Friday, November 27, 2009

mathematical lapses

Every man has somewhere in the back of his head the wreck of a thing which he calls his education.
- Stephen Leacock, A Manual of Education

I recently stumbled upon some of Stephen Leacock's writings on wikisource (also available at Project Gutenburg). Stephen Leacock is well known (in Canada at least) as a humourist who wrote in the early part of the 20th century. It is less often noted that a few of his pieces were inspired by (or made use of) school mathematics. Now about a century since they were first published, some of these don't stand up so well, but overall they retain flashes of humor and insight that make them well-worth reading.

The best known of Leacock's school-math inspired writings is A, B, C: The Human Element in Mathematics, republished recently in Mathematics Teacher. Others include Boarding House Geometry, and Aristocratic Education.

What I like the most about Stephen Leacock's math-related humour is that it represents the sort of writing that restores mathematics to its rightful place within the humanities. In the Leacock universe, mathematics is something that every educated person knows about (at least up to a point). It is, or should be, a subject that people have enough facility with that they can find humor in it. Leacock makes it seem completely normal that you would simile knowingly at a mathematical reference just as you might a literary one, and that Euclid would be as familiar a name as Shakespeare.