Words and Numbers
In a letter to Alfred Lord Tennyson, Charles Babbage criticized a line in the poem “The Vision of Sin”: Tennyson was incorrect to say, “Every minute a man dies, Every minute a man is born.” Statistically, the world’s population was not in a state of equilibrium but constantly increasing. Tennyson should have written: “Every minute dies a man, And one and a sixteenth is born." Strictly speaking, Babbage added, the exact figure was 1.067, “but something must, of course, be conceded to the laws of metre.”
This story supports a common prejudice. Supposedly, writers can’t count, and mathematicians can’t write. But like most prejudices, this one is false. Words and numbers complement each other. Both symbol systems encode and decode our world. That is why I collborated with Dani Novak of Department of Math to create a study guide called Twelve Mathematical Concepts.
By defining and illustrating basic mathematical concepts, this guide will help incoming students prepare for the college’s Math Placement Exam. For this reason, it contains many practical exercises. But this guide also hopes to stimulate an interest in math, to explore its beauty, and to demonstrate its relationship to the arts and humanities. Accordingly, this guide also includes historical anecdotes, conceptual illustrations, and philosophical meditations. We believe this material makes math instruction less abstract and more holistic.
“Mathematics,” Albert Einstein observed, “is the poetry of logical ideas, just as poetry can be as elegant as mathematical proofs.” Putting our words and numbers at your service, we hope you will find this guide useful and engaging.