Late to the Party

I said to Gagan that learning all about science is a little like arriving late to the party.  I feel like everyone else is here already and I have walked in to a crowded room dressed in decidedly ugly 80's clothes with a daggy haircut and the whole place has turned around to stare and point. 'Did you see what just walked in? How embarrassing!'  I am trying to melt into the corners and look inconspicuous .. pretend I've always been here, but you know how it is. The harder you try to not be noticed, the more likely you are to end up with french onion dip smeared on your cheek and the lights showing up your visible pantyline.

But... better late then never eh?  Phew..... at least I'm here and I'm not leaving.

I was introduced to this wonderful article called Lockhart's Lament written by a friend of a friend. It's about the teaching of mathematics in school. It's radical, confronting, brilliant and punchy.  It makes you think of everything you felt when you were at school and *wanting* to like maths but wondering why it was easier to gaze out the window instead.  It brings up such fundamental ideas about what mathematics is in the first place - an art or a science.  It firmly, aggressively in-yer-face states that it is an art just the same as poetry, literature and painting.  Rote learning is missing the point completely... and the case for why is very convincing.  Though the article is long (25 pages), it's really worth the time and makes me wish I could start all over - get the chance with someone as inspired to teach from such a viewpoint.

It also makes me remember something that happened when I was little. I was at a cousin's house, and tinkering around on her wonderful piano. She was a piano teacher - very accomplished and not a little intimidating.  She was very proper, quite old, rather grandiose and though kindly, was strong minded and I was small and always a little nervous around her. She had a wonderful huge garden, in sections that seemed like they went on forever - perfectly tended with English flowerbeds and blossoms of every colour. A visit there was always special and I remember that my Mum (also a wonderful pianist who taught piano for many years before I was born) was chatting with her while I got to play on her very grand piano. After what seemed a long time, I proudly had made up a little song. I'm sure it wasn't long at all... just a series of notes I imagine (I must have been 7 or 8) but I was excited to play it for them.

I'm sure what I played was utter crap! They will have smiled after indulging me, but the main thing I remember was that I was hoping for an 'oh great' and mainly got a delicate little talk about how music works. About how it is structured and its rules and so on. I know they were both kind about it, but I can remember just being so deflated.  I was a pretty stubborn kid and I have a memory of just giving up on music then.  What a shame.

I think in some small way it's the same thing. I had had no concept of rules or restrictions and was very free about it.  I was just exploring (which also meant what I did was rubbish - but maybe that is not the point).  Maybe the journey is more important than the result - just like in mathematics.  Perhaps there would have been some way to gradually introduce more structure once my passion was captured. Who knows.  And...I was a very sensitive kid (still am)!

Imagine if we were all just learning to explore - in whatever discipline. Whether it's exploring an idea about how the timbre and rhythm of certain words fit together to make a beautiful sentence, how completely perfect a circle is and the concept of pi, maybe the idea of how mirror neurons in the brain can fire when simply observing someone else having an experience.  I'm not sure that we should separate art and science when it comes to how our brain works - the beauty of exploring and learning to think in new ways - challenge ourselves,  is all that matters in the end.  Maybe there is no difference, and art and science is simply 'knowledge', for want of a much better word, and should be taught as such.



2/17/10, 11:00 PM

There is a follow-up article to this Lament (with some reader comments and responses from the author) at

The Lament is also published as a book, with a forward by Devlin and an afterward by Lockhart:



2/18/10, 11:35 AM

I was looking at the book on Amazon... 140 pages :) I bet it's delicious. The example he gave with the box and triangle seemed like magic to me... it was wonderful. I have forgotten everything from maths class, and I was actually did quite well (which means I was good at rote learning back then) but I would love to learn like this...


The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of Atheism