Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Musical instrument for mathematics

We just had the pleasure of seeing Keith Devlin's talk at AC3ME in Berkeley on Mathematics in Video Games. Right up our alley!

His talk spoke to me on a deep level; especially when he related mathematics to music throughout the presentation. As a lover of both music and math I could really appreciate the analogy.

He talked a lot about "Where is the math happening?" There was a slide with a blackboard and a human brain. Is the math on the board, or in the brain? He asked us to make an analogy to sheet music and a piano. Is the music on the sheet of paper, or is it in the activity of playing the piano? The answer is obvious: Music comes from playing the piano, not the representation of it written down in notation form.

Math is the same way. It is written down (beautifully) in many different ways, but where is the piano for mathematics? Where is it played? Maybe a calculator .. but that's a pretty boring instrument. He likened his game, Wuzzit Trouble (available on iOS), to an instrument. Instead of writing equations, you are simply playing with math on a 1-to-1 level with inputs and outputs. It is like playing with music.

This was my favorite part of the talk. "Exactly!" I wanted to shout. That's exactly what we've done -- made an instrument where mathematics can be played. In fact we've made several instruments! My favorite right now is the Multiply Wave, although a 5th grader had a great idea for a "Positive negative boomerang" and another one said something about a "Fraction laser" that sounded pretty awesome.

Anyway, the point is, Mathbreakers is a world for mathematics, like a music store is a world for music. There are of course some annotated sheets you can look at and decipher. But more importantly, there are instruments everywhere, for you to pick up and start playing immediately! You might not be very good at first, but you can definitely participate and make a sound with little more than casual human effort. That's what we bring to mathematics -- the ability to play with it.

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