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I had chosen mathematics only because I discovered I could do math very well. And I had somehow gotten the idea that math was at a higher level. But I really got interested in math because of application science. I hadn’t fully appreciated that. I was interested in math, and I was interested in all these things in terms of some kind of use. And by use I meant application, understanding nature—DO something with it. Richard Feynman, quoted in Feynman’s Rainbow by Leonard Mlodinow
You’re right. Philanderist is not a word. But, why not? I like it better than philanderer and it fits into the “ists” of my title. It’s not unprecedented. Barbara Kingsolver uses the word in The Poisonwood Bible. A Baptist missionary and domineering father moves his wife and four daughters to the Congo. The eldest daughter, Rachel, tells us about an affair cooked up to protect her from a local chief who has taken a fancy to her:
Well, it turns out Father and Mr. Axelroot hatched up a plan to get me out of marrying Tata Ndu without hurting the whole village’s feelings. They’re setting it up to look like I was already promised in marriage to Eben Axelroot! I about croaked. Mother says don’t let it get me down, it is only for appearance’s sake. But that means now hecomes around the house all the time, too, and I have to act engaged! And, naturally, we have to act like it out on the front porch so everybody can see. Sit out there and watch the grass dry up is my social life at this point in time. Don’t let it get me down? Man, oh man! I always wanted to be the belle of the ball, but jeepers, is this ever the wrong ball.
The very first time we were alone for ten seconds on the porch, believe it or not, Axelroot tried to get fresh. He put his arm on the back of my chair. I slapped him hard like Elizabeth Taylor in the Hot Tin Roof and I guess that showed him a thing or two. But then he laughed, if you can believe. Well! I reminded him this entire engagement was a lot of bunk and don’t you forget it. ‘Mr. Axelroot,’ I said, ‘I will commiserate your presence on this porch with me but only as a public service to keep the peace in this village. And furthermore, it would help if you took a bath once every year or two.’ I’m willing to be a philanderist for peace, but a lady can only go so far where perspiration odor is concerned. I kept thinking of Brigitte Bardot and all those soldiers. Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
Yea, a philanderist is someone who runs around, is unfaithful like Runaround Sue in Dion DiMucci’s hit song from 1961 when I was just a kid in high school.
Long before high school I discovered I was good at math. Something about numbers excited me. I remember in the second grade my teacher scolded me. She thought I was writing the number eight by drawing two circles on top of each other rather than in one continuous motion without lifting my pencil from the paper as we were supposed to do. I wasn’t but that got me thinking “what are numbers anyway?” and “how are they related to the symbols we put on paper to represent them?” Are numbers real things? Are they just out there someplace waiting for us to discover them? Or, are they something we have “invented” like words because they’re convenient? The first is the Platonist viewpoint after the Greek philosopher Plato—the idea that numbers (and math) have an objective reality; the second is the Positivist point of view of physicists like Richard Feynman or Stephen Hawking who believe “physical theories are just mathematical models we construct, and that it is meaningless to ask if they correspond to reality. (For more on the difference read Physicists, Stop the Churlishness by Jim Holt or Holt’s entertaining book When Einstein Walked With Godel.)
When I left my boxed township of Illinois farmland to attend my dad’s alma mater in the lurid jutting Berkshires of western Massachusetts, I all of a sudden developed a jones for mathematics. I’m starting to see why this was so. College math evokes and catharts a Midwesterner’s sickness for home. I’d grown up inside vectors, lines and lines athwart lines, grids—and, on the scale of horizons, broad curving lines of geographic force, the weird topographical drain-swirl of a whole lot of ice-ironed land that sits and spins atop plates. The area behind and below these broad curves at the seam of land and sky I could plot by eye way before I came to know infinitesimals as easements, an integral as schema. Math at a hilly Eastern school was like waking up; it dismantled memory and put it in light. Calculus was, quite literally, child’s play. David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments
“A jones for mathematics.” That’s not something I would have thought to say. As I understand it, the phrase “having a jones” didn’t enter the lingo until the 60s and apparently it had to do with drug addiction. But I did have one, a jones for mathematics.
A Platonist believes numbers and mathematical laws are out there in some mysterious or spiritual realm, that they are real things even if we can’t touch or see them. A Positivist would say numbers are simply names we use to understand what we see in nature. For example, the number eight that I had such trouble with in second grade turns out to be the number of petals of the flower named horn of plenty clematis. (It is also an important number (concept) in string theory, an intriguing but unproven idea in physics.)
What good are numbers other than to describe what we see in nature? According to the Platonists, numbers and mathematics have a beauty all their own. The mathematician Edward Frenkel felt so strongly about his Platonism he wrote a book about it entitled Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality. He also wrote, directed and acted in a movie called the Rites of Love and Math with the apparent goal of bringing together the sciences and the humanities but not without some controversy (see Rites of Love and Math, a movie by Reine Graves and Edward Frenkel and Review of Frenkel’s Film).
I came to love math as much as Frenkel. I carried that love all the way through high school into college. I chose math as my college major “because I discovered I could do math very well.” (Not as well as Feynman, but pretty well.} I had a wonderful high school teacher. I wrote about him in an earlier blog (What A Teacher Can Do).
Dale Sherrill was Pierce High School’s poliomyelitic science and math teacher. He wore leg braces and metal crutches strapped to his arms as he inched his way down the hallway from his office to the classroom. He taught me Euclidean geometry, analytical geometry, calculus, and physics, subjects I adored because of the pristine certainty they provided. On the weekends, he and the band teacher, Verne Cowen, distilled a very powerful vodka. On a few occasions, I would visit their house with another math enthusiast and Mr. Sherrill would serve us an occasional Vodka Collins.
Vodka Collins aside, Mr. Sherrill really was an excellent math teacher. I nailed the math section of the SAT exam and the next thing I knew I found myself majoring in mathematics at Stanford. My roommate and his girlfriend (later his wife) were both math majors. They went on to obtain Master Degrees in math from Columbia University. I completed the work for my degree in mathematics, but I decided not to go further. It turns out I was a philanderist. I loved math but I also loved a lot of other things I wanted to explore.
I did have some interesting experiences as a tutor. There was a demand for math tutors and I needed a job to help pay for college. The tuition in those days was $1,500 a year. With inflation that would be around $12,000 today but actual tuition (not including room, board, books) is closer to $50,000. College costs have gone up much faster than inflation, a complaint that has become a political issue and rightfully so.
One of my students, a boy who loved biology and hated math, was a double challenge. After I convinced him he needed the basics of calculus and statistics to pursue a career in biology, he put in the effort and we made real progress. The second challenge was harder for me. He had a large glass case in his room extending from one wall to the other. I asked him what the case was for and he answered a boa constrictor. There was no snake in the case. “Where is it,” I asked. He answered nonchalantly, “Oh, it’s around here somewhere.”
My most famous student was Jane Samuelson, daughter of the Nobel economist Paul Samuelson. By the time I met her I had already decided to take a double major in economics. Her father didn’t receive the Nobel until after I left Stanford, but I was knew of him since we used his textbook in my introductory course at Stanford. He played tennis with his daughter when he visited but that was not a sport I played. Unfortunately I did not meet him. Later I went on to get my Masters in Economics and Statistics at U.C. Berkeley. By then I realized theoretical mathematics was not in my future. And, why would it be? I was a philanderist.
Professor [Max] Planck, of Berlin, the famous originator of the Quantum Theory, once remarked to me that in early life he had thought of studying economics, but had found it too difficult! Professor Planck could easily master the whole corpus of mathematical economics in a few days. He did not mean that! But the amalgam of logic and intuition and the wide knowledge of facts, most of which are not precise, which is required for economic interpretation in its highest form is, quite truly, overwhelmingly difficult for those whose gift mainly consists in the power to imagine and pursue to their furthest points the implications and prior conditions of comparatively simple facts which are known with a high degree of precision. John Maynard Keynes, ‘Alfred Marshall: 1842-1924’ (1924). In Geoffrey Keynes (ed.), Essays in Biography (1933),
“A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.” Idiom of unknown origin
After over-educating myself in mathematics, economics and statistics I turned to the real world, ran a restaurant for awhile, spent my middle age as a financial advisor, and here I am blogging, still a philanderist, still confused as to what I want to do in life.
Sometimes when I’m in a wistful mood, waxing nostalgic around family members I’ll challenge them to “ask me any math question.” I’m out of practice, my mind isn’t what it used to be, but I still find I can answer a few. But what about the other questions, the ones beyond math, the ones no one has been able to answer? Now that’s something I must look into. Yes. Aha! A new challenge.
The Old Fools
What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It’s more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember
Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,
They could alter things back to when they danced all night,
Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?
Or do they fancy there’s really been no change,
And they’ve always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,
Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming
Watching light move? If they don’t (and they can’t), it’s strange:
Why aren’t they screaming?
At death, you break up: the bits that were you
Start speeding away from each other for ever
With no one to see. It’s only oblivion, true:
We had it before, but then it was going to end,
And was all the time merging with a unique endeavour
To bring to bloom the million-petaled flower
Of being here. Next time you can’t pretend
There’ll be anything else. And these are the first signs:
Not knowing how, not hearing who, the power
Of choosing gone. Their looks show that they’re for it:
Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines –
How can they ignore it?
Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms
Inside your head, and people in them, acting.
People you know, yet can’t quite name; each looms
Like a deep loss restored, from known doors turning,
Setting down a lamp, smiling from a stair, extracting
A known book from the shelves; or sometimes only
The rooms themselves, chairs and a fire burning,
The blown bush at the window, or the sun’s
Faint friendliness on the wall some lonely
Rain-ceased midsummer evening. That is where they live:
Not here and now, but where all happened once.
This is why they give
An air of baffled absence, trying to be there
Yet being here. For the rooms grow farther, leaving
Incompetent cold, the constant wear and tear
Of taken breath, and them crouching below
Extinction’s alp, the old fools, never perceiving
How near it is. This must be what keeps them quiet:
The peak that stays in view wherever we go
For them is rising ground. Can they never tell
What is dragging them back, and how it will end? Not at night?
Not when the strangers come? Never, throughout
The whole hideous, inverted childhood? Well,
We shall find out.