The Professor on a Mission to Make Math Lovable
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Patrick Devlin believes everyone can appreciate the beauty of math.
OZY Educator Award winner Patrick Devlin is an assistant professor of mathematics at Yale, but his stance on our collective push to emphasize STEM disciplines at all costs might be flirting with heresy. “It’s doing more harm than good,” he says. “It precludes the humanities from being an important part of education, and that is dangerous. Such a move also discounts the role that the humanities play in STEM.” After all, Devlin argues, there is so much poetry and philosophy in math, it is really more of a humanities discipline anyway.
This aspect of math is what he focuses on in one of his classes, “Math as a Creative Art,” which is designed for liberal arts majors. Lauren Chan, one of Devlin’s students, is delighted. “He seeks to give students with math PTSD a taste of the fun, philosophical math topics that normally require advanced math credentials to access,” she says.
As an example, the class went on a field trip to Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History to see its stunning collection of gems and crystals. Students met with a geologist who explained how the periodic atomic configurations of crystals are completely determined using a branch of math called group theory. Group theory is the mathematics of symmetry; it’s also the mathematics behind puzzles like the Rubik’s Cube. “I am trying to get people to view math the way that a mathematician does. It’s almost a poetic discipline — it’s not just about working on long computations,” Devlin explains.
I’m really still just a kid having fun with doodles in math class who loves watching [Vi Hart’s] videos.
His pedagogy is highly influenced by Paul Halmos, a masterful mathematics educator and communicator. Halmos’ focus on the creative aspects of math particularly resonated with Devlin, and it’s why he wanted to teach this course at Yale. Devlin’s favorite Halmos quote: “It saddens me that educated people don’t even know my subject exists. There is something they call mathematics, but they neither know how the professionals use that word, nor can they conceive why anybody should do it.”
This is the crux of the problem, according to Devlin. “Too many people are turned off by math because they believe it’s OK to say, ‘I am not a math person,’” he says. People shouldn’t buy into the narrative that they’re just not good at math, because “it soon becomes self-fulfilling,” he observes.
Television shows like The Big Bang Theory don’t help, because they show what being into math is supposed to look like. “It looks like being male and awkward. You’re into video games and comic books — you’re definitely not a woman and you’re definitely not a person of color,” Devlin says.
Underrepresentation of women and minorities in math is of particular concern, and Devlin believes individual mentorship will go a long way in addressing some of these challenges. In addition, he works to incorporate excerpts from biographies about female mathematicians and about people of color, such as Sophie Germain and Srinivasa Ramanujan, into his curriculum.
When Devlin was in high school, he started watching YouTube videos about math, made by a young woman called Vi Hart. “She made these really cool, trippy videos about symmetries and harmonies and a whole host of topics. She’s a big part of the reason I got into math,” he explains. And while Devlin is now an Ivy League professor, at heart, he says, “I’m really still just a kid having fun with doodles in math class who loves watching her videos. I just got a little older.”
Devlin is working to have people love math for its own sake. “Math is beautiful in itself and serves its own purpose,” he says, noting how he’d like people to see math as more than just a useful engineering tool.
“Whether he’s holding class outside with sidewalk chalk or assigning readings exclusively by women mathematicians, [Devlin] is changing the face of mathematics from straight-laced to radically welcoming,” Chan says.