After my previous post on connecting with mathematics at an emotional level, my friend Roger Bridgman, former curator, communications at the Science Museum in London, sent me this:
“I learned to love maths when we had a teacher (we were doing elementary calculus) who said “Here’s the textbook, it’s written by a much better mathematician than me, so you read Chapter 1 and I’ll go down the pub.” With which, he walked out, only to return after an hour to make sure we were still there. We thought “Wow! Mathematicians can break the rules! This stuff is more interesting than it seems!” An emotional connection is essential for real learning, and he provided it, if in a rather unorthodox way.”
In a similar vein, I was just fourteen when my father, convinced (correctly) that education provided a path out of the poverty trap, began to study for the high school diploma that he had never got. For the calculus part of the mathematics he had a little book called “Calculus Made Easy” by the eccentric English author Silvanus P. Thompson. His motto was “What one fool can do, another can”.
Here is the prologue:
Considering how many fools can calculate, it is surprising that it should be thought either a difficult or a tedious task for any other fool to learn how to master the same tricks.
Some calculus-tricks are quite easy. Some are enormously difficult.
The fools who write the textbooks of advanced mathematics (and they
are mostly clever fools) seldom take the trouble to show you how easy
the easy calculations are. On the contrary, they seem to desire to
impress you with their tremendous cleverness by going about it in the
most difficult way.
Being myself a remarkably stupid fellow, I have had to unteach
myself the difficulties, and now beg to present to my fellow fools the
parts that are not hard. Master these thoroughly, and the rest will
follow. What one fool can do, another can.
I picked up the book when my father was out (I now suspect that he had left it lying around for just that temptation), read its wonderful prologue, and thought to myself “Maybe??” And I could, becoming increasingly excited as I realized that I could actually follow it, and learn what felt like a secret language. That excitement has stayed with me for the rest of my life. And despite the fact that I went on to study maths at uni, most of the calculus that I used during my career as a scientist came from Thompson’s little book.
I am a lousy mathematician, by the way, just as I am a lousy artist and a hopeless musician. But I can still enjoy all three as a spectator, and in very much the same way. So, I believe could many more people. What one fool can enjoy, another can.
Thompson’s book, incidentally, is freely available from Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/33283/33283-pdf.pdf?session_id=2080ca88d5708bd130339d81f53deedc8b44c459
Flattered that should quote my little story and delighted that the great Sylvanus P. Thompson should have set you on your mathematical way. I first came across him when I started collecting historical books on electrical engineering and picked up a copy of his Dynamo Electrical Machinery (1896). It’s written in a practical, no-nonsense style which he obviously carried over into his mathematical teaching. Teachers, it seems, teach best when they forget they are teachers and let themselves be just people trying to convey the excitement of what they know and do.
I found this book when I was at the engineering school, looking for a calculus text book. I decided to become an engineer because I was so disappointed with my job (I’m a journalist), with my degree (I’m a BA in philodophy), and I have always been in love with math, but always felt this love to be not corresponded. But I insisted – today I am trying to graduate in math, despite some difficulties, and prof. Thompson’s Prologue keeps me going on. I simply refuse to accept that math in not within my reach. It’s a language, and so many people ‘speak’ it. Being myself a remarkably stupid fellow, I’m sure that math and I can still live a beautiful love story. Thank you, dr Fisher, for sharing your story.