Mathematics often elicits a mixture of awe and anxiety in people. On one hand, it's seen as an objective tool that can either support or challenge arguments, but on the other hand, it can be an intimidating subject. Eugenia Cheng, a scientist based at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has dedicated her career to alleviating these apprehensions. She not only imparts mathematical knowledge to artists but has also authored books tailored for various age groups, all with the aim of fostering a sense of mathematical curiosity. Her most recent book, titled "Is Math Real?: How Simple Questions Lead Us to Mathematics’ Deepest Truths," illuminates how apparently straightforward questions can unlock profound insights into the world of mathematics, appreciating it for its inherent value.
While mathematics is often perceived as delivering clear-cut, black-and-white answers, Cheng challenges this notion. She emphasizes that mathematics isn't just about arriving at correct or incorrect results; rather, it's a tool for posing questions and exploring potentialities. Instead of simply accepting mathematical facts, Cheng urges students to maintain their inherent curiosity about numbers and patterns.
For instance, she delves into the question of why 1 isn't classified as a prime number, even though it meets the criteria of being a positive whole number divisible only by itself and 1. Cheng elucidates that the exclusion of 1 from the prime number category is pivotal to preserve the uniqueness of products when breaking down whole numbers into their prime components. This uniqueness has proven invaluable for mathematicians in their exploration of number properties.
Cheng's book is replete with straightforward questions that lead to profound discussions about the foundations of Western mathematics. It explores concepts such as why 1+1 equals 2 and why multiplying two negatives results in a positive. Through this exploration, she not only imparts insights into the realm of mathematics but also shares her personal experiences as both a student and a teacher.
The book also delves into the intersection of mathematical thinking with real life, from scrutinizing the biases inherent in the widely used Mercator map projection, which magnifies the perceived size of colonialist countries, to drawing parallels between the acceptance of new mathematical concepts and the open-mindedness required to understand the experiences of marginalized groups in society.
"Is Math Real?" strives to help readers comprehend the fundamental questions that drive the world of mathematics and to recognize the significance of mathematics in their daily lives.