Monday, September 9, 2013

Math as Art [ Re: "A Mathematician's Lament" ]

I recently had the pleasure to read A Mathematician's Lament by Paul Lockhart, a highly esteemed math teacher at St. Ann's School in New York. What struck me most about this piece was how I, myself, have never really considered mathematics an art form. I have always enjoyed it — I love logic puzzles with math, I do rough calculations on the fly all the time, and it's great to delve in and appreciate some beautiful mathematical identities and proofs, especially ones that are abundantly evident in nature (such as Phi, the golden ratio, infinity, and even programming and finance).

But I always thought of it as discrete. Perfect. Calculated. Not something to be "played with"; it is a precise and orderly language to master. But apparently mathematicians think otherwise!

To approach mathematics as an art form is a novel and wonderful concept for me. It should not be thought of as a highly ordered and unchanging structure of logic, but rather a set of principles or guidelines to apply different ways of thinking about logic. Most importantly, in the same way an artist can enjoy approaching a blank canvas with a blank mind, or with an idea for a direction to go in rather than a precise finished product, math should be approached as something Fun to explore!

While helping create Mathbreakers, I definitely thought mathematicians would get a kick out of how math can be represented in a 3-D world with simple rules, that build up to complex emergent behavior. But now I wonder what they think about the pure, visceral "fun" side of it.

When math is no longer just an abstract structure, or even a real-world example involving science or finance... when it is literally a wall of integers or a horde of spikey fractions that are blocking your path... what do you do? With new toys to use as your method for interacting with numbers, what happens? When I play the game, I sense a certain springiness in the weapons; they are an extension of myself, not unlike a high-tech calculator. Part of what makes the game fun for me is the enormous power I have to directly affect the world around me with a few well-timed chops of the fraction sword followed by powerful blasts from my multiply wave.

It is refreshing to see such strong support in the Math community around "fun"! It is exactly the intersection Mathbreakers was meant to occupy.

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