Lawhorn’s Lawrence: The beauty of math


The beauty of math: At some point, all of us — assuming we weren’t asleep or curled up in a ball beneath our desks — have heard a math teacher utter that phrase.

Unlike many of you, I understood it very early on in my college career. The beauty of math was the wildflowers of spring, the deep blue sky of summer, the whirling leaves of fall. I saw all those things and more when I did math.

You see, in the spring, I would drive to some little junior college in a remote locale hoping to get a passing grade in Algebra. When that didn’t work, I would drive to another locale in the summer. And the fall. And the . . . well, let’s just say that through math, I saw a lot of beautiful country.

Come to find out, that may not be exactly what the mathematicians of Kansas University mean when they talk about the beauty of math. But make no mistake, they believe in math’s beauty.

“Math makes everything better,” said Bozenna Pasik-Duncan, a 30-year professor in KU’s department of mathematics.

For more than 20 years, Pasik-Duncan has led a group of math professors to Lawrence City Hall each April to have the month declared as Mathematics Awareness Month. During the month they also host a mathematics competition for junior high and high school students, and a variety of other events, each built around a theme. This year, it is the Magic and Mystery of Math. (Yes, there are really people who call themselves mathemagicians.)

But what Pasik-Duncan and her colleagues mainly do is fight a decidedly uphill battle: They try to convince society that math is cool and exciting.

Mathematicians, though, are a pretty rationale group of people. The know that for most of us the only cosine we appreciate is the type that our parents do for us at the bank.

“I do wish people had more of a numbers sense,” said Margaret Bayer, a professor who has been in the KU mathematics department since 1988.

I heard from several mathematicians who said they think changes in how math is taught at an early age could help.

“Because of the emphasis on assessment tests in schools, teachers don’t have much freedom to emphasize the interesting and fun things in math,” Bayer said.

Pasik-Duncan — who grew up in Poland and taught at the famed Warsaw School of Economics before coming to KU — remembers how she became interested in math.

“I remember sitting in the grass with other students, and we would talk about mathematics, but really we would be talking about solving problems,” Pasik-Duncan. “That was joy. We didn’t need a calculator or even a piece of paper. We just talked about problems and how to solve them.”

Pasik-Duncan advocates that if young people first are shown how math applies to solving real-life problems, then they will become naturally interested and the subject will become so much easier.

Indeed, maybe what math most needs is a better marketing campaign. If you tell students they can enroll in a class that teaches you how to solve problems, you’ll get quite a few students. Instead, they call it calculus, and you fake a kidney stone to get out of class.

But there are people who get it, and businesses are among that group. There may not be tons of businesses that are looking for people who can write the proof of Bertrand’s postulate (very different than prostrate, I embarrassingly learned). But Pasik-Duncan said there are innumerable businesses that want people who understand systems and know how to analyze data. Think of the financial services industry, the insurance industry, manufacturers, and now industries like telecommunications that survive by managing complex systems.

While business is getting it, there seems to be several of us who still aren’t. Like that poor couple with five boys that is convinced their chances for a girl have to be better the sixth time around. (That couple helped build Las Vegas, by the way.) And don’t even get mathematicians started with how easily the public can be deceived by statistical studies, graphs and surveys.

But what do mathematicians say about this idea of the beauty of math? Quite a bit actually, but not always the same thing. Math’s beauty is varied, it seems.

Bayer talks about her love of the precision that is inherent in math. True, math can be difficult because it has a language of its own, but it is a language with precise definitions that mathematicians agree upon. An integer is an integer is an integer. When the rest of the world is filled with so much gray, it is beautiful when you find a slice of it that has so much clarity.

Pasik-Duncan describes it in different terms. Math is beautiful because it allows her to embrace randomness.

“I love randomness,” Pasik-Duncan says. “Randomness is the key issue for all the problems of the modern world.”

I had never thought of it that way. If there was no randomness, everything would be predictable, and if everything was predictable, there were would be a lot fewer problems to solve.

I’m still not sure I understand it all, but maybe math is beautiful. And maybe I understand it better than I thought, because I certainly figured out a long time ago that life can be random.

Like when in that out-of-the-way locale where I landed for a semester, and some community college for some reason — or maybe no reason at all — gave me a C in Algebra.

Trust me, that was beautiful.

— Each Sunday, Lawhorn’s Lawrence focuses on the people, places or past of Lawrence and the surrounding area. If you have a story idea, send it to Chad at