On Devlin’s Death of Mathematics

On Devlin’s Death of Mathematics

We may choose to embrace the technology of our times and do away with pen and paper. But then, we need to gauge the possible danger that lies in such adoption.

This write-up draws on the opinions of Doctor Keith Devlin expressed in the essay “The Death of Mathematics”. Devlin is a professor of mathematics at Stanford University and has authored several books including The Language of Mathematics, The Man of Numbers and The Unfinished Game. He is also known for his online visibility. His course titled ‘Introduction to Mathematical Thinking’, offered by Coursera, is one of the most celebrated Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) on Mathematics. In all, he is someone who knows quite well what it means to teach mathematics both offline and online. Devlin, in his essay, points to a very enervating question and drives our attention to a very sensitive issue. This is the question of the death of mathematics, and the subsequent impact on human life and its flourishing.
In his essay, Devlin makes readers realize that advances in science, engineering, technology and management are heavily dependent upon advances in mathematics. Mathematics kind of reshapes them over and over again. It is indispensable for human progress and human flourishing. No mathematics can have serious and ugly implications.
To understand what the death of mathematics means, consider the following. The question of whether technology should be embraced and welcomed without scrutinising it and without weighing its pros and cons is a common concern. Given the number of gadgets at our disposal, there is a double-edged sword staring us right in the face. Not embracing the technology of the times is like denying oneself the pleasures and benefits of human advancements on the one hand, and, on the other hand, there is an invariable danger of falling prey to it and playing into the hands of technology.
In the essay, Devlin points to the transition or shift in which people turned to using calculators and computers for carrying out mathematical calculations. While on one hand the use of such mechanical aids did do away with some of the basic abilities to do mathematical sums in mind or using pen and paper, yet, on the other hand, arithmetic skills gave way to algebraic thinking. So, it was not a complete disaster.
Devlin is, however, deeply concerned with the danger that lies in the excessive use of such devices. The advent of sophisticated machinery at hand for carrying out both complicated and basic calculations in mathematics has made it next to impossible that we witness again the likes of mathematical gems such as Fermat, Gauss, Riemann and Ramanujan. The habit of carrying out tedious and long calculations by hand dawned upon them deep understanding of the behaviour of numbers and it resulted in several beautiful and insightful conjectures in mathematics.
But the beauty of having machines do calculations, which otherwise would have not been easy or even in some cases humanly possible even for the mathematical giants, is also not a petty thing. Machines can find out quickly what we may not be able to do even in years together.
This is a dilemma where one has to either do away with the traditional methods of learning and doing mathematics with pen and paper, or else do away with the technology of the times. The latter seems not possible.
For Devlin, it is devastating and destroying if the tradition of doing mathematics by hand goes for good. Devlin is somewhat unsure of what is going to happen to mathematics given such circumstances. And he seems, almost surely, to believe that this way, mathematics is going to die an unfortunate death. To him, it is not going to be very long, just a couple of decades. And if that happens, all genuine progress is going to be halted. The death of mathematics is going to leave science, technology, engineering and all other forms of human domains affected beyond repair.
We may choose to embrace the technology of our times and do away with pen and paper. But then, we need to gauge the possible danger that lies in such adoption. Our educational intuitions are becoming more and more paperless. Tabs, screens, online or digital learning management systems and streaming of content are becoming increasingly popular and commonplace. It may be a good thing. It may be a bad thing. We need to weigh the pros and cons. We need to strike a balance.
Calculators have their roles to play but humans have bigger roles to play. Humans cannot afford to give away the power of being creative and innovative by falling prey to their own inventions. In the words of John A. Wan de Walle, “Calculators can only calculate – they cannot do mathematics.” Although the advent of artificial intelligence has made possible that machines may come up with mathematical conjectures and many other surprising things, it seems like man will have to bear the burden of being creative. Humans cannot afford to bring the world to a standstill. Humans must do mathematics.

The writer is Assistant Professor at Government Degree College Sopore. [email protected]

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