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Keeping things in context

March 1, 2009, 4:40 pm

Part of Article 131 in the first edition (1801...
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I’ve started reading through Stewart and Tall’s book on algebraic number theory, partly to give myself some fodder for learning Sage and partly because it’s an area of math I’d like to explore. I’m discovering a lot about algebra in the process that I should have known already. For example, I didn’t know until reading this book that the Gaussian integers were invented to study quadratic reciprocity. For me, the Gaussian integers were always just this abstract construction that  Gauss invented evidently for his own amusement (which maybe isn’t too far off from the truth) and which exists primarily so that I would have something to do in abstract algebra class. Here are the Gaussian integers! Now, go and find which ones are units, whether this is a principal ideal domain, and so on. Isn’t this fun?

Well, yes, actually it is fun for me, but that’s because I like abstract nonsense and I like just constructing rings out of nowhere and seeing what works and what doesn’t. But this approach to algebra is a lot harder to convince others to adopt, particularly college math majors whom I teach, most of whom struggle with abstraction. For them, any connection, no matter how tenuous, to the real world is a comfort and a reason to study. Quadratic residues aren’t exactly in the same league as designing airplanes in terms of “real world” utility, but it’s at least something that’s easy enough to understand and explain. Even if you care nothing for real world utility, it’s important to know why something was invented when you are setting about studying it. Otherwise you learn a subject in abstraction and without connections to its roots.

In fact, it seems like a lot of what we take as being canonical in abstract algebra was invented to study number theory. And yet, I have never taken a number theory course, and the number theory that was included in my studies of algebra was added mainly to set up the study of abstract groups and rings, as if to say that number theory exists to make studying algebra easier instead of the other way around as appears to be the case. And it’s not because I had a bad algebra education; I studied under some of the best algebraists around, but I never got the memo that abstract algebra was for something. I learned algebra mainly in isolation for the sole purpose of calculating homotopy groups. Likewise, my entire grad school training was focused on topology, which is supposedly a branch of geometry, but the only course in geometry I have in my background was Mrs. Buttrey’s class at William James Junior High School in the eighth grade — and that didn’t exactly give me the disciplinary perspective I needed to put topology in its proper context. (Even though it was a really good geometry class — thanks Mrs. B!)

I’ve been thinking that my post about the, er, pedagogically challenged way that Stewart Calculus does its examples about instantaneous velocity is really about the idea that you need to make sure that a person learning a new idea has some reason to learn it, before you give it to them in full complexity. Or at least before they’ve finished a course in it. Perhaps this idea extends to all of mathematics and maybe even beyond.

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