Instant Reaction: Mysteries of the Mathematical Universe

Following a short film about the omnipresence of math in our everyday lives, whether we notice it or not, four men who eat and breathe mathematics discussed their passion: how they got into math, whether the eccentric mathematical genius is a true trope, and why current standards for teaching math fails students.


“Math is a wonderful set of tools, but at the same time, it’s a language to express things you didn’t know you wanted to express until you know the language.” – Jonathan Borwein

“Mathematics is not about grammar, it’s about the big stories… We tell those stories because they have the same effect on us as a piece of Shakespeare.” – Marcus du Sautoy, on the assertion that literature is more moving than math

“Mathematics is not about WHAT is right or wrong but WHY it’s right or wrong.” – Keith Devlin

“What they often do in schools is to have you answer, but they never ask you to love the question.” – Robert Krulwich, on why so many people “hate” math

“You listen to a piece of Bach or the blues and you say – THAT’s what I want to do, THAT’s where I’m heading. How many math teachers do that?” – du Sautoy, on teaching “big picture” math

“When you heard that proof [Euclid’s proof for the infinity of prime numbers] for the first time, did it not rock your world? … It’s not about how clever Euclid was — It’s about how beautiful it is that in four lines of argument you can grapple with infinity.” – Simon Singh

“We’ve grown up in a society where if you have a well-formed question, you expect an answer and probably a well-formed answer… [In math,] there are things that are inarguably true that cannot be proven.” – Borwein

“A computer can give me the next prime number, but it can’t help me understand the pattern behind all prime numbers.” – du Sautoy, on the assertion that computers have replaced mathematicians

“If you’re a mathematician, your heart lifts when someone says they want to get into mathematics. We will help you out.” – Devlin, on trying to get into mathematics as an adult


“That’s what it comes down to: Math has nothing to do with numbers.” – Woman ahead of me in line when filing out of the Tishman Auditorium

“I know what a perfect number is now!” – Woman to her friend, before describing what a perfect number is in immense detail (including examples!)

“Amazing discussion of the beauty of math and the job of mathematicians at #wsf11” – @talkingscience, via Twitter

Mysteries of the Mathematical Universe took place on Friday, June 3, 2011. Check out other Instant Reactions or view the full Festival schedule to learn more about the many other 2011 Festival programs.

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