbers.

clairz said...

Thank you all for your kind comments. I wish you could all come along tomorrow to hear about topology, or "rubber-sheet geometry." Topology: "area of mathematics concerned with spatial properties that are preserved under continuous deformations of objects, for example, deformations that involve stretching, but no tearing or gluing" (from Wikipedia). A Mobius strip is an example--I love those, except when they accidentally show up in my knitting.

Deb, my daughter and I are big Anne fans. We are kindred spirits, indeed!

And, Nan, you guessed it--this series is all lectures, no tests, no pop quizzes. So pleasant, although there is supposed to be some audience participation tomorrow. We'll see what that means...