I Know You Showed Your Work,

But You Didn't Show Your Passion

Spring '15


Come here Matthew. I have some concerns regarding your answer to the last week’s homework. No, it can’t wait until after class. I think your peers could really learn from your example. See here, I know that X can be either 6 or -3 and yes, I know you used the quadratic formula to find your answer, but nowhere in that page of wide ruled paper did I notice a hint of passion for the two-and-a-half-thousand-year-old Mathematical Arts.

I know you got it right. Any fool can take a formula and plug and chug his way to a solution. However, if you think that a couple dozen lines of symbolic shuffling is all it takes to succeed in my course, you are sadly mistaken. I don’t want to see a jumble of letters and numbers. I want to see ardor.

While you were wading through line after line of arithmetic, did you ever pause to consider where it came from? The struggles of notation that plagued the Babylonians and the Egyptians, encasing their algebra in a tomb of rhetoric?

As your skinny wrist parroted out the quadratic formula, did you feel a rush of temporal vertigo as you realized that you were repeating mark for mark the motions of Descartes in 1637 when he first wrote that same formula? Does the notion of a handful of inked symbols linking us to a time four hundred years in the past pluck at your heartstrings?

Do you realize that humanity’s mathematical triumphs have left problems that once challenged the greatest mathematicians as exercises for schoolchildren? Do you feel lightheaded from the dizzying height of the shoulders on which you stand?

Don’t interrupt me, Margaret. Class is not over until I have finished speaking.

Have you even considered that before the work of Brahmagupta in the seventh century, humanity had no notion of computing with the number zero? Does the thought of manipulating nothingness itself make you queasy?

The quadratic equation, with the variables crowded on the left hand side and zero solitary on the right, does that impossible balance remind you of the Egyptian ritual of Ma’at, where the human heart is weighed against a feather?

Don’t cry. Did Gaston Julia snivel and wipe his nose in the face of the intimate symmetries of the complex fractal set which bears his name? No. He didn’t have a nose. It was blown off his face in the First World War.

Do you have even an ounce of zeal in your weak, timid body? Speak up. “Kind of?” What sort of limp-wristed, half hearted piffle did you just dare to spit in my face? Answer with vigor, or remove yourself from my classroom. Louder. Say it louder, damn you.

I apologize. I did not mean to lose my temper. However, regretfully, sometimes the mathematical sentiment must be brought out with physical force.

I think that will be enough for today. By the time we meet again on Monday I expect to see each of you hard at work cultivating the spirit of mathematics within you. God knows you’ll need it for next year with Mr. Timmins.