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Why is Math Difficult: “The Math Gene” by Keith J. Devlin, Book Review Example

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Book Review

“Mathematics is difficult,” say many students who agree upon this statement and rarely decide to question it. Math is not like a History class where one does a lot of reading in order to understand and evaluate past or current events or it is not like a Composition class where all is that is necessary is basically a creative thinking. “American students’ math achievement is “at a mediocre level” compared with that of their peers worldwide”, says The New York Times. Why do we believe that math is hard? And is it really true?

Inferiority and fear that influence individual’s creativity and intelligence are among the feelings that many students have when they deal with Math. Any Math subject is surrounded by some kind of a “force field”. Often one hears: “Oh, this is not for you!” or “Probably you are not smart enough.” The origin of difficulties comes from early childhood experience in the family where, for instance, one of the parents was very good at Math and the expectancy was that the child will succeed as well. For girls the notion is slightly different. Starting from primary or secondary schools and, probably, without a clear intention of influence, teachers often say that technical subjects are often very difficult for girls, namely implying to gender. However, “there’s no reason at all for inequality.” (Bismarck Tribune)

Math myths vary. Another wide opinion lies in the general perception of Math as a subject because it is believed that if one masters Math then there should not be a doubt that the person will succeed in life and that all the paths are open for him or her. Thus, facing such opinions and views, many students find themselves in hard difficulties of inability to conquer Math. However, “mathematics is a fundamental pillar of civilization”. (Gowers)

In his book “The Math Gene” Keith J. Devlin, an English science writer and a mathematician, investigates the connections between the language and Math as well as explores the great range of inner details. To begin with it’s important to say up front that no matter the title of the book, there is no such gene in human body that presents our mathematical abilities. There certainly are other genes that influence our ability to do Math but such DNA sequence as “math gene” simply does not exist. The title of the book is a metaphor that author uses. By “math gene” Devlin implies to “an innate facility for mathematical thought”. (p.xvi)

In his book Devlin tells a story about how his wife and he were keen on watching a TV soap opera called “Soap”. When the show became a big success, it was also the time when author developed his thinking of understanding Math as related to the gossip and its use within the human brain. Devlin describes his theory in correlation with our ancient ancestors. He states that since the development of our ancestors was related to the success of hunter-gatherer groups, it is easy to understand today’s concept of team spirit in sports or racial identities in various groups that happen in the modern world.

Author highlights the importance of care in different groups of people. By sharing a common interest or experience people gather in teams. Caring for each other involves more in-depth details about people’s personal life and this is where gossip comes into play. Devlin says that probably this is the only “sole purpose” of gossip – to unite people and develop commitment.

Further in his description Devlin takes reader into analyzing the gossip. He brings out the mathematical equivalent of soap shows, the gossips and puts it into subject-verb-object formula and the modifiers. Human languages are created in order to describe who did what and to whom, as well as why, how, when and where. The author is implying to characters in his Math soap show as not the people but objects such as geometrical figures, numbers, etc. He basically puts humans into numbers calling them objects A, B or Z. He shows how easy it is to correlate.

It is interesting that in his book Devlin suggests that every human is capable of mathematical thinking. This capacity he sees consisting of various attributes such as ability to handle the sense of cause and its effect, logical abilities to follow the chain of various facts and events, etc. People certainly vary in their abilities but they all have them. He points out psychological experiments and studies on animals and humans. By telling about a person who cannot figure out with number is greater than the other, he leads his reader into conducting simple Math. He shows how the brain is capable of handling mathematical information. He asks the reader to choose a number between 12 and 5. Many people chose 7, thus, performing one of the basic elements of Math as subtraction. This aspect of the book is interesting because it makes reader do mathematics while reading.

The book is written for the non-math audience and that’s why Devlin shows the reader that the subject is much wider than just arithmetic element. He discusses linguistic theories and spends time describing the idea of “fundamental language tree”. Devlin argues that the language evolved not only to facilitate the communication. He says: “it arose, almost by chance, as a by-product of our ancestors acquiring the ability for an ever richer understanding of the world in which they found themselves.” (p. 172)

It is interesting how the author draws lines between people “understanding the world” and its connection with the Math and language abilities. The two abilities are often thought to be controlled by different parts of the human brain. But it is important to see that the two actually evolves concurrently.

Devlin makes us think about how people can obtain “the math gene” and he points out that it lies in one’s own motivation and interest. Author is implying that like other things, we are able to make ourselves understand deeper mathematical logic. For instance, some people can say that humans did not need fire before it actually became cold and they needed to cook. Same parallel can be drawn to Math. Until an individual needs it, it is not self-discovered.

It is a very important thinking because many people are keen on assuming that Math is something super smart or unobtainable. People tend to consider that some humans are born with better technical subject thinking and others are not. And this is the trick. Linking this thought to the concept of “gossip”, people are able to process a lot of information, remember facts, predict and forecast. Same method is used in Math because the subject is indeed a study of various relationships, objects, etc. Therefore, the myth about “being born with Match skills” is false. Understanding Match is the matter of interest and not a matter of abilities. People either do have motivation to study and understand or they do not.

In the everyday life people often dislike making extra effort or extra thinking. Such drawbacks as the lack of accurate illustration in textbooks or clear explanations greatly add up to the problem. It is hard to see and learn the concepts and approaches to mathematical problems, because often they are not carefully explained. They mislead people into false thinking about Math in general. Human mind is capable to accepting and generating great amounts of information. Therefore, it is important not to misunderstand human abilities and self interest or motivation. Maybe I am just lazy? This is the question that person should ask himself before making a statement that Math is hard.

Works Cited

Devlin, Keith J. “The Math Gene. How Mathematical Thinking Evolved And Why Number Are Like Gossip.” Basic Books (2000): xvi, 172

Franson, George. “Females, too, have math gene”. Bismarck Tribune. (1 August 2008), 4

Gowers, Timothy. “The Importance of Mathematics”. Lecture. Clay Mathematics Institute Millennium Meeting. (2000)

Lewin, Tamar. “Report Urges Changes in Teaching Math”. The New York Times. (14 March 2008). http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/14/education/14math.html

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