Once upon a time in high school I was walking around either before or after my classes for the day (or perhaps it was lunch) and saw a pleasingly large stack of books outside the math department — old textbooks, journals, popular math books, the like — and took a peek. I was, after all, already collecting for my "library," even then. And these were free books! And this must have been during my junior year or so because I’d finally discovered that, despite my best intentions, I sort of liked math, or at least I liked calculus. So I took a few, most of which I still have to this day, e.g., Øystein Ore’s Invitation to Number Theory (out of which I took the prompt for Response 03), Zippin’s Uses of Infinity, as well as one thick gray volume entitled The Mathematical Experience, by messieurs Davis and Hersh (they’re not French). Being the good student I was, thinking I’d want to refer to these later, I duly lugged them to every subsequent room and apartment I lived in during college and after, on to Wisconsin, and then to Boston. I found occasion to poke into them every now and again but I never really got around to reading them per se. While I did admittedly do more math stuff in college, it was all from the philosophy angle and through the lens (comically) of Kant (a memoir for another day: My Misadventures in Historical Philosophy of Math). I think I pulled an essay out of The Mathematical Experience for a class or two, but suffice to say I hadn’t really given it a proper read until opening it up again the other night, thinking I needed a new "interesting but not too interesting" bedtime book. I’d just finished Charles Seife’s Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea after all, and thought I could do with a little more toes-dipping back in.
Anyway, this book, The Mathematical Experience is brilliant, and I’m noting it today because as I was reading a bit this morning I quite literally laughed out loud, which is not something one typically does reading math books (or maybe they do and I’ve just been missing out). It may also just be my… idiosyncratic sense of humor, but come on, this is funny:
I.M.: No, no. There’s nothing subjective about it! Everybody knows what a proof is. Just read some books, take courses form a competetent mathematician, and you’ll catch on.
Student: Are you sure?
I.M.: Well—it is possible that you won’t, if you don’t have any aptitude for it. That can happen, too.
Student: Then you decide what a proof is, and if I don’t learn to decide in the same way, you decide I don’t have any aptitude.
I.M.: If not me, then who?
Okay, so maybe that wasn’t the best pull quote to provide without more context, but it still makes me giggle. I mean, I’m a sucker for any riff on the old Hillel saying, sure, but also the way that these two professional mathematicians take the piss out of themselves and their "fraternity" cracks me up. Also, I love it when a book just feels Jewish. It makes me happy.
Anyway, all of which is to say that books are great and it makes me happy when I can sneak in some book learnin' even though I’m probably not going to be able to get back into a classroom in the foreseeable future. Since I’m on his Wikipedia page anyway, here’s another good one from Hillel:
Say not, "When I have free time I shall study"; for you may perhaps never have any free time.