Wednesday, March 7, 2012

prisoner's dilemma

"The essence of mathematics resides in its freedom."
- Georg Cantor 

In a recent article in Prospect magazine, David McConnell writes of his experience teaching basic mathematics to prison inmates. He explains,  "I once decided to teach maths to prisoners. Surprisingly, many of them embraced prison discipline to study for the General Educational Development (GED) test...." Like his students, McConnell's own learning path wasn't a direct one:

I’d re-learned maths myself as a kind of tourist or traveller. Instead of the disconnected and seemingly arbitrary techniques I’d studied in the odd moments between recess and leaf collecting and dinosaur books, I found maths a unified country, sober and dazzling, when I returned to it as an adult.

Both in his return to math as an adult, and in his reflections on math's appeal for those that have lost their freedom, McConnell's piece reminded me of an article about Wole Soyinka written by Anushree Majumdar in the Indian Express a couple of years ago:

As a school student, Nigerian author Wole Soyinka loathed mathematics... Little did the Nobel Laureate know at the time, that mathematics would save him from losing his mind, during his imprisonment in 1997. “When I was imprisoned, I was thrown into solitary confinement. I had been placed under trial but it was a barren existence. I invented games in my head. I began doing mathematics again. I’d scratch on the floor of the cell with a stone, working  out permutations and combinations, using different formulae. Hours would pass  but it nearly drove me crazy too ... I had to create an interior life to survive”

A literary example of using mathematics as a means of hanging on to sanity (unsuccessfully) under imprisonment (and torture) is found in George Orwell's 1984. In 1984, Winston Smith clings to the one truth that he feels cannot be unmade, that 2 + 2 = 4.

Against this narrative of mathematics as liberation or resistance stands another that sees the rigor and certainty of math as an oppressive force. As Dostoyevsky's underground man says: " twice two makes five is sometimes a very charming thing too." (See the Wikipedia article on 2+2=5 for more - and also this.)