Making math magical

Status Update

Something exciting just happened. I've been sitting on the draft of this post for around a week now, and from the start I had planned on covering Grant Sanderson (3Blue1Brown)'s TED talk on how to make math more engaging. I woke up today to see that Grant is looking for remote undergraduate interns to help in transcribing his videos into a nice readable format. I tweeted that I've never been more excited about an opportunity, and within minutes another Grant by the name of Grant Dever responded with some great advice: "Rewrite one of them and tag him in the post!"

One of the best pieces of advice I was given was from a friend at university (shoutout Nat Redfern) was to "do the job before you get it." If you are passionate enough about a certain gig, do some of the work beforehand and show it off! It not only shows clear competence in the task at hand, but also demonstrates a level of initiative that separates you from almost every other applicant (since no one ever actually does work for free and without being asked). It's a not-so-hacky hack which will easily place you better than 99.99% of applicants.

(Just imagine being the employer. You're desperately looking for some helping hands on your project, which requires x, y, z, and a gazillion other things. Then on top of it all you have to sift through a fat stack of applications from people who want to help you. While skimming, you see one of the applicants has literally just completed x. Done. And they completed it well, too. That one applicant has not only directly demonstrated what others indirectly try to demonstrate through their words – competence, cooperation/charisma, yadda yadda yadda – but also gone the extra step of reducing the net work you have to do, rather than adding to it.)

I thought it was genius. "Do the job before you get it" is one of those pieces of advice which I completely agree with intellectually, but haven't actually practiced much (tbh that's me with most good advice). To be clear, like all advice, it's not perfect. You might put in all that work only to see another rejection. But Dever's reply to my tweet inspired me. I'm passionate enough about math, writing, and the 3Blue1Brown channel that I know writing up one of Sanderson's videos would be fulfilling in itself, even if I don't get the gig.

Anyways, the writing from below is mostly from last week, before I even knew about this 3B1B gig. It's about Grant Sanderson's TED talk on how to make math more engaging. Serendipitous, I know.


What I've Learned

Making Math Magical

The inspiration for this post came from rewatching Grant Sanderson's TED talk on What Makes People Engage With Math. It's phenomenal. If you aren't familiar, Grant is the person behind the 3Blue1Brown YouTube channel (my favorite math channel, by far). In the talk, he examines his most viewed videos, dissecting what makes them so popular.

As he mentions, the obvious answer everyone thinks of to "why don't people care about math?" is "because it doesn't seem obviously relevant to everyday life." While this statement can be debated, it's clearly not just relevance that makes for a compelling math lesson. Who reads Harry Potter and thinks, "ok, but when will I actually use 'wingardium leviosa'?"

What matters far more is the storytelling. Good fiction. In his words,

"[Fiction is about] emotion, it's about wonder, it's about establishing a mystery that you just need to see resolved. It's about introducing a romance that you really want to see come to fruition. It's a warm escape from a world that, for a lot of us, can be cold and sometimes lonely."

Mathematics is perhaps the most beautiful study I know of, and the story of its unfolding the most compelling. What moved me so much about Grant's talk is that it made me, an enthusiastic tweeter of maths, worry far less about making math seem "relatable," and focus instead on crafting a beautiful story out of it.

I recently retweeted this tweet praising the book Calculus Made Easy:  

An unusually high number of my followers liked it, which tells me that this feeling (that most math textbooks are scary and bad) is familiar to many.

I'm convinced that if everyone were introduced to math in a way that's even half as playful as the prologue of Calculus Made Easy, or half as intriguing as the elaborate mysteries that Grant Sanderson sets out to solve in his videos, most would consider themselves to be "math people."

(after writing status update): So I want to give it a try. I'm going to transcribe one of the 3Blue1Brown videos into an interactive math lesson and make it the next post on this blog. I'll attach it to the application I send in for his internship, and share it on twitter. Huge shout out to @grantadever and @nerdposterino for making me feel so supported :)


Extras

Philosophy

I was born a little too late for Carl Sagan. But thanks to the miracles of the Internet,  I can watch nearly everything he's ever made, and feel as if I really knew him. This clip from a Q&A session popped up in my YouTube recommendations, in which he tackles an audience question about the existence of God with poise and careful wit. My favorite excerpt, following a short discussion about the ambiguity of the word':

Carl: "Why do we use a word [God] so ambiguous, that means so many different things?"

Audience member: "It gives you freedom to define it–"

C: "It gives you freedom to seem to agree with someone else with whom you do not agree. It covers over differences. It makes for social lubrication. But it is not an aid to truth, in my view. And therefore I think we need much sharper language when asking these questions."

Comedy

KRAZAM has some hilarious tech-related comedy skits. A favorite of mine is Microservices: a product manager asks one of his engineers why it's so hard to display a user's birthdate on the settings page of their app, and receives a very thorough answer.

Arts

My good friend Steven Gong made a video essay on the movie Minari.

It's eloquently written, highly relatable (as a child of Asian immigrants), and touching. I haven't seen the movie myself, but I thoroughly enjoyed Steven's analysis nonetheless. I can also confirm that it does not seem to contain major spoilers. So basically, you should check it out.


That is all! See you in the next one.

P.S. as always, please reach out to me if you have any feedback, or just want to chat!