Chances are that when you think about math—which, for most of us, happens pretty infrequently—you don’t think of it in anything like the way that Jordan Ellenberg does. Ellenberg is a rare scholar who is both a math professor (at the University of Wisconsin-Madison) and a novelist. And in his fascinating new book, How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, he deploys analyses of poetry, politics, and even religion in a bold recasting of what math is in the first place.
For Ellenberg, the stuff you hated about math in high school isn’t the core of the thing. He’s emphatic that mathematics isn’t simply about the calculations involving, you know, numbers; rather, it’s a highly nuanced approach to solving problems that we all, unavoidably, encounter. Ellenberg’s chapters range from showing how mathematical thinking undermines many popular proofs for the existence of God (Paley’s design argument, Pascal’s wager), to explaining how math helps us understand why smoking causes lung cancer (contrary to claims by one early statistician who actually argued that the causation might be reversed—that lung cancer might cause smoking!).
On the show this week we talked to Ellenberg about his book, and math: why you’re probably thinking about it all wrong, and why it’s so powerful.
This episode also features a short interview with Tasneem Raja, author of the must-read new article “We Can Code It: Why computer literacy is key to winning the 21st century” in Mother Jones, and a discussion of new findings about autism and possibly how to stop it—by making brain cells better able to communicate with one another.