Mathematics is the only area of human intellectual endeavor where it is considered socially acceptable and even desirable to make the claim that “I was never good at it.” All teachers of mathematics are familiar with being at a social gathering, meeting people for the first time and hearing that after they respond to the question, “What do you do?” Therefore it is not surprising that the popular media tends to distort the purpose and usage of mathematics. Movies are made and books are written for people to experience their contents. If something is disliked by the general public, entertainers will avoid it.
In this book of academic essays, you will learn about some of the depictions of mathematics in the popular culture. (The book is part of a series on popular culture from McFarland, an academic publisher that does not usually publish mathematics.) The table of contents shows that the book has a broad range, so that few people will be familiar with all of the descriptions of popular cultural material in which mathematics has been used. For example, there is a lengthy article on the television series “Lost” and references to movies such as “Stand and Deliver.” As is almost always the case when one is discussing the use of mathematics in an item of pop culture, there is a great deal of legitimate room for reasonable and mathematically knowledgeable people to disagree over the quality of the presentation. As I read some of the essays about books or movies that I have not experienced, I was motivated to do further research.
By far my favorite essay in this collection was “The Mathematical Misanthrope and American Popular Culture,” by Kenneth Faulkner. While there are mentions of Kurt Gödel and Albert Einstein, the primary focus of the article is on the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and Nobel Prize winner John Nash, two people where the phrase “Mathematical Misanthrope” would apply to the public perception of mathematicians. I was not aware that while he was at Harvard Kaczynski was subjected to a series of intense psychiatric tests designed to produce severe stress. At his trial, even though he was judged sane and competent, Kaczynski was denied his request to defend himself. It appears as if the legal community did all it could to keep him silent. While he is clearly misguided, there seems little doubt that Kaczynski is very sane and capable of making intelligent social commentary. One can easily envision him as a member of many of the revolutionary movements that are now part of history books, with some of the bombers now considered national heroes.
John Nash is an incredible success story, both as a mathematician as well as in his personal battle against severe mental illness. He suffered greatly while undergoing medical “treatment” and it was his will to overcome combined with loving support that made it possible for Nash to conquer his demons.
In this collection of essays on how math is depicted, the arguments and conclusions are very subjective, an area in which mathematicians rarely dwell. Yet, it is important for mathematicians to serve as a corrective rudder to the popular expression of mathematics, making the reading of this book both entertaining and culturally important.
Charles Ashbacher splits his time between consulting with industry in projects involving math and computers, teaching college classes and co-editing The Journal of Recreational Mathematics. In his spare time, he reads about these things and helps his daughter in her lawn care business.