The New York Times published a beautiful essay on science, creativity, human morality and fallibility by Simon Critchley this past weekend, “The Dangers of Certainty: A Lesson from Auschwitz.” Critchley writes of his childhood memories of the science show “The Ascent of Man,” which aired in Britain in the 1970s hosted by scientist Dr. Jacob Bronowski, a Polish-born British mathematician who lost much of his family in Auschwitz.
For Bronowski, science and art were two neighboring mighty rivers that flowed from a common source: the human imagination.
[T]he moral consequence of knowledge is that we must never judge others on the basis of some absolute, God-like conception of certainty. All knowledge, all information that passes between human beings, can be exchanged only within what we might call “a play of tolerance,” whether in science, literature, politics or religion. As he eloquently put it, “Human knowledge is personal and responsible, an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty.”
The piece is thoughtful, deep, deeply moving; a rare find.
Critchley’s essay reminded me of an interesting show I heard on NPR late last year about thinking of mathematics in creative terms and as being highly related to language, rather than in opposition to, as is often suggested in popular reference. As a reader and writer who rather likes numbers, though I left formal mathematics behind at Calculus (many moons ago), I found the discussion intriguing—both helpful and interesting to think of numbers in more fluid, relational terms.
Mathematical equations are like sonnets says Keith Devlin. And, the mathematician says that what most of us learn in school doesn’t begin to convey what mathematics is. Technology may free more of us to discover the wonder of mathematical thinking — as a reflection of the inner world of our minds. Keith Devlin began to learn this as a teenager and he’s been a math evangelist ever since….
You can listen to the piece from On Being with Krista Tippett here: “Keith Devlin on The Joy of Math and Learning and What It Means To Be Human.”