Posted in remarks, tagged pedagogy on June 30, 2009 |
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When someone linked me to Ravi Vakil’s advice for potential graduate students, I was struck by the following passage:
…[M]athematics is so rich and infinite that it is impossible to learn it systematically, and if you wait to master one topic before moving on to the next, you’ll never get anywhere. Instead, you’ll have tendrils of knowledge extending far from your comfort zone [emphasis mine]. Then you can later backfill from these tendrils, and extend your comfort zone; this is much easier to do than learning “forwards”. (Caution: this backfilling is necessary. There can be a temptation to learn lots of fancy words and to use them in fancy sentences without being able to say precisely what you mean. You should feel free to do that, but you should always feel a pang of guilt when you do.)
It’s great to hear this coming from an expert because this is exactly what I’ve been doing for the past year without realizing it. Without formally learning anything, I’ve begun extending tendrils into algebraic topology, category theory, and all sorts of subjects about which I still can’t say anything particularly intelligent. However, from my experience so far I have a tentative list of the benefits of this strategy:
- It becomes easier to recognize related concepts or constructions across different subjects, hence to tie them together.
- If you have a concept you don’t fully understand sitting in the back of your head, it may come to pass that once you learn the necessary tools to understand it you may re-derive the concept partially based on your memory. As Richard Feynman said, “what I cannot create, I do not understand.”
- Certain things become better motivated if you can say to yourself something like, “oh, I know why we’re learning about Theorem X; it’s an instance of Phenomenon Y which has lots of other nontrivial instances.” Here I’ll give an example: Pontryagin duality.
- You are naturally led to ask lots of questions, and questions are great. “This looks a lot like Theory Z,” you might ask your professor. “What’s the connection?”
The idea that constantly working outside your comfort zone is key to progress appears to me to be a general phenomenon; in two-player games and sports, for example, playing opponents who are better than you is a great way to improve.
What I’m curious about, though, is whether the undergraduate math curriculum explicitly encourages “tendril” behavior. Perhaps it’s just something every math major should be motivated to do independently, but I can’t help but think that Ravi’s advice, which I’ve never seen written down anywhere else, should be more widely acknowledged.
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(A more appropriate title for this post would probably be “I hate Bourbaki,” but I like it as is.)
I spend a lot of my free time reading research papers, usually in combinatorics; those tend to require the least background. Today I decided to read everything I could find written by one of the great champions of combinatorics, Gian-Carlo Rota, and in his philosophical writings I found the explicit declaration of an opinion I’ve held for some time now.
Consider the following passage from Syntax, Semantics, and the Problem of the Identity of Mathematical Objects:
The real line has been axiomatized in at least six different ways. Mathematicians are still looking for further axiomatizations of the real line, too many to support the justification of axiomatization by the claim that we axiomatize only in order to secure the validity of the theory.
Whatever the reasons, the variety of axiomatizations confirms beyond a doubt that the mathematician thinks of one real line, that is, the identity of the object is presupposed and in fact undoubted.
The mathematician’s search for further axiomatizations presupposes the certainty of the identity of the object, but recognizes that the properties of the object can never be completely revealed. The mathematician wants to find out what else the real line can be. He wants ever more perspectives on one and the same object, and the perspectives of mathematics are precisely the various axiomatizations, which lead to a variety of syntactic systems always interpreted as presenting the same object, that is, as having the same models.
Or the following passage, from Combinatorics, representation theory, and invariant theory: The story of a ménage à trois:
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Posted in non-math, tagged self-reference on June 19, 2009 |
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I can’t resist mentioning a joke I heard from an episode of American Dad. Stan Smith has this to say about his training as a negotiator:
Hey, you’ve got one of the CIA’s top negotiators on your side. Y’know, I negotiated my way through negotiator training. I should’ve failed the hell out of that class. That’s how good I am.
It reminds me of some of the issues that cropped up in Scott Aaronson’s discussion of side-splitting proofs, especially Theorem 5. I can’t help but chuckle at the fact that Stan’s line gives both a lower and an upper bound on the quality of his negotiation skills!
Anyone know of other jokes like this one?
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The orbit-stabilizer theorem implies, very immediately, one of the most important counting results in group theory. The proof is easy enough to give in a paragraph now that we’ve set up the requisite machinery. Remember that we counted fixed points by looking at the size of the stabilizer subgroup. Let’s count them another way. Since a fixed point is really a pair such that , and we’ve been counting them indexed by , let’s count them indexed by . We use to denote the set of fixed points of . (Note that this is a function of the group action, not the group, but again we’re abusing notation.) Counting the total number of fixed points “vertically,” then “horizontally,” gives the following.
On the other hand, by the orbit-stabilizer theorem, it’s true for any orbit that , since the cosets of any stabilizer subgroup partition . This immediately gives us the lemma formerly known as Burnside’s, or the Cauchy-Frobenius lemma, which we’ll give a neutral name.
Orbit-counting lemma: The number of orbits in a group action is given by , i.e. the average number of fixed points.
In this post we’ll investigate some consequences of this result.
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