Math philosophy for a general audience

Rob Nanninga (1955), editor of the Dutch skeptic magazine Skepter, passed away suddenly on May 30. I had some contact with him about my book The simple mathematics of Jesus (SMOJ) (2012). Skepter publishes skeptical articles against astrology and is hesitant to discuss religion, so that my analysis that the Bible is an astrological book puts the editors in a difficult spot. Skepter hasn’t published about SMOJ yet, but I tend to think that Nanninga was pondering it seriously. He died while working on an article on Scientology – by believers called a religion.

Looking for his obituary brought me to one of the skeptic websites, where I noted a webcast by Keith Devlin about the 10 myths about the Golden Ratio, i.e. the number φ = 1.61… (phi).

Again, we see the Dutch language working out as a dungeon sink, since all kinds of English materials are put on that Dutch website but foreigners will not be able to follow the discussion. The Dutch skeptics are very open to foreign material but hesitant about home-grown SMOJ.

Nevertheless, it is a Small World, and everything hangs together. Let us make a table:

Professor Devlin also refers to the book about the Golden Ratio by Mario Livio. I discussed an aspect of phi, see Pyramids and the Meter.  Apparently that aspect isn’t in Devlin’s list, and I wouldn’t know whether it is in Livio’s book.
Professor Livio also wrote a book Is God a Mathematician?  – or see this other review. As I understand it, Livio refers to God metaphorically like Albert Einstein did when saying “God doesn’t use dice” (no exact quote). His book really is about the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”. (a) This is a different subject than SMOJ that proposes a multidisciplinary project, see its page. (b) In my view, mathematics isn’t unreasonably effective. It is reasonably effective since we choose it to be so. But please note that highschool mathematics education can be quite unreasonable. (My reference on the effectiveness of mathematics is the Davis & Hersh book, The mathematical experiencesee the AMS Review page too.)
A lecture by Keith Devlin: How Did Human Beings Acquire the Ability to do Math?  – which Mario Livio might translate as: How did Human Beings become like Gods ? Devlin actually discusses his book The Math Gene – see this AMS Review by Allyn Jackson. See my paper, included in SMOJ: Education of mathematics and brain research. This seems a bit more concrete on how students can learn mathematics. My suggestion is that philosophy can run astray and that it is better to use empirical didactics as the whetstone.
Lectures by Keith Devlin are: The Birth of Algebra & Calculus: One of the most successful technologies. See my video: The algebraic approach to the derivative, or see the sheets. This thus combines these angles.
Lectures by Keith Devlin on (1) voting theory in the 2nd half of above “birth of algebra” and (2) the birth of probability theory by Pascal & Fermat in the 2nd half of above “calculus”. See (1) my book Voting theory for democracyand (2) at another time I must return to that issue of Pascal & Fermat.

These Devlin Lectures don’t seem to be intended for who already knows math. They seem to be for a general audience like first year students who want a philosophical overview. The lectures have a little bit of actual mathematics but this is presented so fast and so superficial that new students will not get it. The lectures might be typical for mathematicians who hardly have insight in the education in mathematics. However, knowing or assuming that his intended audience will not be able to get real math, professor Devlin likely chooses to tell stories that somewhat convey some general impressions. By consequence, we now have “math philosophy for a general audience” which somewhat translates as “celibacy philosophy for adolescents”.

Good video presentations also have a PDF printout, but these seem to be lacking here. I am amazed that I actually managed to watch as much as I did, but the point seems to be that you can only judge on videos when you have actually seen them.  Sobered by Rob Nanninga’s passing away I patiently sat through professor Devlin’s lectures on phi, the Math Gene and the parts on Algebra and Calculus (skipping voting theory).  I am sorry to say that I tend to agree with some of the critical remarks on the Math Gene lecture: “Usually mathematicians are direct and they cut to the chase. (…) He got me really bored” and “This guy is the king of jibber jabber. Talks for minutes and says 2 things.” Other reactions have been positive but those are less revealing about their background and seem from general viewers. It does seem indeed that the lectures might be appealing to such a general audience, but for an institute like Stanford I would require much more quality.

I did enjoy professor Devlin’s explanation about algebra however, since it nicely fits my suggestion that the derivative belongs to algebra. In the lecture on calculus he explains it standardly in terms of limits, but this focusses on numbers, instead of reasoning logically and qualitatively about numbers.


Keith Devlin, The Birth of Algebra, min. 5:35


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