Lawyers of space and number

Mathematicians can be seen as lawyers of space and number.

Euclid wrote about 300 BC. Much earlier, Hammurabi wrote his legal code around about 1792-1749 BC. It is an interpretation of history: Hammurabi might have invented all of his laws out of thin air, but it is more likely that he collected the laws of his region and brought some order into this. Euclid applied that idea to what had been developed about geometry. The key notions were caught in definitions and axioms, and the rest was derived. This fits the notion that Pierre de Fermat (1607-1665) started as a lawyer too.

Left Codex Hammurabi, right a piece of Euclid 100 AD. Wikimedia commons

Left: codex Hammurabi. Right: a piece of Euclid 100 AD. Wikimedia commons

The two cultures: science and the humanities

In Dutch mathematics education there is a difference between A (alpha) and B (beta) mathematics. B would be “real” math and prepare for science. A would provide what future lawyers can manage.

In the English speaking world, there is C.P. Snow who argued about the “two cultures“, and the gap between science and the humanities. A key question is whether this gap can be bridged.

In this weblog, I already mentioned the G (gamma) sciences, like econometrics that combines economics (humanities) with scientific standards (mathematical models and statistics). Thus the gap can be bridged, but perhaps not by all people. It may require some studying. Many people will not study because they may arrogantly believe that A or B is enough (proof: they got their diploma).

Left and right hemisphere of the brain

Another piece of the story is that the left and right hemispheres of the brain might specialise. There appears to be a great neuroplasticity (Norman Doidge), yet overall some specialisation makes sense. The idea of language and number on the left hemisphere and vision on the right hemisphere might still make some sense.

“Broad generalizations are often made in popular psychology about certain functions (e.g. logic, creativity) being lateralized, that is, located in the right or left side of the brain. These claims are often inaccurate, as most brain functions are actually distributed across both hemispheres. (…) The best example of an established lateralization is that of Broca’s and Wernicke’s Areas (language) where both are often found exclusively on the left hemisphere. These areas frequently correspond to handedness however, meaning the localization of these areas is regularly found on the hemisphere opposite to the dominant hand. (…) Linear reasoning functions of language such as grammar and word production are often lateralized to the left hemisphere of the brain.” (Wikipedia, a portal and no source)

For elementary school we would not want kids to specialise in functions, and encourage the use of neuroplasticity to develop more functions.

Pierre Krijbolder (1920-2004) suggested that there is a cultural difference between the Middle East (Jews), with an emphasis on language – shepherds guarding for predators at night – and the Indo-Europeans (Greeks), with an emphasis on vision – hunters taking advantage of the light of day. Si non e vero, e ben trovato.

There must have been at least two waves by Indo-Europeans into the Middle-East. The first one brought the horse and chariot to Egypt. The second one was by Alexander (356-323 BC) who founded Alexandria, where Euclid might have gotten the assignment to write an overview of the geometric knowledge of the Egyptians, like Manetho got to write a historical overview.

Chariot spread 2000 BC. (Source: D. Bachmann, wikimedia commons)

Chariot spread 2000 BC. (Source: D. Bachmann, wikimedia commons)

It doesn’t actually matter where these specialisations can be found in the brain. It suffices to observe that people can differ in talents: lawyers would deal much with language, and for space you might turn to mathematicians.

Pierre van Hiele (1909-2010) presents a paradox

The Van Hiele levels of insight are a key advance in epistemology, for they indicate that human understanding itself is subjected to some structure. The basic level concerns experience and the direct language about this. The next level concerns the recognition of properties. Another level is the recognition of relations between these properties, and the informal deductions about these. The highest level is formalisation, with axiomatics and formal deduction. The actual number of levels depends upon your application, but the base remains in experience and the top remains in axiomatics.

Learning goes from concrete to abstract, and from vague to precise.

Thus, Euclid with his axiomatic approach would be at the highest level of understanding.

We arrive at a paradox.

The axiomatic approach is basically a legal approach. We start with some rules, and via substitution and reasoning we arrive at other rules. This is what lawyers can do well. Thus: lawyers might be the best mathematicians. They might forget about the intermediate levels, they might discard the a-do about space, and jump directly to the highest Van Hiele level.

A paradox but no contradiction

A  paradox is only a seeming contradiction. The latter paradox gives a true description in itself. It is quite imaginable that a lawyer – like a computer – runs the algorithms and finds “the proper answer”.

However, for proper mathematics one must be able to switch between modes. At the highest Van Hiele level, one must have an awareness of applications, and be able to translate the axioms, theorems and derivations into the intended interpretation. In many cases this may involve space.

Just to be sure: the Van Hiele levels present conceptual divides. At each level, the languages differ. The words might be the same but the meanings are different. This also causes the distinction between teacher-language and student-language. Often students are much helped by explanations by their fellow students. It is at the level-jump, when the coin drops, that meanings of words change, and that one can no longer imagine that one didn’t see it before.

Thus it would be a wrong statement to say that the highest Van Hiele level must have command of all the lowest levels. The disctinction between lawyers and mathematicians is not that the latter have command of all levels. Mathematicians cannot have command of all levels because they have arrived at the highest level, and this means that they must have forgotten about the earlier levels (when they were young and innocent). The distinction between lawyers (math A) and mathematicians (math B) is different. Lawyers would understand the axiomatic approach (from constitutional law to common law) but mathematicians would understand what is involved in specific axiomatic systems.

Example 1

I came to the above by thinking about the following problem. This problem was presented as an example of a so-called “mathematical think-activity” (MTA). The MTA are a new fad and horror in Dutch mathematics education. First try to solve the problem and then continue reading.

2016-10-26-petervanwijk-smaller-englishDiscussion of example 1

The drawing invites you to make two assumptions: (1) the round shape is a circle, (2) the vertical x meets the horizontal x in the middle. However, why would this be so ? You might argue that r = 6 suggests the use of a circle, but perhaps this still might be an ellipse.

In traditional math ed (say around 1950), making such assumptions would cost you points. In fact, the question would be considered insoluble. No question would be presented to you in this manner.

In traditional math, the rule would be that the proper question and answer would consist of text, and that drawings only support the workflow. Also, the particular calculation with = 6 would not be interesting. Thus, a traditional presentation would have been (and also observe the dashes):

2016-10-26-petervanwijk-smaller-english-altA quick observation is that there are three endpoints, and it is a theorem that there is always a circle through three points. So the actual question is to prove this theorem, and you are being helped with a special case.

Given that you solved the problem above, we need not look into the solution for this case.

The reason for giving this example is: In mathematics, text has a key role, like in legal documents for lawyers. Since mathematicians are lawyers of space and number, they can cheat by using supporting drawings, tables and formulas. But definitions, theorems and proofs are in text (formulas).

(Potentially lawyers also make diagrams of complex cases, as you can see in movies sometimes. But I don’t know whether there are particular methods here.)

Example 2

The second example is the discussion from yesterday.

In text it is easy to say that a line has no holes. However, when you start thinking about this, then you must define what such a hole might be. If a hole doesn’t belong to the line, what does it belong to then ? How would you know when you would pass a hole ? Might you not be stepping over holes all the time without noticing ?

These are questions that lawyers would enjoy. They are relevant for math B but can also be discussed in math A.

See the discussion of yesterday, and check that the main steps should be acceptable for lawyers, i.e. math A.

These students should be able to master the symbolism of predicate logic, since this is only another language and a reformulation of common text.

Conclusions

Thus, a suggestion is that students in math A should be able to do more, when better use is made of the legal format.

Perhaps more students, now doing A, might also do B, if their learning style is better supported.

(Perhaps the B students would start complaining about more text though. Would there still be the same question, when only the format of presentation differs ? Thus a conclusion can also cause more questions. See also this earlier discussion about schools potentially manipulating their success scores by causing student underperformance.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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