The Emotions of Mathematical Stories Lie in Wait For All of Us

I just finished watching the The Queen’s Gambit — for the second time. Don’t worry, there are no spoiler alerts here. All I will say is that there is so much detail that I missed the first time, that watching it the second time was even more riveting. So much so, that the ending left me in a puddle of tears. And, for those who have seen the series, I am talking about the last two minutes. It is a quiet, confident homage to the brilliance of Beth Harmon’s journey that ends with the strength, independence, and happiness that she so richly deserves — without Hollywood cliches.

Yesterday, I gave my final keynote of 2020 for the 70th Annual New York State Math Conference. It is one that I have given previously for State Conferences for Pennsylvania and Illinois. But, this one, felt more emotional. And, the reason for this is that it was fresh off of another tour of duty of The Queen’s Gambit.

After I finished, Ellen Falk, President-Elect of AMTNYS, used the word emotional in her gracious reflection of my keynote. It didn’t go unnoticed by me. Yes, I did a keynote for math education with some formality. But, my muse for my talk was more like having a conversation with a best friend and a stranger at a bar, while I periodically swirl around shrinking ice cubes in a gin and tonic.

The Queen’s Gambit was a celebration of many things, but the beauty, complexity, intrigue, and drama of chess would have been impossible if it wouldn’t if it wasn’t humanized. Beth Harmon’s character was perfect because it wasn’t. The series is one of the most watched shows on Netflix, and sports ridiculous numbers of 100% and 97% of critics and viewer reviews, respectively.

In a recent article by Chatelaine, these were the five reasons as to what makes the show so riveting.

  1. The Stunning Fashion 2. The History 3. Anya Taylor-Joy’s Performance 4. Story of a Woman Rising To The Top. 5. The Chess Scenes are Dazzling

Generically speaking, this show is about the magic of chess forged with courage and humanness. It is why so many of us have felt a strong emotional attraction to the narrative.

You know what else has lied in wait with the exact same poetic depth? Mathematics. To be very specific, the emotions of mathematics. Emotions that come from thousands and thousands of years of thematic development, failures, setbacks, and eventual triumphs.

One of the slides that I shared was the letter Carl Friedrich Gauss sent Sophie Germain upon finding out about her true identity, a punctuation to a story that might not have occurred if not for the violence of the French Revolution, and a young girl taking refuge in her father’s library of books.

That letter is not only stunning in its detail, but cannot be properly assessed without lending emotion to it. One of the greatest mathematicians — a male — showering a female with deserved laurels. Gauss was explicit. In The Queen’s Gambit, the laurels for Beth Harmon were wonderfully implicit.

Another slide I shared was this one.

It is impossible to talk about the Ethiopian Cross(500 years old) with the development of cell phone antennas without getting emotional. Equity and anti-racism ideas in math education are emotional. Having the widest lens on them means installing a rear view mirror and looking back at the history of mathematics. These are not mere facts. These are stories. Stories of people.

The deepest level means the deepest possible dive into emotions that trigger our sense of gratitude, hope, and connection to each other. Gene Jordan, who introduced me for my keynote, summed it up so well(thank you)

We needed this to bring more balance to our profession. Balance, not just in diversity of thought, culture and time; but with the human having primacy and humans need stories

My final slide included another Kafka quote.

And, paired with the human objective that lies in front of us, our emotions — lying in wait, raw and unvarnished — will not justify our means, but define them as well

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