29 October 2011

Swedish tabloid on mathematicians and gods

Earlier this year, some guy called Marcus Birro wrote a silly article in a Swedish tabloid called Expressen, where, among other things, he tells us that he couldn't undestand why use symbols instead of numbers in school, that he doesn't like mathematicians because they sit down all day doing nothing, that they have no feelings, and that, therefore (!!!), god exists.

I sent him the following email:
From: Takis Konstantopoulos
Date: Thu, Oct 27, 2011 at 7:00 PM
Subject: matematik och gudar
Mr Birro,

I "read" your article in Expressen, as far as I could understand it via google-translate. You are, actually, so very wrong about your impression of what a mathematician is. Mathematics is much more than what you learned in high school. Most likely, your teachers were pretty bad, uninspiring, boring,... just as many mathematics schoolteachers world-wide. They gave you the impression that doing mathematics with numbers is not the same as doing mathematics with letters. You do not understand that 1, 2, 3, and so on, are mere symbols, just as a, b, c. You do not understand that mathematics is not about numbers. You also do not understand what a proof means. I do not blame you. I also do not understand how DNA works, because I lack knowledge of biology and chemistry. However, I do understand that molecular biologists are not spending their time merely memorizing the sequence of atoms comprising a DNA molecule. Just as I understand that a journalist doesn't, simply, take a piece of gossip he or she has heard from his or her buddies and write an article about it. I'm afraid you have not done your homework and are simply expressing an opinion which is the equivalent of shouting slogans in a football match.

I will not try to comment on your opinion of god or gods. (Who knows how many there are?) Your proof of existence of gods is that mathematicians are useless. How absurd!  Think a little bit, if you can, and see how unsubstantiated your claims are. I can tell you that no mathematical formula can measure what is happening in my heart when reading a poem of Cavafy, just as no formula can measure what is happening in your heart when you read a poem by Dan Andersson (in your words). But this is neither an argument against mathematics, nor an argument for the existence of gods, my friend. What is happening in our hearts, the love you feel for your children, is what is happening in other primates' hearts too. Being the product of a complicated evolution, which is beyond your understanding (and mine, for that matter), love and hate, and the ability to write silly articles like the one you did, emotions and feelings keep us alive and can be explained via chemistry and physics and biology and neuroscience. But you have to be patient for science to evolve too. And also try very very very hard to understand (some) science and learn (some) mathematics.

The easy solution is to say "gods exist and therefore this explains the love I feel". And you think you're done. This is the lazy approach. Just as the fact that I need an incredible amount of training in order to play a little piano piece well, so you too (and everybody who is outside a field) need a lot of training in science and mathematics in order to be able to understand why letters and numbers can express human thought and lead to a proof. However, even though I do not have the time (or ability) to learn piano like, say, Andrei Gavrilov, I can and do appreciate not only his playing, but also his effort and thinking. Why? because I can compare judiciously. Likewise, even though you may have no time (or ability) to learn any mathematics, you can, with a bit of effort and comparison and extrapolation, appreciate something which lies beyond your sphere of understanding.

Just try it. You can.

And then you can correct your article.
Takis Konstantopoulos
He hasn't replied to me. I wonder why.

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What measure theory is about

It's about counting, but when things get too large.
Put otherwise, it's about addition of positive numbers, but when these numbers are far too many.

The principle of dynamic programming

max_{x,y} [f(x) + g(x,y)] = max_x [f(x) + max_y g(x,y)]

The bottom line

Nuestras horas son minutos cuando esperamos saber y siglos cuando sabemos lo que se puede aprender.
(Our hours are minutes when we wait to learn and centuries when we know what is to be learnt.) --António Machado

Αγεωμέτρητος μηδείς εισίτω.
(Those who do not know geometry may not enter.) --Plato

Sapere Aude! Habe Muth, dich deines eigenen Verstandes zu bedienen!
(Dare to know! Have courage to use your own reason!) --Kant