idea-mongering

Even though I am well established in my career, to the point where I am now more often asked when I’ll retire rather than when I started, I still find myself part of the eternal conversation, what do you want to do when you grow up?  Often, this comes up when I’m talking with students, but it has also been known to arise as part of the perambulating conversations we have during the beer-at-the-end-of-the-day sessions that happen from time to time.

And I know what I’ve always want to be.  I want to be an ideamonger.  A forger and fashioner of ideas.  What I find interesting is that looking back, it’s clear to me that I haven’t always known that this is what I want to be, but reflecting on my path to this point in my life provides some clear illumination that I’ve been moving towards this nonetheless.

Mathematics, my main professional interest, is very much a forge and battleground of ideas.  We explore the abstract, seeking to glean what we can from the ideas and concepts before us, sometimes exploring their consequences until we are forced to come up for air, and sometimes exploring their practical consequences.

Mathematics has allowed me to have a career spanning research and education, so not only can I explore ideas for their own sake and the sake of their consequences, but I’m also able to transmit those ideas through my teaching.  And it’s more than transmitting the ideas themselves; it’s also teaching the process of exploring ideas, challenging them, forcing them to reveal themselves.  This is something that I’m finding more and more interesting, somedays I have to admit more than the exploration of the ideas themselves.  And it also explains the occasional lecture I give on a topic unrelated to mathematics.

And the writing I do, when I do writing, is also an exploration of ideas.  I recently made the mistake of going through my GIANT FILE OF STORY IDEAS, as vast a list as it is, and I was able to see some general grouping of some of these ideas into coherent areas of exploration.  For me, I’ll admit that this makes the act of writing a bit more difficult, as I find myself distracted by the ideas more than the individual stories, but that’s just one more thing I’ll need to work through.

But I’m also finding that things are coming together in interesting ways.   A long time ago, I read Jokester by Asimov and it’s one of those stories that always stayed with me.  In part it’s shaped how I think about mathematics, in that part of the process of discovery and proof is asking the right question, since the right question will point us in the right direction.

But it’s more than that.  Education is changing and a large part of what’s driving that change is that facts are no longer expensive to store and transmit.  Rather, it’s the process by which we interrogate facts that is becoming the interesting thing, and so we need to be better at asking interesting questions.

~ by Jim Anderson on 21 January 2018.

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