Fractals open new vistas to make math 'beautiful'

The math of nature is the latest trend for number-crunchers

Published: 13th November 2013 12:03 PM  |   Last Updated: 13th November 2013 12:03 PM   |  A+A-


For all those who have hitherto believed the world to be made of just single, double or multi-dimensional objects, fractals unravel a whole new prospect, says Robert L Devaney, president of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA).

One meeting with the man is enough to change all stereotypical notions about mathematicians as thick-spectacled, calculative and orthodox. Ask him what mathematics is and you get replies too untypical of a geometric expert.

More popular as Bob, the Massachusetts native is the president of the Mathematical Association of America. He was in the city the other day to attend the International Conference and Workshop on Fractals and Wavelets (ICFW) organised by the Rajagiri School of Engineering and Technology.

“Mathematics has really changed over the years and has become more accessible to students,” said Daveney, a recipient of several illustrious awards including the Deborah and Franklin Tepper Haimo Award for Distinguished University Teaching, Boston University Scholar/Teacher Award, National Science Foundation Director’s Award and Metcalfe Award, among others.

Fractals, he says, is anything that moves or changes. “They are anything irregular or indefinite in shape. Like the weather, spring, motion of the planets and chemical oscillation. It is a truly fascinating field.”

Ask him why math has been a hostile subject for many, he says, “It could be because of the manner in which it is taught. In fact, the science behind the subject is far deeper and one has to really understand it in order to develop an interest.”

The professor is a member of the Math Field Days project that aims to evince a mathematical bent of mind in high school students. MAA seeks to improve math education at the collegiate level. Working with the university faculty, the organisation helps them teach the numbers better, aiding the undergraduate students as well as research scholars.

“Mathematics must be made understandable and beautiful. It is not just about learning number crunching. The skill to teach and impart it is equally important and we enable them do this well,” Daveney says about MAA.

Breaking the mould of the typical mathematician, Daveney is a man of diverse tastes, and admits to having a fetish for coffee mugs, which he collects from all the places he visits. “I have more than 300 mugs now and it feels good seeing that. My study is now full,’ he laughs. Another scholar who shared his views at the conference is Michael Barnsley, who made participants sit up by comparing mathematics to the game of cricket.

“It is often portrayed in a binary, either you fail or you succeed. It is perceived as a competition. Perhaps this is what intimidates the learner, making math a monstrous subject,” he says. “It should be like cricket. Even if you fail, the game should be enjoyed. There is a clear difference between what is often taught and what arithmetic actually is. Math is more like an enterprise,” he asserts.

“Fractals is the mathematics of nature and not of rigid buildings and engineering,” said the professor who believes in having an eye for the extraordinary.

Barnsley’s paper at the conference was about ‘Theory and Application of Fractal Elements’. He admits that a faction of mathematicians is a little less artistic about non-arithmetic matters. The sentiment was aptly summed up by his wife Louisa Barnsley who is also a professor and specialises in fractal transformations. “Too much precision can be tiresome,” she said.


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