Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Geometry Explains the Shape of Everything

While my college-age son is a true math genius (despite being named after two authors and being born on Shakespeare's birthday), math stopped making much sense to me in my high school algebra class. I never got much beyond algebra II and trig. However, one math class spoke to me; in fact, it practically sang to me. And that was geometry. 

In terms of scope and sequence in K12 education, geometry is a left turn detour that throws a lot people for a loop, ... or perhaps throws them for a parallelogram. It's not really linear, in a manner of speaking, for the entire math progression. And the mathletes I know tend to sneer at it, especially when it shows up in competition. However, for others, geometry is the only math class that ever mattered. And now a true mathematician, Jordan Ellenberg of the University of Wisconsin, has validated that feeling. Geometry matters a great deal, and in some ways is the most relevant math we have. Ellenberg recently published a book on geometry for the masses, and he seeks to explain and justify "The Hidden Geometry of Information, Biology, Strategy, Democracy, and Everything Else." 

In geometry class, a good friend of mine and I literally never did the homework. We just felt like we didn't need to because we just seemed to get it. In class, our teacher would often divide the class up into teams, and we would race to complete the proofs at the board as our classmates directed us. Sam and I always volunteered. And at the end of the semester, when we had aced every test but done none of the daily work, Mrs. Schneider told us, "You both have 'A's' on every assessment, but zeroes for every daily assignment. That should average to about a 'C.' But considering you did practically every problem on the board with your teams, I think we'll just count that work as your own." That was about the coolest thing a teacher ever did for me.

One key story that Ellenberg shares early in the book is how Abraham Lincoln credited his rhetorical brilliance to the writings of Euclid, the historical figure often referred to as the father of geometry. As an English teacher and writing instructor that makes perfect sense to me. The Lincoln anecdotes are just the beginning of how Ellenberg explains, in layman's terms, how geometry explains the world.

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