Photo of a photo with iPhone 5s
Below is a letter (not published) that I submitted to the Wall Street Journal in response to EO Wilson’s op ed piece in the April 5, 2013 edition.
April 9, 2013
I read with interest the article by E.O. Wilson, a distinguished
scientist whose work I greatly admire. Wilson addresses a problem that
concerns us all: the declining interest of young people in science.
I agree with much in Wilson’s article, e.g., that ideas play a key role,
that disciplined fantasies are the fountainhead of creativity. This
said, I take issue with the implication that mathematical semiliteracy
is an adequate preparation for a young person interested in science. What
is sufficient in one generation may not be in the next. Consider two
fundamental advances in physics: Faraday’s law of induction, which made
possible the electric generator, and Maxwell’s discovery that
electromagnetic waves propagate in a vacuum at the speed of light,
which made possible radio communication. Just thirty years apart, one
discovery was made without mathematics, while the other used the most
sophisticated mathematics of the day — and it did come from “staring at
One sees the same progression in biology. In the days of Linnaeus and
Darwin, mathematics played no role. But now whole fields of biology have
been created using mathematics. It is one thing to cut chromosomes into
pieces with enzymes. It is another to assemble the pieces into a map, a
dictionary of life. That was done with a sophisticated piece of
mathematics, the Smith-Waterman algorithm. Mathematics also plays a key
role in reconstructing the tree of life: when and how did species branch
off from their ancestors? Darwin would be pleased!
Back to Wilson’s concern — no student should be deterred from a
career in science by mathematics — but that same student should know
enough mathematics to collaborate fruitfully and to be conversant with
ideas his colleagues will use: statistical argument, model, simulation,
algorithm, etc. Better to enter the game with a full deck.
University of Utah
A fascinating 1988 interview with Isaac Asimov on learning via the internet. Very prescient. Asimov was one of my teenage heroes — I read almost everything he wrote when I was in my science fiction phase. See clip at 2:45 for comments on baseball and mathematics.
zipTimer: an iPod/iPhone app for pacing piano practice, cooking, workouts, you name it.
“Hardy made certain to show no reaction as he listened to his own history, the awards and honorary degrees that authorized his renown. It was a litany he had become used to, and which sparked in him neither pride nor vanity, only weariness: to hear listed all he had achieved meant nothing to him, because these achievements belonged to the past, and therefore, in some sense, no longer belonged to him. All that had ever belonged to him was what he was doing. And now he was doing very little.”
The Indian Clerk, by David Leavitt
Part One, Chapter 1