Ellenberg Encourges Uncertainty in Math

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Students and faculty alike eagerly listened to mathematician Dr. Jordan Ellenberg’s address to students and faculty on the power of mathematical thinking on Tuesday, March 22 as the 2016 Charles Krause ’51 Fellow in Rhetoric. His speech expertly tied personal anecdotes with math, encouraging the community to accept uncertainty.

In his introductory remarks Mathematics and Computer Science Department Head Dr. Matthew Bardoe noted a reason for inviting Dr. Ellenberg to speak: “I hope that he inspires you tonight and instills an appreciation of the power of math and a better understanding of the role it plays in all of our lives.”

Dr. Ellenberg launched into his speech by saying, “I want to complicate what you guys think math is and what it means to do math to solve a problem.” He elaborated, “Mathematics is not just about getting the right answer to a question. It’s about asking the right question. And even about rejecting the question that’s being asked to you, if it’s the wrong question.”

During his talk, he challenged students to “put pressure on all your beliefs, not just your mathematic beliefs, your social beliefs, your political beliefs, your scientific beliefs. Believe whatever you believe all day long, but at night try to reason the opposite of what you believe by day. You might change your beliefs, but if you don’t, if you can’t talk yourself out of the things you believe, you will come to understand much more why you believe what you do.”

Dr. Ellenberg was a child prodigy who grew up in Potomac, Maryland. He commented, “I started reading at two, and I could multiply two-digit numbers in my head when I was five. One of my earliest memories is working out a way to generate Pythagorean triples.” When his classmates were learning algebra in eighth grade, he was doing college-level work. Later, Dr. Ellenberg competed in the International Mathematical Olympiad three times, winning two gold medals and one silver.

Currently the John D. MacArthur Professor of Mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dr. Ellenberg received his A.B. and Ph.D. in mathematics from Harvard, as well as a Master’s degree in fiction writing from Johns Hopkins. Later, Dr. Ellenberg wrote two books, the New York Times bestseller How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking and The Grasshopper King, a humorous novel and New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award finalist. Dr. Ellenberg has also written articles for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, and other publications. Additionally, he writes a column for Slate column called “Do the Math.”

The Charles Krause lecture series is a lecture series sponsored by different academic departments each year. Charles Krause ’15 sponsored this series to encourage young people to speak in public with clarity of thought, confidence, and enthusiasm.

This year, it was the math department’s turn to host a Charles Krause ’51 Fellow. Dr. Matthew Bardoe worked with Mr. John Connelly and Mrs. Lorraine Connelly, the co-coordinators of the Charles Krause ’51 Lecture Series to arrange this year’s speaker: “Dr. Ellenberg was easily relatable to a high school audience. What was especially effective about his talk was his discussion about uncertainty and contradiction. We usually associate math with getting the right answers, but Dr. Ellenberg encouraged students and faculty to be more concerned about our ability to ask the right questions.”

Dr. Bardoe also shared some other factors that go into choosing a person for the fellowship: “There is also a financial aspect to how it all works. In all, based on the direction of the Krause fellowship, which tells us how we should be picking people, my recommendations of candidates who would be good to have, and a sense of how much each candidate costs, we make a decision of who would be the best.”

Dr. Ellenberg’s talk warranted mixed student reactions. Ava Hathaway Hacker ’18 remarked, “I thought Dr. Ellenberg’s talk was really good, but I think he introduced a lot of points, and I wish he had focused on a few so that he could have gone more in depth.”

Henry Jacobs ’17 had a similar opinion. “I liked the program,” he said. “I thought he had some very interesting ideas, but I thought from the middle of the program to the end he lost the focus of the audience a little bit.”

Alan Luo ’18 said, “I really enjoyed the speech. I thought he was able to bring at least the foundations of statistical thinking to an accessible level, which was good.” He added, “When I stayed after, a lot of people asked questions, and whereas most speakers would start making things up when they were obviously out of their comfort zone, Dr. Ellenberg said ‘I don’t know.’ I appreciated this because as he said in the speech, ‘sometimes you really just don’t know.’”

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