I just returned from the biennial “Gathering 4 Gardner” meeting that honors the achievements of Martin Gardner (1914-2010), the American mathematics and science writer. The conference promotes new and accessible ideas in recreational mathematics, mathematical art, magic, puzzles, and philosophy.
The conference had special meaning to me. My own interest in science, math, and science-fiction writing started in high school, after receiving a copy of Gardner’s The Unexpected Hanging and Other Mathematical Diversions, an early collection of some of his columns from Scientific American. The book’s tales of the fourth dimension, and matchbox computers for playing tic-tac-toe, energized my imagination.
Today, I work at the IBM T. J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, NY. For decades, I have been intrigued by a huge poster by American designers Charles and Ray Eames, adjacent to our Watson library, which features a chronological view of mathematics through the biography of great mathematicians. Gauss, Euler, Napier, Hilbert, and more!
One could stare at the poster for hours and never be bored with its intricate details. To mark the impact of math on the world, IBM has created an iPad app based on this poster, Minds of Modern Mathematics, which you can download here.
It may surprise you to learn that my fascination with this poster, and with Martin Gardner, played a significant role in the creation of my recent work, The Math Book: From Pythagoras to the 57th Dimension. In fact, I was delighted that Gardner lived to see the book, which is dedicated to him.
The book is motivated by my interest in bringing science, mathematics and creativity to the broader public. I’d like to share an excerpt:
Mathematics has permeated every field of scientific endeavor and plays an invaluable role in biology, physics, chemistry, economics, sociology, and engineering. Mathematics can be used to help explain the colors of a sunset or the architecture of our brains. Mathematics helps us build supersonic aircraft and roller coasters, simulate the flow of Earth’s natural resources, explore subatomic quantum realities, and image faraway galaxies. Mathematics has changed the way we look at the cosmos.
American educator David Berlinski once wrote, “The computer has… changed the very nature of mathematical experience, suggesting for the first time that mathematics, like physics, may yet become an empirical discipline, a place where things are discovered because they are seen.” Indeed, we are continuing to encounter mathematical results discovered with the aid of computer-based tools.
Today, we use computers to help us reason beyond the limitations of our own intuition. Experiments with computers are leading mathematicians to discoveries and insights never dreamed of before the ubiquity of computers.
Of course, companies like IBM are interested in analytics — the application of computer technology, mathematics, and operations research to solve big practical problems. Massive-scale analytics can help us identify business trends, transform the way we approach education, assist law-enforcement agencies, generally change the way people use information, and much more….
Returning to science history, I believe that studying science and mathematics through the telescope of history has profound value for students and anyone curious about the evolution of thought and the limits of mind. When we study the history of mathematics, we see the challenges of both amateur and professional mathematicians who persevered; we see abacuses morphing into slide rules, and into calculators and computers.
Our brains, which evolved to make us run from lions on the African savannah, may not be constructed to penetrate the infinite veil of reality. We may need mathematics, science, computers, brain augmentation, and even literature, art, and poetry to help us tear away the veils.
Dr. Clifford A. Pickover is a prolific author and futurist, having published more than 40 books, translated into over a dozen languages. He has also written more than 200 articles on topics in science, art, and mathematics. He holds more than 100 U.S. patents for inventions dealing with computing technologies.