The unreasonable delightfulness of Mathematics, Substance and Surmise
I’ve been (slowly) reading my friend Ernie’s newest book called Mathematics, Substance and Surmise. It’s been published by Springer and is available now for purchase or what looks like a free download (update! I get it free because I’m on Columbia internet).
Actually he wrote it with his dad, which is freaking adorable, and also it’s actually not strictly written by them: it’s a collection of delightful essays on the ontology of mathematics from all sorts of perspectives.
Full disclosure: Ernie is a friend of mine, who was a generous and patient reader for my forthcoming book, and as such I am of course disposed to love his book. He even mentions my book in the introduction to his, so obviously he’s written an amazing book. But here’s the thing: actually, he has written an amazing book.
Fuller disclosure: I haven’t read the whole book yet. I tried to wait until I was done before blogging about it, but I just couldn’t because I am bubbling over with excitement, and as we all know bloggers are notoriously bad at impulse control. But I also feel like I could blog separately about each essay, so there’s always the possibility I might blog again later on about the rest of the book.
It’s a long book, too, chock full of entirely different ideas and perspectives. Which means that what I have read of this book, I have taken in slowly, because it’s really dense and fascinating and I haven’t wanted to miss anything. Whether it’s thinking about how mathematics and mathematical collaboration is done now versus in the olden days, or how computers have become full partners with mathematicians (what does it mean to “know” a formula for the 4th power of pi is true without having a proof for it?) or how robots should think about space – an unreasonably entertaining and delightful essay written by Ernie himself, which involves pictures of cheese graters and string bags – or indeed thinking about whether mathematical objects exist (is the number 2 a noun or an adjective? Is mathematics about the world or only about itself?), the book consistently makes you think differently, while also giving you substantive and grounded mathematical context in which to do your thinking.
One thing that excited me while reading it yesterday was the possibility that I’ve finally found the space in which to discuss my long-held theory that the sun actually goes around the earth. Not that I think this is a precise and accurate statement, but rather that it’s imprecise yet true, and that when someone corrects me and tells me the earth goes around the sun, that becomes another statement which is of course more precise and accurate statement but still not entirely precise and accurate! So why am I wrong and they’re right? What do humans mean when they say something’s right, anyway?
So I guess what I’m asking is, can I get together with all the people who wrote all the essays in this book and have a long series of dinner parties with them? And I know that’s a common evanescent urge that people have when they read books and really like them, but in my case I actually mean it.
Please, authors of the essays in Mathematics, Substance and Surmise, come by my house any time (give me like 3 hours warning) and discuss stuff with me about the way we think about and do mathematics. I’ll cook.