Math: Your Secret Weapon Against Wall Street and the NSA
Edward Frenkel wants you to understand mathematics so economists, bankers, corporations, and intelligence agencies can’t manipulate you anymore.—By Indre Viskontas and Chris Mooney
Edward Frenkel sees it, the way we teach math in schools today is about as exciting as watching paint dry. So it’s not surprising that when he brings up the fact that he’s a mathematician at dinner parties, eyes quickly glaze over. “Most people, unfortunately, have a very bad experience with mathematics,” Frenkel says. And no wonder: The math we learn in school is as far from what Frenkel believes is the soul of mathematics as a painted fence is from “The Starry Night” by Van Gogh, Frenkel’s favorite painter.
The Russian born University of California-Berkeley mathematician, whose day job involves probing the connections between math and quantum physics, wants to change that. Rather than alienating drudgery, Frenkel views math as an “archipelago of knowledge” that’s universally available to all of us, and he’s been everywhere of late spreading the word. In particular, Frenkel is intent on warning us about how people are constantly using (or misusing) math to get our personal data, to hack our emails, to game our stock markets. “The powers that be sort of exploit our ignorance, and manipulate us more when we are less aware of mathematics,” said Frenkel on the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast. If you hated math in high school, maybe that will catch your attention.
Frenkel’s paean to math begins with an emphasis on its unifying nature. To him, math—not religion—is the one shared body of firm, unchanging knowledge that we all possess and that nobody can ever take away from us. “You meet someone, you don’t know where they come from, what language they speak, what is their background,” he says. “But you already know that there is so much you have in common, because all the mathematical ideas that have ever been discovered, we all share them.” If you met an alien intelligence, the same would be true. Math never changes. It sometimes has discoverers, but never authors or owners. “It’s a great equalizer,” Frenkel says.
The implications of math’s universality, incidentally, are downright spooky. Take this New York Times essay by Frenkel, contemplating whether the fact that math works so perfectly and without fail suggests we might be living in a Matrix-like simulation. For a while, it was the most viewed article on the paper’s website. The question of why math works to describe the universe, even as we also just happen to have brains that can understand it, is a pretty momentous one. Or as Galileo put it:
Philosophy is written in this grand book, the universe, which stands continually open to our gaze. But the book cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and read the letters in which it is composed. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one wanders about in a dark labyrinth.
Such contemplations have driven more than one scientist to God. But then, hey, it could just be Agent Smith. CONT’D AT THE SOURCE RIGHT HERE …CLICK